The Post Civil War South
That the South in these postwar years desperately needed the best thought the country could give was only too apparent. The South had been broken by the war. Lands were devastated. Proud plantations were now mere wrecks. Billions of economic value in slaves had been wiped away by emancipation measures without that compensation which Lincoln himself had admitted to be equitable. Difficult social problems presented themselves in the sudden elevation of a servile race to the status of free laborers and enfranchised citizens. Accumulated capital had disappeared. Banks were shattered; factories were dismantled; the structure of business intercourse had crumbled. In Atlanta, Columbia, Mobile, Richmond, and many other places great havoc had been wrought by fire.
The interior of South Carolina, in the wake of Sherman's march, "looked for many miles like a broad black streak of ruin and desolation--the fences all gone; lonesome smoke stacks, surrounded by dark heaps of ashes and cinders, marking the spots where human habitations had stood; the fields along the road wildly overgrown by weeds, with here and there a sickly looking patch of cotton or corn cultivated by negro squatters. In the city of Columbia . . .a thin fringe of houses encircled a confused mass of charred ruins of dwellings and business buildings, which had been destroyed by a sweeping conflagration." The Tennessee valley, according to the account of an English traveler, "consists for the most part of plantations in a state of semi-ruin, and plantations of which the ruin is for the present total and complete. . . . The trail of war is visible throughout the valley in burnt up gin-houses, ruined bridges, mills, and factories, of which latter the gable walls only are left standing, and in large tracts of once cultivated land stripped of every vestige of fencing. . . . Borne down by losses, debts, and accumulating taxes, many who were once the richest among their fellows have disappeared from the scene, and few have yet risen to take their places."
Many of the people had no homes. "From Winchester to Harrisonburg scarce a crop, fence, chicken, horse, cow, or pig was in sight. . . . Extreme destitution prevailed throughout the entire valley. All able-bodied negroes had left; only those unfit to work remained. The country between Washington and Richmond was . . . like a desert." Southerners were without adequate currency. They had put their wealth into Confederate bonds or had given their produce for such bonds; now these securities, together with Confederate money, were utterly worthless. Prominent men, including Confederate generals, were "asking what they could do to earn their bread." The city of Richmond may be taken as an example. A Federal relief commission was formed; the city was divided into thirty districts; and house-to-house visiting was instituted. By April 21, 1865, rations to the number of 128,000 had been issued; and it was estimated that 15,000 persons had been given relief. A report of the time stated that 35,000 persons in the region near Atlanta were dependent for subsistence upon the Federal government, and that in Atlanta itself there were 15,000 recipients. Many Confederate soldiers, just discharged from Northern prisons, were given rations. A Southern soldier remarked that "it must be a matter of gratitude as well as surprise, for our people to see a Government which was lately fighting us with fire, and sword, and shell, now generously feeding our poor and distressed. . . . There is much in this that takes away the bitter sting . . . of the past."
The war, as already noted, killed a quarter of a million soldiers of the South. The number of civilians that perished as a by-product of the struggle cannot be estimated. What had taken place was the collapse of a civilization. In one community in South Carolina, wrote a contemporary observer, "lived a gentleman whose income, when the war broke out, was rated at $150,000 a year. . . . Not a vestige of his whole vast property of millions remains today. Not far distant were the estates of a large proprietor and a well-known family, rich and distinguished for generations. The slaves are gone. The family is gone. A single scion of the house remains, and he peddles tea by the pound and molasses by the quart, on a corner of the old homestead, to the former slaves of the family, and thereby earns his livelihood."
A Louisiana citizen told a United States senator of a postwar visit to sugar plantations on the Bayou Teche -- the "garden spot of Louisiana." In prewar days, he said, with the "Devil of Slavery" in the land, this region presented a picture of fully cultivated fields, neatly whitewashed cabins for the hands, and sugar houses of the best construction, making the whole scene a "paradise to the eye." Now, with the devil of slavery gone, sugar houses had been destroyed, fences burned, weeds and brush were taking possession, and not a plantation was in decent order. Planters were without money or credit, could not borrow, and had no means of hiring or maintaining hands. A Louisiana planter who in 1861 had a sugar crop worth $125,000 was brushing his own shoes and dispensing with house service in postwar days. From High Shoals, North Carolina, came an eye-witness account of conditions in that state: "almost thorough starvation from the failure of the last years crop"; "ten beggars here to one in Washington"; "whole families ... coming in from South Carolina to seek food and obtain employment"; "agriculturists . . . entirely stripped by the Confederacy and . . . forced into the ranks to return to their poor wives and children destitute and unable to get any work." Summing up the situation, this writer said: "A more completely crushed country I have seldom witnessed." "The great majority," he added, "are as loyal to the Union as I could wish to see them."
