The end of the Civil War left the South devastated in every possible way. Over a quarter of a million of Southern boys and men were dead, countless more were physically crippled and psychologically traumatized. The infrastructure of the Confederate states had been weak before the war, compared to the increasingly industrialized Northern states. But the Total War doctrine, and Sherman’s March to the Sea in particular, laid waste to much of the industry and infrastructure there was. Before the war, the South had already been lagging in the development of urban areas. This was a trend that would continue even through reconstruction. Eventually a New South did rise out of the ashes of the old, though it was slow to do so. Slave ownership and the plantation system of agriculture kept the population widely dispersed and largely self-sufficient. This allowed the Confederate states to function with much less urbanization. It also created a reduced capitalistic condition because the plantation owners possessed a considerable majority of the wealth and resources. Changes were necessary as the country healed from the Civil War.
The most well-known condition of the Old South was slavery. It is cited as the driving reason behind the Civil War, for its moral value. At the very least the insistence of the Confederate States on maintaining their own laws regarding slavery was a major contributor to the conflict. Whatever other philosophical or economic implications might be wrapped up in the slavery issue, the system limited the urban development of the South and ultimately would have capped their viability as an independent nation, had they won their independence. In New Men, New Cities, New South, Don Harrison Doyle writes “The process of urban development had been retarded in the South, and the region suffered persistent disadvantages simply because it grew in the shadow of more advanced regions”1. This is in the context of slavery and plantations limiting the advancement of population centers in the South before and after the Civil War. Even the West outstripped the South in the formation of urban areas2. The people of the South were reluctant to give up the traditions of the Old South, despite the obvious limitations they created.
The changes really started to come together in the 1880s. Edward L. Ayers writes in The Promise of the New South that “everyone labored under the burdens of the depression that had hobble the 1870s” and “the Southern landscape of 1880 bore the signs of the preceding twenty years”3. Citizens were heartbroken and traumatized. Everyone had felt the loss of war in some way and most in more than one. Not only had the horrors of war come into the homes and fields of American citizens, but it was kin fighting kin. Trust between the North and South was destroyed. The South had a lot of recovering to do, economically and psychologically, but it was happening. Ayers tells about towns springing up with brick buildings and wood sidewalks, investors putting up factories and mills, and railroads sprawling across the landscape to connect everything4. Some people left the South for opportunities elsewhere and others moved in to take advantage of the new growth. What had once been a relatively exclusive region became increasingly connected to the rest of the nation.
Learning how to function in the new paradigm created different challenges for Southern development. It was only very late in the initial New South period, from 1880 to 1940, that the urban populations grew from 9 percent to 35 percent5. This meant that for fifteen years after the Civil War, the Southern population tried to go on as they always had. The end of slavery is one of Peter Temin’s primary reasons the South struggle post bellum6. The most important feature of the antebellum South, in terms of labor distribution, was slavery. As the rest of the country discovered mechanized farming and manufacturing methods, the South continued to use massive amounts of manual labor.
When slavery ended in 1865, the cost of that labor went up dramatically. Up to that point, white farmers had been primarily subsistence, needing and wanting no complications. The previously self-sufficient white farmers turned away from growing food to growing cotton because the plantations could no longer produce the way they used to7. What naturally ensued as every able farmer took up cotton production was a dramatic increase in supply while the cost of that production went up. Temin marks the decline in the cotton economy as one of the most significant problems faced by the New South8. Demand fell, prices fell, and the South fell into a major recession in the 1870s.
This recession has become characterized by the experimental race reforms that came about with the abolition of slavery. Though it cannot be morally or ethically condoned, the economic salvation of the South came when the conservative Democrats of the time took control of Southern politics and restored a shadow of the old repressive policies9. The fledgling civil rights that very nearly hurdled a hundred years of social crime in the South were discarded in favor of a more familiar racial hierarchy. In this way the New South was very much like the old. The sense of continuity most likely increased the confidence of Southern investors and it created scarcity in the labor pool that made it easier for white people to get jobs.
One of the primary investments by Southern capitalists was in railroads. Once the Democrats were in control, railroads sprang up faster in the South than anywhere else in the country10. The wealthy were eager to start making money in the new system and it was a void to be filled. In 1860 the Confederate states had roughly 10,000 miles of track and almost all of it was destroyed in the war; by 1900 there was over 60,000 miles of new track11. This dramatic new degree of interconnection gave the South a chance to move goods and population much more efficiently.
Southern tracks were built in the same gauge as Northern railroads so Northern and Southern tracks were integrated and ports were connected to landlocked markets, making it possible for goods to be delivered at lower cost and through fewer intermediaries to processing facilities and to consumers12. Industrialization enjoyed a similar explosion, facilitated by the new transportation opportunities. The number of manufacturing firms in the South rose from fewer than 21,000 in 1860 to over 69,000 in 190013. The rapidly growing job market and the labor laws inflicted by the Democrats helped form an economy rich with employment opportunities, for some, healing the South as the century turned.
The Civil War was devastating to the South in every regard. Even if they had won the Civil War, it is questionable whether or not they could have recovered from the damage done. Hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men were dead, hundreds of thousands more were injured. The slave populations had become increasingly unstable, inspired by the war, weary of the oppression, and outnumbering their owners more and more every day. Whether the South had freed the slaves following a victory or not, they may have lost control of that labor pool and an internal revolution would have been even harder on the Confederate states than freeing the slaves outright. No matter how it might have happened, the way it did happen very nearly meant the collapse of several Southern states.
Confederate economy was already on thin ice before the war. It depended on a delicate balance of controlling an entire population completely and marketing a single commodity to a world that was increasingly intolerant of the practices that produced it. The already limited infrastructure and urban centers had been razed to the ground by the Union army and without resources from investors in other parts of the country it might not have been possible to rebuild them at all.
The reconstruction was slow enough the way it happened, plagued by serious economic depression as the South learned how to participate in modern agriculture and industry. Political oppression of the black population helped restore some order to the minds of the white workers and wealthy. But it would be difficult to say if the recovery sparked by racial segregation was worth the horrors inflicted on the still-young concept of civil rights in the South. The New South joined the rest of the nation in urbanization and economic endeavors, albeit slowly. It was marked by many tribulations and a throwback or two, but it was most definitely different.
Ayers, Edward L.. The promise of the New South: life after Reconstruction. London: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Doyle, Don Harrison. New men, new cities, new South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Temin, Peter. "The Post-Bellum Recovery of the South and the Cost of the Civil War." The Journal of Economic History 36, no. 4 (1976): 898-907.