Southern Tobacco In The Civil War

        Native Americans cultivated tobacco in North America before the first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607. The Indians believed that native tobacco had both religious and medicinal importance. Its use, for example, had great ritual significance for the Indians in the Chesapeake region. Native Americans often smoked tobacco in a pipe to cement a peace accord.
        Colonists at Jamestown were the first Europeans on the North American mainland to cultivate tobacco. As early as 1610 John Rolfe shipped a cargo to England for sale. But the naturally occurring tobacco plant in the Chesapeake region (Nicotiana rustica) was considered too bitter and harsh, and in 1611 Rolfe obtained seeds of the milder Nicotiana tabacum from the Spanish West Indies, Venezuela, and Trinidad for the Jamestown colonists. Thereafter, tobacco production increased rapidly in the Chesapeake Bay area, soon spreading to Maryland. Production continued to increase throughout the colonial period and by the middle of the eighteenth century, Maryland and Virginia were shipping nearly 70 million pounds of tobacco a year to Britain.
        Some colonial aristocrats in both Britain and the American colonies believed that tobacco smoking was evil and hazardous to the health. This had little effect in halting the spread of the practice. By the eve of the Revolutionary War, tobacco had become the leading cash crop produced by all the colonies, North and South. Exports rose to over 100 million pounds a year, constituting half of all colonial export trade with Britain.
        The methods used for cultivating and curing tobacco have changed over time and varied from region to region. Initially, planters in the Chesapeake region cured tobacco by gathering the plant on the ground and letting the sun dry the leaves, hut sun-curing was soon given up in favor of a technique known as air-curing. Tobacco workers gathered leaves in parcels called "hands" and placed them over polls five feet in length. Then the hands were hung inside an open barn to complete the curing process. When fully dried, the tobacco was packed into large containers called hogsheads for shipping. Air-curing, popular in the Piedmont and tidewater regions until the early nineteenth century, resulted in a milder tasting leaf.
        Methods of curing tobacco by heat were known in the 1700s, but the process did not become popular until the early nineteenth century. In the 1820s the bright tobacco leaves of North Carolina and eastern Virginia, and later Kentucky and middle Tennessee, were cured by using enclosed smoking-sawdust fires to dry the tobacco hung in small barns. Although the modern method of flu-curing tobacco using charcoal heat was invented in 1839 in North Carolina, this method was not widely used until after the Civil War.
        Both tobacco cultivation and manufacturing are labor-intensive activities. Initially, the Virginia Company of London used white indentured servants to harvest the crop, but they were soon replaced by African slaves. The presence of a large slave population engaged in the cultivation and curing of tobacco tied the growth of slavery to the rise of the plantation system. By 1860, 350,000 slaves were cultivating tobacco. It was, however, an exploitive crop that quickly exhausted the soil, requiring constant clearing of new land. The system also worked against the establishment of urban industrial centers in the colonial and antebellum South.
        Throughout the colonial period commercial production of tobacco had centered in Northern port cities, but by the antebellum period, as a result of a surplus of slave labor and the great supply of raw material, commercial manufacturing shifted to the tobacco-growing regions in the South. Virginia dominated the industry with factories located at Richmond, Petersburg, Lynchburg, and Danville, and the border states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri also became tobacco manufacturing centers.
        The differing ways of consuming tobacco have often mirrored larger cultural trends. Tobacco has been smoked in pipes, cigars, and cigarettes, and also chewed and taken as snuff Pipe smoking was the most prevalent form of tobacco consumption in the colonial period, although in the late 1700s taking snuff became popular among the elite who were emulating the European aristocracies. Chewing was distinctly American and became popular on the expanding frontier. After the Mexican War cigar smoking became the fad, but during the Civil War people returned to pipes and began rolling cigarettes for the first time.
        As in so many other areas of Southern life, the Civil War seriously disrupted the South's tobacco growing and manufacturing. The tobacco-rich states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee sided with the Confederacy; the success of their crop rose and fell with that of the rebel nation. The tobacco-producing border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland fell early to Union control. Under the pressure of war, tobacco manufacturing, located in the South throughout the antebellum period, shifted quickly to the North. New York City became the North's tobacco-manufacturing center, servicing the area once dominated by Virginia tobacco planters. Like New York, Louisville also profited by the wars disruption of Southern market towns, becoming the center of tobacco trade in the West.
        Confederate policy and military campaigns in the heartland of the South's tobacco regions devastated Southern tobacco planting and manufacturing. In an attempt to encourage the planting of foodstuffs, the Confederate Congress in March 1862 passed a joint resolution recommending that Confederate states refrain from planting tobacco. Planters often ignored Congress's suggestions, however. The Virginia Assembly also attempted to limit tobacco growing with a law passed in March 1863, and renewed planting restrictions again in February 1864. Other tobacco-growing states passed similar legislation during the war. In addition, local newspapers such as the Edgefield Advertiser of South Carolina also exhorted their readers to switch from the planting of tobacco to desperately needed foodstuffs.
        Union control of the Mississippi from mid-1863, combined with the naval blockade, restricted the export and manufacturing of tobacco products, as did the shift of factories to manufacturing war materiel. In Richmond, after the First Battle of Manassas, several tobacco warehouses were converted into prisons for Union soldiers. The tobacco-rich county of Louisa, Virginia, saw the kind of physical destruction typical of regions exposed to intense military activity. Intermittent Union raids into the county and one of the wars largest cavalry battles at Trevillians Depot destroyed not only the crops and livestock but also the county's infrastructure. Every Confederate and border state saw a decline in tobacco production in the 1860s.
        The tobacco town of Danville, Virginia, however, took advantage of the vicissitudes of war. In the late 1850s its tobacco industry was in decline, and the community was reluctant to answer the call to arms in 1861. Nevertheless, Danville prospered during the war. Located safely behind enemy lines along a major railroad to Richmond, Danville became a lucrative place for the activities of merchants and manufacturers. Through their investments, the town and the surrounding county saw a revival in the tobacco industry. As a result of its returning prosperity, Danville citizens opposed attempts by Confederate soldiers to destroy the rail connection with Richmond in order to stop the Union advance. Local businessmen also looked favorably upon the Union takeover on the ground that it would bring peace and stability to the region.
        While the war made it difficult for the public to obtain tobacco, both Confederate and Union soldiers found it plentiful. Since much of the fighting took place in the tobacco rich regions of the South, soldiers often helped themselves. For years the U.S. Navy had supplied its sailors with tobacco rations. In February 1864 the Confederate government followed suit and included tobacco as part of the army's rations. Often, in the quiet moments between battle, Confederate and Union soldiers would exchange goods. The traditional swap was Northern coffee for Southern tobacco. Tobacco habits also revealed class distinctions in the South. Confederate officers did not receive the tobacco rations granted to soldiers. Nevertheless, Confederate officers favored the more fashionable smoking of cigars.
        Tobacco had a profound influence on the history of the South. Early cultivation brought prosperity and helped ensure the economic survival of the colonies. The development of the tobacco plantation system, however, helped establish slavery in the South to a degree not found in the North. Because tobacco cultivation quickly wore out the soil, planters were constantly clearing new land, leading to the expansion of slavery and tobacco growing.
Source: "The Confederacy" A Macmillan Information Now Encyclopedia, article by Orville Vernon Burton and Henry Kamerling.

This Page last updated 03/09/02

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