Areas lately within the Confederacy were treated as conquered provinces and Federal troops were kept in occupation of the principal towns. The presence of these Federal soldiers, many of them Negroes, at a time when Southern armies had been disbanded and the wearing of the Southern uniform prohibited, was referred to by the Alabama legislature as "a constant source of irritation to the people . . . [which had] doubtless provoked at various times unpleasant collisions." It was not merely that violence and even death resulted from clashes between the soldiers and ex-Confederates; the white people felt shocked and insulted by Negro troops in their midst, being "jostled from the sidewalks by dusky guards" among whom they recognized, in some cases, their former servants.
Transportation, meager and primitive enough before the war, was now in a pitiful state after the destruction incidental to military operations. Roads had fallen into disrepair; horses and mules, and the food to support them, became "scarce and dear"; "wagons and ambulances were about the only vehicles which remained fit." On Mississippi's main north-and-south line "the stations were burned, the rolling stock had disappeared, and most of the roadbed and the bridges had been destroyed." The thoroughness of railroad destruction in Georgia has already been noted. The Charleston and Savannah road was "a mere wreck; every bridge and trestle was destroyed, including the magnificent and costly bridges over the Ashley, Edisto, and Savannah rivers; the depot in Charleston was burned, as well as the depots and buildings at eleven of the way stations, and nearly the whole track torn up." The close of the war found the Greenville and Columbia Railroad a sad victim not only of Federal invasion but of requisition by the government at Richmond, as compensation for which the road "had the bonds and notes of a fallen government." These instances were but typical of conditions throughout the South. Railroad facilities were in need of thorough rebuilding; but "unstable political conditions, fraud, mismanagement, trade conditions, and lack of financial resources" made the work of rehabilitation slow and difficult.
If space permitted, it would be of interest to note the reaction of particular individuals in the South to the changed situation after Appomattox. To some the outcome was not a shock at all, but a relief. "I was not disappointed at the result of the war [wrote H. V. Johnson of Georgia]--I feared defeat and disaster from the beginning--I believed slavery would fall with the Confederacy. . . " In an address to his fellow citizens in September, 1865, Alexander H. H. Stuart of Virginia stated his position. He had been "inflexibly opposed" to the secession of Virginia and refused to change his vote cast in convention against the ordinance. After hostilities opened he voted to ratify the ordinance, he said, "not because I approved it, but because I believed that [otherwise] . . . we should have an internecine war added to the civil war which had already been inaugurated." During the war he usually abstained from public affairs; and "all assistance I gave to the Confederate cause [he declared] was by feeding the hungry" and otherwise assisting in soldier relief. His sympathies were, however, naturally with his own people and he was proud of their wartime gallantry and honor. After the surrender of Lee he prepared and signed a call for a mass meeting in Augusta County in order to facilitate restoration; later in the same year he was chosen by his district for membership in the Federal Congress in a campaign in which he urged his opposition to secession as a reason for his choice in the hope that it would appeal to conservative men in the North.
There were many Johnsons and Stuarts; but on the other hand there were conspicuous cases of Southerners to whom defeat seemed unbearable. General Early first betook himself to Mexico; then he went to Canada; after that he sought unsuccessfully to promote the emigration of ex-Confederates to New Zealand. The scientist Matthew Fontaine Maury sought after the war to bring about a similar colonization of former Confederates in Mexico; J. P. Benjamin, escaping through Florida and the Bahamas, made his way to England, where he became Queens counsel and practiced law with distinction. Breckinridge departed to Europe via the Florida Keys and Cuba. Edmund Ruffin, bequeathing unmitigated hatred of Yankees to Southerners yet unborn, ended his life by a pistol shot.
Source: "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by J.G. Randall and David Herbert Donald
This page last updated 01/18/05
RETURN TO POTPOURRI PAGE