Seeds of conflict

By Parke Pierson
8/11/2009 • America's Civil War Magazine

The words “King Cotton” and the Confederacy are almost synonymous today, and rightly so, as cotton production dominated the Southern economy in the decades before the Civil War. Southerners boasted that the world’s demand for cotton would win the nascent Confederacy friends and allies across the world—particularly Great Britain. It’s easy to see why Southerners felt that way, as the states below the Mason-Dixon Line produced an astonishing 5 million bales of cotton in 1860.

But huge, profitable cotton crops were not always the rule in the South. Before 1800, tobacco, rice and indigo—a plant that produced a blue dye for cloth—were the most abundant and profitable crops grown on plantations, well outpacing cotton.

Some plantations, however, did grow high quality cotton known as long-staple. Long-staple cotton derived its name from the fact that the cotton boll—the white fleecy bloom that was woven into cloth—contained one large seed, or “staple,” that was relatively easy for slave laborers to remove by hand as the crop was harvested. But the plant was finicky; it only thrived in coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia and would not grow productively on plantations outside that region, which limited its profitability.

Another variety, short-staple, could be grown just about anywhere in the South. The boll of short-staple plants contained smaller, shorter seeds with fibrous shells that helped entangle them in the cotton boll. The seeds were not easily removed by hand, and the process pulled and tore the boll, damaging the quality of the fiber.

Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Southern planters in these other areas faced an economic dilemma. Tobacco made money but rapidly depleted the soil of nutrients, and it required a great deal of attention to bring to harvest. Rice and indigo, like long-staple cotton, could only be grown in coastal areas. In short, the South had no crop that could be grown in huge quantities in a variety of climates except cantankerous short-staple cotton.

Enter Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, short for “engine.” Cotton gins had been around for eons, but it was Whitney who figured out how to mechanize the process. His gin had a rotating drum covered with bent metal hooks that would snag the cotton bolls and pull them through a metal fence with gaps too narrow to allow the seeds to pass. The seeds would therefore be “combed” out. Whitney, a Massachusetts native, had invented a device that allowed short-staple cotton to become a feasible cash crop.

Whitney invented his machine in 1794, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that the design was refined and ready for large-scale factory production. Once the gins were widely available, they brought enormous changes to the South. Southerners eager to take part in the cotton boom began to move west to cultivate new lands, and the white and slave populations of Mississippi and Alabama soared. In fact, one of President Andrew Jackson’s motives for moving Native Americans out of the Southeast was to open up land for more cotton plantations.

Cotton production burgeoned from 720,000 bales in 1830, to 2.85 million bales in 1850, to the prewar high in 1860. And as cotton growth flourished, so did the South’s dependence on slavery and the plantation system as the bulwarks of its economy—the two main factors that distinguished the Southern worldview from the North’s.


7 Responses to Seeds of conflict

  1. Alex B says:

    I agree with this statement and especially about the part where that the cotton production is their major good and it is what their economy is based on. I would add to this statement that slavery is another issue that could be considered a seed of conflict. Although slavery is one of the key things that made the “Cotton Kingdom” possible the Southern States depended too highly on cotton. The North’s industrial economy also wanted to impose tariffs on the South’s cotton when it was being transported to other countries like Great Brittan. Although this is a well written article, it is leaving out a couple other seeds of conflict.

  2. Megan G says:

    I have the same opinion about this declaration. I definitely think that slavery is a huge matter that is a starting point for conflict. However, slavery is one of the main things that completed the Cotton Kingdom. I also agree with the fact that the production of cotton is the major good and it is what their economy relies on. In the South, the southerners depended and relied on cotton way more than they should have. While the South’s cotton was being shipped to Great Britain, the North wanted to inflict tariffs. This is a very well written article and I agree with all of the points that it makes.

  3. Amber J says:

    This articles has good information. I did not know that the Mason-Dixon Line produced over 5 million bales of cotton in 1860. It shares a lot of information about the different types of cotton that were grown, and the other crops that used to be grown. It could have used more information on the cotton gin though. It is not very well organized, it should have had all the things about the cotton together, then the other crops, then the production rates. It produced a lot of information that I would not have guessed that would have actually happened when cotton was the major crop produced. This article is a very good article.

  4. Sarah S says:

    I find the article accurate and agreeable. The south wanted to produce a cash crop that improved the economy while making tangible money. It was the cash crop of cotton that allowed this. The one thing i find slightly disagreeable in this discussion is that the article discusses other cash crops including: rice, indigo, and tobacco. While I agree with the article that rice was hard to mass produce everywhere, needing a high degree of water in the area, I disagree with the comment that tobacco depleted the soil thus, not being economical, as profitable, and realistic to make money off of, yes I agree that tobacco depleted the soil, however Cotton also depletes the soil, thus making planters move from East to West, this activity or the method of crop rotation which is introduced to many southern planters by George Washington. Finally, the document is well written and accurate, and I agree with the statement that the south is powerful to Britain as they need the cotton for their population to function.

  5. Nick F says:

    It’s undeniable to say that the South was not a “profit region”. I agree with this article, because of the way it puts forth the reasons that began the Civil War. The southerners consistently made money off their land by planting crops that were high in demand, no matter how much damage it would cause to the soil. The crops also require plenty of attention in order to properly take care of them, especially with the dated technology of the 19th century. Eli Whitney’s invention greatly improved the production speed and final product of harvesting the cotton crops, which led to a boom of the southern economy and control. This boom made the soil even more depleted of nutrients, so they had to move out westward, which ‘planted’ even more seeds of conflict. I also think that the article too-lightly talked about how slavery was a ‘seed of conflict’.

  6. Kenna says:

    The South was a dry and hostile place in the summer season. Farmers tried for a long time to try and find a crop that could grow and prosper in these conditions. It took them a very long time to find cotton, one of the only crops that would grow. My only question is why did they give up on trying to find another crop that would work in the weather conditions? I suppose they were unaware and were not thinking about the possible negative side effects. The issue was what if the cotton crops were destroyed? Then there would be no other source of crop to fall back on. When the southerners made the decision to only grow cotton, I believe that they made a huge mistake and were very lucky nothing ever went wrong.

  7. lyndon says:

    How accurately did Djangos Unchained portray life in ante-bellum South?

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