The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South
Random HouseCopyright © 2013 Bruce Levine
All right reserved.ISBN: 9781400067039
THE HOUSE OF DIXIE
The House of Dixie was an imposing thing indeed. On March 4, 1858, South Carolina planter and political leader James Henry Hammond rose on the floor of the U.S. Senate to emphasize the slave states’ wealth, power, and solidity to northern colleagues who were then challenging some of their prerogatives.
One of the things that Hammond boasted of that day was the South’s sheer physical size, which had grown greatly since the nation’s founding. The number of southern slave states more than doubled over those years with the creation of Kentucky (in 1792), Tennessee (in 1796), Louisiana (in 1812), Mississippi (in 1817), Alabama (in 1819), Missouri (in 1821), Arkansas (in 1836), Florida (in 1845), and Texas (in 1845). “If we never acquire another foot of territory for the South,” Hammond summarized, “look at her. Eight hundred and fifty thousand square miles. As large as Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Spain” combined. Here, surely, Hammond trumpeted, was “territory enough to make an empire” that might “rule the world.”
But the American South was more opulent and formidable than even its great size suggested. Of the more than twelve million souls who resided there, almost one out of every three was enslaved—owned outright by others. As commodities that could be (and were) freely bought and sold, slaves themselves were immensely valuable. At prices quoted on the markets of the day, those nearly four million human beings were worth something like $3 billion—an immense sum, especially at that time, a sum that exceeded the value of all the farmland in all the states of the South, a sum fully three times as great as the construction costs of all the railroads that then ran throughout all of the United States.
Still more important to southern wealth than even the enormous potential sale price of these human beings was the work that they could be made to perform. The efforts of slaves yielded more than half of all the South’s tobacco; almost all of its sugar, rice, and hemp; and nine-tenths of its cotton.
The last item on this list, cotton, was in aggregate the single most valuable commodity produced in the United States. It was a key raw material for the international Industrial Revolution and therefore of trans-Atlantic commerce. By 1860, in fact, the American South was producing two-thirds of all the commercially grown cotton in the world and about four-fifths of the cotton that Great Britain’s mammoth textile industry consumed every year. The cotton trade was just as important to the national economy of the United States. The ubiquitous dirty-white bales that were hauled down to coastal wharves and there packed into the holds of big ships destined for European markets accounted for about half the value of all the United States’ exports, as they had since the 1830s.
Small wonder, then, that most of the country’s richest men lived in the slave states and that the nation’s dozen wealthiest counties, per capita, were all located in the South.
Slaves were by far the most valuable properties one could own in the southern states. But only a minority of white southerners (about one-fourth) owned human beings in 1860, and among those who did, the size of their property holding varied dramatically.
The typical master owned between four and six slaves. That much human property made him or her many times as prosperous as the average southern farmer but considerably less wealthy than those masters who owned at least twenty slaves, for whom the federal census bureau reserved the title of “planter.”8 Only one out of eight southern masters belonged to this group—some forty-six thousand in total. But as a group, they controlled more than half of all the South’s slaves and an even larger share of its total agricultural wealth.
Some planters were far richer than others. The true planter aristocracy embraced ten thousand families that owned fifty or more slaves apiece.10 These were the people who, as the former North Carolina slave William Yancey later recalled, “gave shape to the government and tone to the society. They had the right of way in business and in politics.”
Among these people were Patrick M. Edmondston and his wife, Catherine Ann Devereux Edmondston, who owned two plantations in northeastern North Carolina. Jefferson Thomas and Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas owned Belmont, a plantation in east-central Georgia that by 1861 boasted ninety slaves. In Virginia, Edmund Ruffin, a well-known agricultural innovator and a tireless exponent of slavery’s merits, also claimed a place in this charmed circle. So did Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis Lee. Both came from old Virginia planter families. Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, was one of the state’s largest planters. He left the Lees one of his three plantations (Arlington) and sixty slaves to work it.
