Impact of the Civil War on the South of America

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What was “new” about the New South?

The following will discuss what, if anything was new about the New South that emerged in the United States after 1877. Prior to the American Civil War the old South had predominantly been an agrarian economy in which blacks were slaves who had worked on the cotton plantations, factories, or had been domestic servants. Cotton had been the major commodity of the economy, which had mainly been exported to Britain. The American Civil War had been fought over the issue of slavery and whether the Southern States had the right to cede from the United States to preserve the institution of slavery (Hobsbawm, 1975 p.184). The Civil War brought social and economic changes to the South. Its cotton exports had been drastically reduced, its agricultural and industrial output declined sharply, whilst much of its infrastructure was destroyed. During the civil war President Lincoln had proclaimed the emancipation of all slaves, whilst blacks had fought with distinction on the Union side. The devastation brought to the South by the civil war meant that a period of reconstruction was needed afterwards. Leading white Southerners such as Henry Grady called for a New South. The blacks that were freed, as a result of the Confederate States losing the civil war, also anticipated a New South. The blacks in the Southern States expected their lives to be better following the Union’s victory and the era of reconstruction. In many respects strong arguments can be made that their lives got worse rather than better. Du Bois for one contended that blacks “had fought slavery to save democracy and then lost democracy in a new and vaster slavery” (Du Bois, 1935 Chapter 1).

The result of the American Civil War in theory was that the four and a half million blacks in the United States were all free and equal with the white population. However, the end of the Reconstruction made those equal rights a mockery in the New South (Brogan, 1999, p.348).

That the New South was not a new place for the better for its black population was due to the way in which the American Civil War ended. Lincoln’s assassination was the South’s revenge for losing the War. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson was less capable of ensuring that the South changed in ways that benefited its black population. From his presidency onwards, the North did very little to ensure Southern blacks had any meaningful rights (Brogan, 1999, p.348). Southern blacks were only able to exercise their political rights whilst the Union forces remained in the South, those rights ceased to exist in reality once the South was left to run itself. The suppression of Southern blacks was arguably worse once they had been formally freed than when they had been slaves. Racial discrimination, the fear of violence and poverty meant that the New South was no better than the Old South had been (Hobsbawm, 1975, p.143). Neither the South in general or its repressed black population in particular, gained as much from the United States rapid industrialisation from the 1870s onwards as the North did (Hobsbawm, 1987, p.35).

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In the New South there was a strong desire amongst the defeated Confederate States to make its black population subject to its strict political and economic controls for as long as possible. The abolition of slavery had not seen the end of the cotton plantations. However, jobs and better pay were given to the whites rather than blacks. Blacks were given the lowest paid jobs and they could be punished for not taking them. For many blacks the newness of the New South was the increased harshness of the discrimination they were subjected to. Whilst the whites in the New South had been unable to defeat the Union during the American Civil War, they were in a position to make life very unpleasant for the black population of the New South. Much discrimination was given legality through the ‘Black Codes’ of the Southern legislatures that severely restricted the rights of former slaves. Slavery had, in many respects, been restored in a less obvious form (Brogan, 1999, p.352). Those blacks that tried to exercise their legal rights found legal and political obstacles placed in front of them, which effectively deprived them of all those rights. They also faced violence and intimidation on a regular basis (Bradbury & Temperley, 1998, p.153). The Southern states were able to prevent the Constitutional Amendments that abolished slavery and gave freed slaves their rights having a positive impact as they were responsible for their enforcement, rather than the national government (Murphy et al, 2001, p.315). States such as Louisiana had no intention of giving blacks any rights on the grounds it was unconstitutional to do so (Du Bois, 1935, p.454). A series of measures which were known as Jim Crow laws were used by the Southern States to segregate and repress their black populations. Although they claimed the segregated services were of equal quality, this was a sham to excuse neglecting their black communities (Cobb, 1992). Overall Jim Crow Laws delayed the economic development of the New South, whilst they institutionalised racial discrimination and segregation. The cost of providing segregated services lowered the quality of education, housing, and transport in the New South. Segregation had even been endorsed by the Supreme Court as long as services were of equal quality, which few bothered to check. Such discrimination was contrary to the way Henry Grady believed the New South should have developed. Grady argued that the best way to industrialise the New South was to treat blacks as equal partners rather than inferiors. Therefore social justice and equality were just as important as capital and machinery in building the New South (Mauk & Oakland, 1995 p. 108). Grady believed that the New South would be the perfect democracy as long blacks were treated equally. The civil war had been an opportunity for the South to stop its outdated reliance on slavery and cotton (Harris, 1890 p. 15). Segregation, as well as being morally questionable, kept the South relatively poor and backward in relation to the rest of the country (Hobsbawm, 1975 p.184).

