The following numbers which chart the course of the Southern economy from 1860 to 1870 come from Eddie Wayne Shell’s Evolution of the Alabama Agroecosystem: Always Keeping Up, But Never Catching Up:
Deaths and Casualties
Confederacy – 260,000 dead, 137,000 wounded
Alabama – 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded
Of the 126,587 White men who served the Confederacy in Alabama, around 40,000 were killed and 35,000 were disabled, which was over half the soldiers who fought in the war. In Alabama alone, the war left behind about 20,000 widows and 60,000 orphans. The downstream economic consequences were catastrophic.
South – 3.9 million slaves worth $3.1 billion wiped out
Alabama – 470,000 slaves worth $200 million wiped out
The abolition of slavery is usually portrayed as a great morality tale, but as a practical matter it wiped out $3.1 billion dollars worth of capital in the South and $200 million dollars worth of capital in Alabama – by far the greater portion of capital in the South had been invested in slaves. Emancipation left the former slaves penniless and adrift in a world of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism. It left the planters broke and unable to pay wages to the former slaves. The non-slaveholding yeomanry was mostly wiped out by the war or left teetering on the brink of tenancy. Everyone was ruined by the war.
In Alabama, virtually the entire railroad network was destroyed or seriously damaged in the course of the war, and the fighting was far heavier in the Upper South. Of the former Confederate states, Texas suffered the least war damage and benefited tremendously from postwar emigration.
With only a few exceptions, the Confederate banking system was wiped out. The Confederate currency was worthless. The Confederate debt was repudiated which made billions of dollars of bonds and notes worthless.
South Atlantic States – 46.5% decline
South Central States – 91.2% decline
Alabama – Average farm size declined from 346.5 acres to 222 acres
After the War Between the States, slavery was abolished, but the plantation and export-based agricultural economy continued to exist, along with the millions of former slaves, bankrupted planters, and the ruined yeomanry. It would be an understatement to say that the consequences of abolition were not thought through. In the North, there was just this vague notion that free-market theorists had “proven” that the free-labor system and laissez-faire capitalism was “superior” to slave-labor
In the context of the near cashless economy with so few surviving banks, which was made many times worse by the disorganization of the plantations caused by abolition (how creditworthy was your bankrupt planter, penniless ex-slave, or maimed small farmer?), the interaction of supply and demand gradually led to the creation of the sharecropping and farm tenancy system based on the crop lien.
The large plantations with their efficient gang labor and access to credit from the antebellum cotton brokerages began to fragment into small undercapitalized farms worked by families with poor machinery. Far from being a triumph of the Jeffersonian ideal, the plantations fragmented into smaller and smaller plots worked by a larger and larger population, which were forced by the furnishing merchant to grow a single cash crop which could be sold on the free-market. The long term result of this was overproduction and the collapse in the price of cotton that reduced the farmer to a status identical to that a European serf where farm tenancy had prevailed for centuries.
South – 10% decline in improved farmland
Alabama – 20% decline in improved farmland, 6.4 million acres to 5.1 million acres
Obviously, the inevitable result of the conscription of virtually the entire White male population of military age, and then the great meatgrinder which wiped out so many farmers was that millions of acres of improved farmland was taken out of production. It is a testament to the hardship of the times – the countless women, orphans, young children left behind – that the decline in improved farmland was relatively smaller than the overall toll of the war.
Value of Land and Buildings
South – 50% decline
Alabama – $175.8 million to $54 million
By 1900, the average price per acre of Southern land still hadn’t recovered to the 1860 level. The 50% collapse in property value was another immediate downstream effect of abolition that further impoverished the planter. Both the planters and yeoman farmers had to sell their land to rebuild their acre. The triumphant Yankees took advantage of the firesale land prices in the postwar South to make great fortunes.
Value of Farm Implements and Machinery
South Atlantic States – $34 million to $20 milllion
South Central States – 61.3 million to 29.8 million
By 1900, the value of farm implements and machinery on Southern farms still hadn’t recovered to the 1860 level. A revolution in agricultural technology passed the whole region by because Southerners were too poor to invest in better farm equipment to increase productivity. It wasn’t until the Great Depression and the Agricultural Adjustment Act that this began to turn around.
Value Per Farm
South Atlantic States – $113 to $54
South Central States – $165 to $58
Alabama – $135 to $39
Under the “superior” free-market, free-labor, laissez-faire system imposed on Southern agriculture as the verdict of the war, the average value of a farm in Alabama dropped from $135 to $39 in ten years. This wasn’t due to the war damage either. Most of South Alabama wasn’t damaged by the war. There were large parts of the South, particularly in Texas, which weren’t damaged at all by the ear.
