The Southern Plantation

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					The Southern Plantation

        A large plantation was not just cotton fields and a stately mansion approached
along an oak-lined drive. A plantation included many other buildings: the smokehouse
where meat was preserved, the henhouse where poultry was raised, stables where
thoroughbreds were tended, the barn where dairy cows and work animals were housed,
and sheds and silos for tools, grain, and other farm necessities. In workshops scattered
near the barnyard, slave artisans might craft barrels, horseshoes, furniture, and cloth for
use on the plantation. Gardens were cultivated to supply herbs and vegetables. Larger
plantations might also maintain a schoolhouse for white children. Some planters built
chapels for family worship, and some allowed religious services for slaves as well. More
commonly, large plantations included slave infirmaries and nursery facilities where older
slave women tended the children of women who worked in the fields. As a safety
precaution, almost all plantations had kitchen structures separate from the "big house,"
the main mansion that housed the planter family.
        The big house, usually a two or three-storied mansion, was a visible symbol of the
planters wealth. Coming in from the front porch, a wide entrance hall might lead into a
dining room, a parlor, a library, and one or more sitting rooms. In these rooms a planter
could display his wealth with European furnishings and imported artwork. On the upper
floors, bedrooms for family members and guests were maintained with the most
comfortable and luxurious decor available. Nurseries for planters children were located
on the uppermost floors and could be reached by the servants stairs at the back of the
        The big house, the centerpiece of the entire plantation, might have formal flower
gardens, like the famed plantings at Middleton Place outside Charleston which took
nearly ten years to complete. A separate office for the planter or overseer might be
attached to the main house. Slave cabins were often built not far from the big house.
Overseers sometimes lived on the plantation, in which case their modest homes might
also be found nor far from the slave cabins, especially in the case of absentee planters.
But economic studies indicate that fewer than 30 percent of planters employed white
supervisors for their slave labor. Although nor all plantations contained every element
listed above, the crucial components were the masters home and the slaves domiciles,
reflecting the difference in status between the black and white worlds on the plantation.
        Plantations Mobilize For War. From Abraham Lincolns election onward,
secession fever propelled the South into war. Once South Carolina broke with the Union
and the rest of the Southern states fell like dominoes in the early part of 1861, war
appeared inevitable. Mary Boykin Chesnut saw the handwriting on the wall: "These
foolish, rash, harebrained southern lads . . . are thrilling with fiery ardor The red-hot
Southern martial spirit is in the air," she wrote in her diary.
        Southern gentlemen, especially the young, knew their choices and, buoyed by
secessionist bravado, enlisted when the war broke out. Confederate manhood ironically
required husbands and fathers to leave the very home and loved ones they were pledging
to protect. Slave-owning patriarchs had to abandon their beloved plantations. Loyal
Confederate plantation mistresses had to hammer home the necessity of fighting, in case
men might falter in their duty. The press and private correspondence overflowed with
parables of strident patriotic females: the belle who broke an engagement because her
fiancé did not enlist before the proposed wedding day, the sweethearts who sent skirts
and female undergarments to shirkers.
         The formation of many Confederate units demonstrated the resolve of the planter
class to serve. In Selma, Alabama, the Magnolia Cadets assembled, manned entirely by
local gentry. In Georgia, the Savannah Rifles, the Blue Caps, the Rattlesnakes, and many
other colorful groups closed ranks against the charge that the battle would be a "rich
mans war and a poor mans fight."
         Class solidarity was built on the bedrock of white superiority to which most white
Southerners subscribed. As contemporary Southerner William Cabell Rives proclaimed,
"It is not a question of slavery at all; it is a question of race." Therefore planters
necessarily blurred class lines for whites by engaging in cooperative ventures during
wartime. Parthenia Hague described the way in which Alabamians forged alliances
during war: "We were drawn together in a closer union, a tenderer feeling of humanity
linking us all together, both rich and poor; from the princely planter, who could scarce
get off his wide domains in a days ride, and who could count his slaves by the thousand,
down to the humble tenants of the log cabin on rented or leased land."