Poverty was a new feature of the New South. Poverty paradoxically enough had not been an issue for blacks in the South when they had been slaves. Although, they had no freedom, slaves were provided with basic levels of accommodation and food, on the logical basis that unhealthy slaves did not work as well as healthy ones. Southern slave owners had generally treated their slaves well enough for their numbers to increase at the same rate as the white population (Bradbury & Temperley, 1998 p. 153). Defenders of slavery had maintained that it kept the Southern states economically competitive, kept the black population at subsistence, whilst ensuring that all white men could find paid work (Brogan, 1999, p.371). Poverty, as freed slaves found to their cost, was as restrictive of their freedom as actual shackles had been. Freed slaves had to compete with whites to gain jobs. Poverty was closely linked with racial discrimination, in that whites were given better jobs and better working conditions, even when there were better-qualified blacks to do the jobs. Discrimination in the provision of education, housing and medical care also contributed to keep the blacks repressed and in poverty (Cobb, 1992). Blacks were disenfranchised by their poverty, whereas loopholes were used to ensure that poor whites kept the vote (Hobsbawm, 1987, p.24).

Another new feature of the New South was the increased levels of urbanisation. Cities such as New Orleans and Birmingham increased in size during the reconstruction era. The urbanisation of the New South was result of the industrial expansion encouraged by the Southern states and the migration of people trying to escape rural poverty. Migrating to the cities did not reduce racial discrimination and it barely increased opportunities for black people. Birmingham was the only city to achieve industrialisation on a major scale in the New South. The South was economically held back by its deliberately uneducated blacks and its under educated whites (Brogan, 1999, p.372). Southern blacks had also migrated to northern cities such as New York to increase their opportunities and to escape racial discrimination. The North was still prone to such discrimination even if it did give greater opportunity and blacks faced lower threats of violence. The Southern states had been motivated to enact the ‘Black Codes’ to restrict migration to both Southern and Northern cities (Brogan, 1999, p.363).

Unemployment was a more obvious problem in the New South than it had been in the old South. Unemployment and low paid employment in a country with no public welfare provision was a serious problem, especially for blacks that were discriminated against and could not afford the basic necessities of life (Hobsbawm, 1987, p.103). Employers and plantation owners in the New South as a whole tended to keep the relationship between poor blacks and poor whites as unfriendly as possible. Factory and plantation owners feared that that if black and white workers had a good relationship they would form effective trade union movements and threaten the profits of the owners (Lewis, 1994). Discrimination in favour of white workers alienated blacks from them, whilst owners and employers kept control of their workers by threatening to use black workers as strike breakers. Such tactics were effective at preventing the emergence of trade unions but did nothing to improve race relations in the New South (Brogan, 1999, p. 371).

The creation of Birmingham, Alabama was a symbol of all that was new in the New South. The place had not existed before 1871, and calling it Birmingham after one of the most industrialised cities in Britain was a statement of intent. Birmingham, Alabama was to be the industrial heart of the New South (Vann Woodward, 1951). Henry Grady himself cited Birmingham as the best example of his plans for a New South, yet historians have argued as to whether the development of Birmingham was similar to the industrial development envisaged by the plantation owners prior to the civil war (Lewis, 1994). Post civil war reconstruction gave the Southern States the opportunity as well as the need to reconstruct their economy. Falling prices for raw cotton meant that plantation owners switched their attention to manufacturing finished cotton products in new cotton mills. Attempts were also made to diversify the Southern economy away from cotton by developing coal, steal, and iron production. During the reconstruction period the Federal government had tried to enhance the economic prospects of the South by having the railroads rebuilt and extended to improve the transport links with the rest of the United States. Southern plantation owners, investors from the rest of the United States, as well as foreign investors funded industrial development. One feature of the New South did not change from the old South; it was still economically weaker than the North (Spiller et al, 2005 p. 80). The economic changes of the New South only benefited a few plantation and factory owners, some of who became much wealthier than they had been before the civil war (Hobsbawm, 1987 p. 24).

