The Impoverishment of Appalachia


Here’s a critical passage from John Alexander Williams’ Appalachia: A History which explains how Appalachia, regardless of whether its people fought for the Union or the Confederacy, suffered a crushing defeat in the “Civil War,” which led to the subsequent impoverishment of the region and its colonization by Northern industrial and railroad interests in the postwar era:

Note: In the antebellum era, we have already seen that Appalachia had an economy on par with the rest of the South.

“Though there were other causes of the region’s impoverishment, the effects of the war were significant. The impoverishment of the defeated South generally hurt Appalachia in several ways. The plantation market for Appalachian livestock and foodstuffs was drastically reduced after the war, as were livestock herds in districts where the armies had forged. The state-owned or state-subsidized railroad systems were substantially wrecked. Railroad corporations in the North gradually gathered up the financial wreckage as the roads were rebuilt and thereafter operated most of the roads as subsidies of northern systems. Although mountain resorts emerged from the war largely intact, the upper-class southern patrons were damaged beyond the extent that even General Lee, who made a point of visiting White Sulphur Springs during the immediate postwar years, could repair.”

Appalachia’s economy in the antebellum era had been strongly tied to the economy of the plantation belt. The destruction of slavery in the lowlands landed an immediate blow to the tourism industry. Northern financiers took over and rebuilt the railroads and charged exorbitant rates that strangled commerce. The Union Army turned Appalachia into a war zone and destroyed its livestock.

“Wartime congressional initiatives that granted free land to western railroads and free homesteads to settlers of the trans-Mississippi West in effect subsidized competing producers of agricultural commodities that had underpinned Appalachia’s antebellum prosperity. Although the region’s relative prosperity had been compromised as farmers and herdsmen moved ever more deeply into the Appalachian Plateau, the profits of the antebellum era had borne fruit in the form of several promising local initiatives that were subsequently damaged or disrupted by the war. Two examples are offered in the Burning Springs oilfield near Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the emerging ironmaking districts around Chattanooga and in northern Alabama. When these institutions eventually did flourish, it would be as subsidiaries or junior partners of northern firms.”

By staying in the Union, the wrecked farm-and-forest economy of antebellum Appalachia was thrown into competition with subsidized agriculture in the Midwest and Great Plains. Appalachian industry was brought under the control of northern firms.

“With the impediment of southern congressmen and senators nullified, Congress enacted other legislation that placed the South generally and Appalachia in particular at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the North and West. The National Banking Act of 1863 created a banking system that dried up credit in the South and West and allowed regional developers to operate only on terms laid down by metropolitan financial interests. Added to lowland resentment at real or imagined mountain disloyalty during the war, the impoverishment of southern state governments meant that the public funding that had financed the canals, turnpikes, and railroads – not to mention the puny educational funding of the antebellum era – was no longer an option for needful mountain communities.”

The Union Army’s destruction of the slave-based economy of the lowlands dried up the resources for internal improvements and education in the mountains. The National Banking Act of 1863 sucked credit out of Appalachia and put the region at the mercy of the Northeastern “Money Power.”

About Hunter Wallace 12387 Articles
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  1. Great work OD! I often wondered about the effects on Appalachia the GD Abolitionist war against the Constitution caused.

  2. I watched a show several years ago that said that by the end of the War 90% of Appalachia’s ancient forests were still intact, but that a generation later only 10% were intact. What happened in the meantime is that Northern timber companies had moved down after the War and bullied the desperate people of Appalachia into selling their land. When the timber companies were done, the people were left with a desolate and ruined landscape. The only forests not clear cut were the ones owned by private landowners who refused to sell or the forests on steep slopes or high elevations. Surprisingly enough, the show even admitted that Appalachian people traditionally saw the forest as part of their way of life and took only what they needed from it, whereas Northern industrialists saw the forest only as a way to make money.

    The clear cutting obviously further damaged Appalachia economically since the people of Appalachia have always depended on the forest for their needs, but even more than that it took away a good chunk of the heritage of Appalachian people. Appalachian people have always been connected with nature. The forest we see today is barely 100 years old and it’s said that it will take at 1000 years to fully recover from the damage.

    Think of this the next time some Progressive West Coast type talks about Northerners being more ‘environmentally friendly’ than Southerners.

    • I remember a movie about Yankees recording Appalachian bluegrass and folk music during the turn of the century, while other Yankees were swindling them out of their land. $1 an acre.

    • Like your post. Some good reading on the situation in Appalachia. Your right about the Yankee Occupation and how the liberal establishment celebrates being the “environmental” ones but they are the opposite. Just like fishing and hunting. It’s sportsman who believe in true conservation and looking out for the land. Deer live in the woods and hunters shoot deer for food. Yankee liberals don’t hunt and never will….it’s to “Backwoods” for them. Just another reason why Appalachia and the entire south should be it’s own independent nation in the World.

      • Yankees are doing all they can to take away our nuclear power plants, and mining jobs, but they sure don’t have a problem clear cutting our forests or destroying our farming land for their housing developments.

  3. The only time in his entire career that Union General McClelland moved quickly was in West Virginia. McClelland pushed into West Virginia in early 1861, and seized the mountain passes, and occupied the B&O Railroad effectively cutting Virginia in two. So Reconstruction and military occupation came early to WV.

    The military occupation was harsh, and vindictive. Confederates were murdered by Union troops, and by Union vigilantes, countless homes & barns burned. Money & other property stolen…the economy wrecked. It wasn’t pretty.

    As far as hunting goes, if you have ever eaten mountain deer, the meat is tough, rangy, sinewy, and gamey tasting. The only way you can make it edible, is to marinate for a week to 10 days. The reason mountain deer are so tough is that they eat tree bark & nuts. Mountain fishing is another story. Fish from mountain streams and lakes are super good eating—probably because of the clean water, plant life, and bugs.

  4. HW, I always learn something from your website.Thank you for this article on Appalachia. I never knew.

  5. What the Federal government did to Appalachia was the same sort of oppression, impoverishment and robbery the Bolsheviks perpetrated against my Ukrainian and Russian ancestors, with genocides that resulted in tens of millions dead on top of that. Many of my maternal ancestors were pro-Confederate, Southerners and Ukrainians would agree that a central government that serves the interests of hostile aliens is no government, but a hostile alien occupier that must be opposed by any and all means necessary. When a people live in a resource rich land but are dirt poor, it’s because enemy aliens control that land, not them.

    • Yankees are indeed, enemy aliens. They’re not our “fellow” countrymen. Even they will admit as much in unguarded moments.

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