         The blockade, of course, threw all within the Confederacys borders hack on their
own resources. Plantations were not the hardest hit, but they did have to modi& long-
established patterns of production and consumption. Most significantly, the Confederate
government wanted planters to switch voluntarily from the cash crop system to a more
diversified subsistence strategy, which would include the planting of crops that could
feed the army and civilian populations. A slogan that appeared in the press captured
Confederate philosophy: "Plant Corn and Be Free, or plant cotton and be whipped."
         Many planters in the Deep South, which was more dependent upon food imports
than the upper South border states, adopted the 'corn and bread" ideology early on.
Cotton production was severely curtailed, dramatically so in the first year of the war. The
South's output, 4.5 million bales in 1861, was cut to 1.5 million in 1862. Some states
complied more than others; indeed, Georgia reduced its cotton output by nine-tenths from
1861 to 1862. In the coastal regions, especially Louisiana, sugar planters responded to the
call, with a decline from 459 million pounds in 1861 to 87 million in 1862.
         Many planters were concerned about this move and wondered how they could
keep their slaves occupied and afford their upkeep under such conditions. The more
conservative decided to reverse the traditional proportion of cash crops to foodstuffs;
instead of the usual 600 acres of cotton to 200 acres of corn, they planted 200 acres of
cotton to 600 acres of corn. A high rate of cotton production was nevertheless maintained
by a minority of planters who refused to toe the patriotic line. As private speculators
sought out cotton to store for future sale, a number of planters were happy to supply
them, viewing war as an opportunity for profit. Indeed, many smuggled their cotton to
Europe through Texas and Mexico, ignoring the government proscription. A handful of
planters, oblivious to the charge of treason that could be brought against them, sought out
Northern buyers. They hid their bales in remote warehouses or buried the cotton on their
plantations until safe passage might be secured.
         One such manipulator, James Alcorn, whose plantation was in the fertile
Mississippi Delta, owned a hundred slaves and property worth nearly $250,000. When
war broke our, Alcorn sent his family to Alabama and continued his prosperous trade in
cotton, hiding and selling it, and avoiding both armies. In 1862 be reported that he had
sold over a hundred bales, with another ninety ready to ship. Greed was his motive: "I
wish to fill my pockets," he said, and boasted, "I can in five years make a larger fortune
than ever. I know how to do it and will do it." At wars end, however, Alcorn decided to
cater to loyalist dictates rather than side with the enemies with whom he had collaborated
in matters of business. Although he had traded with Northerners, after the surrender at
Appomattox he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union and was credited with
being a great Southern patriot, much to the mystification of his former slaves.
         Planters and Conscription. Planters were divided on the subject of cotton policy
and many other issues, but the question that seemed to dominate the Cotton Planters
Convention in Memphis during their meeting in February 1862 was not agriculture but
politics. And many expressed doubt that their revolution, Confederate independence,
would succeed. The intertwining of economics and politics was too tied to the fortunes of
         When in September 1862 the Confederate Congress raised the upper age limit of
conscription from thirty- five to forty-five, heads of many poor families were for the first
time subject to the draft. This legislation appeared just at a time when that summers
drought had ruined most harvests. Compounding the difficulties, the Confederate
Congress in October passed an even more unpopular statute that became known as the
Twenty-Slave Law, which exempted from army service any white man who could
demonstrate that he was in a managerial role on a plantation with twenty slaves or more;
both owners and overseers qualified. This law was intended ostensibly both to control the
slave population and to keep the Confederacy fed. But the argument that the law would
benefit all whites stuck in the craw of most white Southerners. Even when in May 1863
exempted slaveholders were taxed $500 (to fund the distribution of food for soldiers
families), civilians and especially soldiers were not mollified.
         Throughout the war, only 4,000 to 5,000 men received exemptions under this law;
indeed, only 3 percent of those men who claimed exemptions took them on the basis of
the Twenty-Slave Law. On 85 percent of those plantations that qualified for exemptions,
none was taken. Nevertheless, the perception of favoritism rankled. Members of the
planter class already could afford to buy substitutes, and now any choice to sit out the
war was ratified by government legitimation. Attitudes may have been regionalized:
within the Deep South more planters perhaps took advantage of the system, sparking
more resentment. There were 1,500 exemptions issued in Alabama alone and of the
nineteen categories of exemption, only medical disability was employed more often than
the Twenty-Slave Law. Thus, the law was a public relations disaster, to say the least.