A new feature of the New South was the high level of violence directed against the black population by white racists. In the immediate post-civil war period the formation of the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated the popularity for white supremacist ideas in the Southern states. The Ku Klux Klan added murderous intentions to their racist outlooks. The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan led to many thousands of lynchings and murders throughout the New South. Blacks found it very difficult to protect them-selves from racially motivated violence on such a large scale. They received no meaningful levels of protection from the police, the courts or the state authorities, which often sympathised with white supremacist views and were therefore unwilling to take action against the Ku Klux Klan or individual racists. Racism and prejudices were built into the ‘Black Codes’ that made a mockery of the post civil war Constitutional Amendments. The Federal courts and governments were unwilling to intervene in the affairs of the New South, as far as the Federal governments was concerned the Constitutional Amendments were fully operative in the South. Nobody in Washington DC seemed to be bothered to act upon the plentiful evidence of racial murders and discrimination in the New South. Between 1887 and 1917 official United States government figures showed that 2,734 blacks were murdered in racially motivated crimes, the vast majority in the New South. Before that period the death toll had been even higher, and only the presence of the Union army before 1877 had prevented further bloodshed (Murphy et al, 2001 p. 320).

In some respects there were few new aspects in the New South. The combined effects of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws meant that the New South restricted the freedoms of freed slaves to such an extent that slavery might as well have been retained. Economic, social, and political restrictions meant that insignificant numbers of blacks could vote in elections, own their land or gain education in the Southern States (Cobb, 1992). Low wages, unemployment, high rents, and direct discrimination were as effective as the Black Codes at keeping black people poor and powerless (Du Bois, 1935 p. 454). It is no wonder that many blacks believed that after reconstruction the New South made their lives worse than before. For them the only difference the old and new South was that they were underpaid for working on other peoples’ land and in other peoples’ factories rather than being paid at all. Only a small number of freed blacks had been able to make successes of their lives before the Jim Crow laws began to restrict opportunities. Only 4,000 freed slaves managed to purchase land in the New South, and most of them could not buy enough land to run successful farms (Murphy et al, 2001 p. 316). The New South was not a content place; the whites still fumed at their defeat in the civil war and re-imposed a quasi slavery upon the nominally free blacks (Hobsbawm, 1975 p. 143).

Therefore, there were new aspects to the New South, although those aspects were not all positive or progressive in their nature. The Southern States were changed socially and economically as a result of the American Civil War. The economic consequences of the civil war were apparently severe. Agricultural and industrial outputs had been reduced, whilst the infrastructure of the Southern States had been badly damaged in the war. The war had disrupted the export of raw cotton which, had been the basis of the old South’s economy. Plantation owners had claimed that their plantations would be unprofitable with the abolition of slavery, a claim that proved unfounded due to the low wages they paid to white and black workers alike. The freed slaves found that life in the New South was in fact harsher in some respects than slavery. This was due to the increased racism and discrimination that was a new feature or perhaps at least a more obvious feature of the New South. The idea of the New South was promoted by the likes of Grady, as well as the new industrial centres such as Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta. Overall in the period after 1877 industrial output in the Southern States did increase with the development of cotton mills, coal, steel, and iron production, although it still lagged behind the rest of the United States. Industrial development did not improve the lives of most people in the New South, just factory and plantation owners and the profits of outside investors. The legacy of the civil war was a long and bitter one, with the Southern whites repressing the blacks to compensate for defeat and demonstrate their alleged supremacy.


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Brogan H, (1999) The Penguin History of the USA, Penguin, London

Cobb J C, (1992) The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta & The Origins of Regional Identity, Oxford University Press, Oxford, and New York

Du Bois W E B, (1935) Black Reconstruction in America, London

Harris J C, (1890) Henry W. Grady: His Life, Writings, and Speeches, Cassell Publishing Co, New York

Hobsbawm E, (1975) The Age of Capital 1848-1875, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London

Hobsbawm E, (1987) The Age of Empire 1875-1914, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London

Lewis (1994) the emergence of Birmingham as a case study of continuity between the antebellum planter class and industrialization in the new south” agricultural history (spring 1994) p. 62-79

Lewis (2003)

Mauk, D & Oakland, J (1995) – American Civilization Routledge, London

Murphy D, Cooper K & Waldron M, (2001). United States1776-1992 Collins, London

New south plantation kingdom -‘the new south’ writings and speeches of Henry Grady, (1971)

The beehive press savannah, Georgia

Spiller J, Clancy T, Young S, and Mosley S (2005) The United States 1763 – 2001, Routledge, London


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