About one in fifteen planter families enjoyed wealth that dwarfed the holdings of even the Ruffins, Lees, Edmondstons, and Thomases. Each of these three thousand or so families owned at least 100 slaves in 1860. The family of Louisiana’s Katherine Stone was one of these. Twenty-five to thirty miles south of the Stones’ Brokenburn plantation lay Davis Bend, a peninsula formed by the twists and turns of the Mississippi River. It contained Jefferson Davis’s 1,800-acre cotton plantation, named Brierfield, and the 113 slaves who lived and labored on it. Rev. Charles Colcock Jones, who spearheaded the campaign to bring a proslavery form of Christianity to southern bondspeople, owned 129 slaves on three plantations in coastal Georgia’s Liberty County. Robert Toombs, who became the Confederacy’s first secretary of state, held 176 slaves and 2,200 acres of land in three counties.
And even richer than these moneyed masters were about three hundred planters who each owned at least 250 people. One of them was Jefferson Davis’s brother, Joseph; another was Howell Cobb, who at various times served as Georgia’s governor, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and secretary of the Treasury, and went on to become the Speaker of the Confederacy’s provisional Congress. A third was James Henry Hammond. The son of a teacher and minor businessman who had married into the planter class, by 1860 he owned 338 people. Another South Carolinian, Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr., published the fire-eating Charleston Mercury; Rhett owned at least two rice plantations and more than 400 slaves. Other Palmetto State planters of comparable wealth included Colonel James Chesnut, Sr., master of the grand Mulberry plantation in Kershaw County. His son, James, Jr., sat successively in both houses of the U.S. Congress and later became a Confederate brigadier general and aide to Jefferson Davis.
At the very apex of the South’s social pyramid stood about fifty southern planters, each of whom owned at least five hundred slaves. Some owned considerably more than that. The richest planter in North Carolina was Thomas P. Devereux, the father of Catherine Devereux Edmondston, referred to earlier. He owned more than one thousand people. Georgia’s James Hamilton Couper owned fifteen hundred.
In the words of North Carolina plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas, members of the planter elite enjoyed the “life of luxury and ease.” Many lived in homes that were palatial by the standards of their day. In eastern Virginia, John Armistead Selden presided over the venerable Westover plantation. Its mansion boasted a great hall, a dining room that regularly hosted more than fifty, a grand stairway, multiple fireplaces, a lush garden, and a lawn that carpeted the 150 feet between the mansion and the James River. In Virginia’s Chesapeake region, Richard Baylor’s neoclassical mansion, Kinloch, boasted twenty-one rooms, eighteen fireplaces, four great halls, an imposing front portico, and an observation deck that overlooked the valley of the Rappahannock River. James Hamilton Couper modeled his Hopeton plantation in Georgia on an Italian villa. Its main house was three stories tall and had twenty-three rooms, elegant gardens, and a grand staircase descending from the second-floor entranceway. Here, if anywhere, were the mansions celebrated in Hollywood’s version of Gone with the Wind.
In some of the richest but more recently settled cotton-growing states, elite society was still too new and its members too preoccupied with assembling their slave workforces in 1860 to devote much time or money to elegance and ostentation. In northeastern Louisiana, for example, the Stone family was living in what its members considered a temporary dwelling on their Brokenburn plantation. It, too, was big, with long galleries and two great halls. But it was nothing compared with the structure they looked forward to building soon.
Such “big houses” (as they were generally called) were not only grand; they were also furnished and filled “with everything that a hundred years or more of unlimited wealth could accumulate,” much of it purchased in the North and in Europe. So noted the assiduous diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, who was born into a prominent Mississippi planter family and who married James Chesnut, Jr. In addition to their rural residences, many of the larger low-country planters also owned stately town houses in cities such as Charleston, Augusta, Savannah, Natchez, Mobile, and New Orleans. Those urban abodes commonly featured impressive gardens fronted by high walls and large iron gates, all of which spared owners the proximity to and shielded them from the gaze of less privileged passersby.
In their free time, families like the Stones of Louisiana always had “something going on” (as Katherine put it). They entertained themselves with hunting, boating regattas, and horse races (using slave oarsmen and slave jockeys), lavish dinner parties, and balls. They summered at northern spas in Saratoga Springs, Cape May, Niagara Falls, Newport, and Montreal and at southern resorts such as Biloxi, Pass Christian, and the springs of western Virginia.