Mississippian James Phelan wrote a warning to Jefferson Davis: "It has aroused a spirit
of rebellion in some places, I am informed, and bodies of men have banded together to
resist; whilst in the army it is said it only needs some daring men to raise the standard to
develop a revolt."
         White women, too, voiced their alarm over conscription. Many left behind in
parishes and counties without adequate male assistance appealed to their government.
Late in the war a group of women in South Carolina sent a plaintive letter to the

      We are personally acquainted with Erwin Mid/en for over three years and do no that
he is a sickly and feeble man and we do Believe that he is not able for service in the field
We are informed that he is in the 56th year of his age. And we do further swore that he
has done all our howling for the last three years and attended to all our domestic business
as we could not Procure any other man to do--see to our hawling and other business as
our Husbands are all in the army and some of them killed and some died in service.

   The seventeen women who signed begged that Midlen be spared military service. The
governors ruling on the matter remains unknown.
         The Decline of Plantation Agriculture and Planter Morale. Even more
disheartening to both the Confederate government and the Southern farmer was the fact
that all agricultural indicators in the South spelled decline, while prosperity reigned in the
fertile regions of the Midwest. Although over 75,000 farm boys left Iowa for Union
service and over 90,000 came from Wisconsin, Northern agriculture did nor suffer. Iowa
and Wisconsin both reported improved acreage and grain production as well as a rise in
farm income during the war.
         The South's declining agriculture created a dilemma. The army needed fresh
troops, but the home front required care as well. President Davis, among others, harped
on the dangers of deserted or unproductive plantations; these Cassandras were unpopular
yet prophetic. One advised: "We are today in greater danger of whipping our selves than
being whipped by our enemy" Sinking morale and declining food supplies contributed to
gloomy predictions of further degradation. The crippling of cotton production
undermined the ruling elites sense of mastery and helped pave the way for defeat. There
were countless examples of reduced fortunes: by 1864 James Heyward of South Carolina
planted only 330 acres in rice and 90 in provisions; a mere one-tenth of his land holdings
were under cultivation.
         Heyward at least was able to continue planting. Many slave owners were driven
off their plantations, losing homes and livelihoods in one fell swoop. Some former
mistresses, hoping to elude Federal troops, were reduced to living in cabins in the woods.
In the first few months of the war, Confederates feared the unknown threat of a Union
army, but by 1862 too many Southerners knew firsthand the toll such an invasion
extracted. In December 1863 the Confederate Congress railed against the enemy:

     Houses are pillaged and horned, churches ore defaced, towns are ransacked, clothing
of women and infants is stripped from their persons, jewelry and momentoes of the dead
ore stolen, mills and implements of agriculture are destroyed, private salt works ore
broken up, the introduction of medicines is forbidden.

        Indeed, plantation mistresses turned to the woods as "natures drugstore" and for
other necessities of life. One woman reported that after the enemy left her home she was
"forced to go out into the woods nearby and with my two little boys pick up fagots to
cook the scanty food left to me." The scorched-earth policy of William Tecumseh
Sherman and other Union generals reduced many plantations to ashes and permanently
impaired the planters ability to recover.
        Morale was at a low ebb and hopes were being steadily dashed against the shoals
of wartime reality. Those planters who stockpiled their cotton crop were in as much
danger of losing it to the Confederate cause as to invading Northerners. It was the policy
of the Confederate army to burn cotton whenever Federals moved within striking
distance. This was an unpopular measure, to say the least, especially at a time when
planters were pressing the government to buy their unsold crops. To have their hopes go
up in smoke at the hands of soldiers in gray rather than the hated Federals created
conflicting loyalties.
         Some of these policies alienated planters to the point of political disaffection. In
the 1870s the Southern Claims Commission was empowered to rule on the petitions of
planters who declared both their pro-Union sympathies during wartime and the
destruction of property by Union troops. Of the 700 claims filed to obtain damages of
over $10,000, only 191 were successful, and a mere 224 of the 800 and more who
complained of property losses of less than $10,000 were granted.