South – 48% decline
Alabama – 57.1% decline
The decline in cotton production was the only tailwind that came out of this decade for the Southern farmer because it temporarily raised the world price and helped soften the blow of abolition.
South – 30.4% decline
Alabama – 48.8% decline
The decline in corn production in the South is a testimony to the extent to which the non-slaveholding yeoman farmer was ruined by 1.) the toll of the war, 2.) reintegration into the Union which meant ruinous competition with the Midwest, and 3.) the destruction of his market in the plantation belts.
South Atlantic – 21% decline
South Central – 20% decine
Alabama – 83% decline
We shouldn’t be surprised by the decline in Southern hay production because it was a relatively labor-intensive crop.
South Atlantic – 15.8% decline
South Central – 22.3% decline
Alabama – 13% decline
In the long term, the South was never going to successfully compete with the Midwest in wheat production except as an independent nation-state behind a tariff wall like other European countries. As a captive market, Southerners would soon become dependent on Midwestern producers for their wheat, along with countless other agricultural commodities consumed by sharecroppers and tenants.
Alabama – 66% percent decline
Sweet potatoes were a Southern crop. It is interesting that there was such a marked decline in sweet potato production given how relatively easy they are to grow.
Alabama – 32.7% decline
In the mid-19th century, draft animals were used as power on Southern farms in the age before the tractor.
Value of Livestock on Hand
South Atlantic – 33% decline
South Central – 33% decline
Alabama – 50.8% decline
The ravaging of the Southern countryside by both armies and the starvation caused on the homefront by taking virtually the entire White adult male population out of farming produced a predicate decline in the value of livestock after the war.
South Atlantic – 48% decline
South Central – 83% decine
Alabama – 83% decline
South Atlantic – 15.8% decine
South Central – 22% decline
Alabama – 46.7% decline
South – 19.4% decline
Alabama – 26% decline
The decline in dairy products is a reflection of the overall decline of Southern agriculture in the 1860s.
South – 37% decline
Alabama – 59% decline
This is interesting given that pork was a cornerstone of the Southern diet.
South – 35% to 55% decline
Alabama – 43% decline
To the yeomanry, cattle were synonymous with money and this huge decline in the cattle in the Southern states by 1870s reflects the extent to which the yeomanry was ruined by the war.
This collapse of Southern agriculture only scratches the surface of what was unfolding at the outset of the Colonial South. There is a long list of other known problems out there which we are going to examine in the months ahead.
1.) Instead of a common Southern tariff, the triumph of the Union in the War Between the States had a number of important implications for trade policy. Among other things, it meant Northern manufactured goods would cost a lot more for Southern consumers in the future, that the defeated South would become a captive market for Northern industry (i.e., an American version of Ireland, India, or China after the Opium Wars), that there would be no tariff wall to foster Southern industrialization, that the Southern ports would lose commerce and tax revenue to the Northern counterparts.
2.) Because the South had been restored to the “Glorious Union,” it was now wide open to direct foreign investment. As we have already seen, it mattered a great deal to the Southern economy that a single Yankee like J.P. Morgan was able to establish a monopoly over our transportation system and strangle the iron and steel industry in Alabama and Tennessee after US Steel acquired TCI during the Panic of 1907.
Again, that’s the tip of the colonial iceberg: there are the Rockefellers and Standard Oil in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, the Northern timber companies and foreign land syndicates which clearcut the Appalachian Forest including the entire state of West Virginia, how Henry Flagler and Henry Plant turned Florida into a winter resort for rich Northerners, the Mellon Trust which established control over the bauxite mines in Arkansas and Tennessee, the Northern textile barons who moved to the South to exploit child labor around the turn of the century, and lets not forget coal mining in Appalachia.
3.) The whole rotten sharecropping and farm tenancy system that pulverized the South and later the West was caused by the National Banking Acts passed by the Republican Congress during the war and by the postwar deflationary monetary policy that enriched Eastern financial and banking interests and had the effect of keeping currency and credit scarce in the South. This is a huge can of worms.
4.) The great story of the Reconstruction era is how the carpetbagger worked with the scalawag and the negro to plunge Southern state governments deeply into debt to Eastern bondholders for fraudulent internal improvements.
5.) After the war, the Republican-controlled federal government used high tariffs to finance the national government while spending money for decades on pensions for Union war veterans. This systematically redistributed wealth from the South to the North.