The southern states of the Union contained the nation’s least developed school system. But the planters’ children wanted for few educational advantages. Private tutors provided individual instruction. Daughters attended elite female academies. Sons went off to colleges in the South, in the North, and in Europe. A leisurely and luxurious “grand tour” of Europe often followed college, allowing future leaders of the southern elite to bathe in the high culture of the Old World.
At least as impressive as their sheer wealth and personal comfort was the slave masters’ political might. Robert E. Lee’s wartime aide-de-camp, Colonel Charles Marshall, later recalled “the controlling influence” that “the owners of slaves” enjoyed “in the management of affairs in the Southern States.” In the capitals of nearly every state that would go on to join the Confederacy, slave masters occupied at least half the legislative seats in 1860. In Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, more than a third of those seats belonged to full-fledged planters. In South Carolina, planters claimed not a third but more than half of those positions.
But the masters’ writ ran far beyond the confines of their own states. They also exercised tremendous power over the United States as a whole, and they had done so for generations. James Henry Hammond put it bluntly in his Senate speech of 1858. “We, the slaveholders of the South, took our country in her infancy,” led it to independence, and have since then continued “ruling her for sixty out of the seventy years of her existence.” Since the Revolution, in fact, nearly all the occupants of the White House had been either slave masters (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor) or the allies and advocates of masters (Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan). The same kind of men consistently controlled both the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court.
The masters used all this political power to secure and extend the economic system that gave them their wealth, authority, and comfort— a system squarely based on slave labor. The South’s four million slaves formed the core of its laboring population. “They are the source in large measure of our living, and comprise our wealth,” the Georgia planter and Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones reminded his fellow churchmen in 1861. Slaves and the profits that their labor yielded paid for “our education, our food, and clothing, and our dwellings, and a thousand comforts of life that crowd our happy homes.” They also performed many other vital kinds of labor: From the slave quarters came “our boatmen . . . on the waters; our mechanics and artisans to build our houses, to work in many trades; . . . they prepare our food, and wait about our tables and our persons, and keep the house.”
As Jones noted, slaves toiled in all sectors of the southern society and economy. Some worked in the region’s relatively small urban economy, in workshops, factories, and a variety of commercial establishments. Others labored as household servants in the masters’ homes in town or country or as artisans of various kinds on their farms and plantations. But the great majority, perhaps three-quarters, worked the land. As Jones put it, they were “our agriculturalists to subdue our forests, to sow, and cultivate, and reap our land; without whom no team is started, no plough is run, no spade, nor hoe, nor axe is driven.” The 1860 census estimated that one in every ten slaves cultivated tobacco (centered in parts of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri), another one in ten raised sugar, rice, or hemp (in Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina). And more than half worked in the cotton fields (especially in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana).
Katherine Stone noted some of the characteristics of slave labor that made it most attractive to landowners anxious to turn a profit. Slaves could be made to perform especially heavy, intensive, and continuous work in return for just “the bare necessities of life.” James Henry Hammond accounted for slavery’s importance in just those terms in a well-known open letter to British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. Only slaves, Hammond held, could be made to work as hard while costing the landowner so little. People who enjoyed the right to protest, resist, or simply refuse such terms would never tolerate such conditions.
The South’s slaves worked very hard indeed. It was “no uncommon thing,” Katherine Stone remembered, for the more productive slaves in her family’s cotton fields to pick “five or six hundred pounds each day for maybe a week at a time.” That was almost three times as much cotton as agricultural workers would pick after slavery was abolished.
What was the secret of this enormous prewar cornucopia? How did masters manage to get so much work out of their human property? Perhaps, Stone suggested, the answer was to be found in the pleasure that slaves found in their work. “The Negroes really seemed to like the cotton picking most of all,” she later mused. And spurring that enthusiasm, Stone presumed, were the “prizes” awarded to the most productive—“money for the men and gay dresses for the women.”