         Perhaps no more than 5 percent of the planter class were Union loyalists doting
wartime. But many more simply resisted the entreaties of the Confederate government to
perform patriotically. As many as 25 percent of the slaveholders in Virginia refused to
comply with the governments requisition of their property-- slaves--in 1864. Both the
loss of labor and the strong resistance combined to weaken the Confederacy's ability to
win its war for independence.
         The End of Slavery and the Plantation System. The dangers within arose not only
from recalcitrant planters but from the omnipresent threat of slave resistance. John Edwin
Fripp of Saint Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina was able to write: "I am
happy to say my negroes have acted orderly and well all the time, none going off
excepting one or two Boys who accompanied the yanks for plunder but have returned
home and appear quite willing to work." Nevertheless, Fripps experience was the
exception rather than the rule. The majority of planters made careful notations in their
logs about African Americans deserting plantations. Whenever Union troops moved into
a region, slaves fled behind enemy lines. Many, if not most planters, felt wounded when
their slaves abandoned the plantation for "Lincoln land." They were especially angered
by those African Americans who led Federal troops to storehouses of food and buried
treasure--the family silver and other heirlooms. Even after the issuance of the
Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, slave owners mistakenly placed their faith
in paternalism. As one woman complained bitterly, "Those we loved best, and who loved
us best--as we thought--were the first to leave us."
         Planters who feared insurrection, however, were pleasantly surprised, in contrast
to those whose cherished notions of slave loyalty were disappointed. Historian James
Roark has suggested: "Slavery did nor explode; it disintegrated ... eroded plantation by
plantation, often slave by slave, like slabs of earth slipping into a Southern stream." Some
planters responded by moving their slaves away from approaching Federal troops, but as
the war dragged on, there was nowhere left to hide and hundreds of thousands of African
Americans made their way to freedom.
         During the fall of 1863 over 20,000 slaves were recruited for service in the Union
army in the Mississippi valley alone. Jane Picken, a plantation mistress and a refugee,
recounted the planters predicament: "The negroes in most instances refused to leave with
their masters, and in some cases have left the plantations in a perfect stampede.
Mississippi is almost depopulated of its black population." By the winter of 1864--1865,
slave owners were reduced to a lengthy process of negotiation with those African
Americans who remained. Emma LeConte of Berkeley County, South Carolina,
lamented: "The field negroes are in a dreadful state; they will not work, but either roam
the country, or sit in their houses. . . . I do not see how we are to live in this country
without any rule or regulation. We are afraid now to walk outside of the gate."
        The fall, then, came from within, as historian Armstead Robinson has argued, as
well as from without. The plantation South simply crumbled, unable to withstand African
American challenges to slavery as well as the burdens of blockades, wartime production,
and invading armies. The superhuman task of retaining the illusion of white superiority in
the face of black resistance, African American independence, and the final blow--the full-
blown glory of black manhood in the form of African American Union soldiers--
combined to destroy Confederate dreams. Economic ruin further eroded the fragile
leadership of the struggling nation. Confederate wealth (excluding slave property)
declined nearly 45 percent during the war.
        In February 1864 the Confederate Congress authorized impressment of free
blacks and slaves for noncombatant military roles, and by November 1864 President
Davis was advocating gradual emancipation and military use of African Americans.
Davis wrongly assumed that Southerners would choose to give up slavery rather than go
down to defeat. But slaveholders stuck to their guns. The Confederacy had been founded
because of the perceived threat that Northern Republicans presented to the institution of
slavery, and proslavery stalwarts stayed the course: "We want no confederate
Government without our institutions." These and other sentiments have prompted
historian David Herbert Donald to suggest that the Confederacy might ironically have
"died from democracy. Whatever the cause, the plantation system, with its fortunes so
tied to black labor, died along with slavery.
        The surrender at Appomattox triggered a long, slow process of recovery, but
planters never actually recovered. Rather, they devoted their time and energies to
promoting romantic legends of the Lost Cause-- seeking historical justification rather
than economic recovery Planters devotion to an imagined past was embodied in Margaret
Mitchell's mythic re-creation of Tara and Twelve Oaks, perhaps the most famous
plantations of all, in her 1936 novel, Gone with the Wind Despite such fictional
exaggerations, most plantations were scarred visibly by the wan And even those not
damaged by wartime destruction indisputably suffered a permanent stain--the psychic
blight of Confederate defeat.