TOCWOC – A Civil War Blog

The Economics of Industry in the South

Alan Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, has an article in USA Today speculating about what might have happened if the South had seceded. On some things I agree with him, that the secession of Dixie might have spurred further secessions (notably the Old Northwest, now the Midwest), but on others I disagree. He posits that slavery would have evolved and would have replaced white workers in an industrial system. I also believe he’s wrong on the state of Southern industrialization (which had not a single cannon factory, nor any native arms industry), but that’s for another post.

I’ve made a couple of posts about fit of the Peculiar Institution in an industrial economy, and what I found was surprising. Free white labor seemed to be preferred, ironically because they were easier to exploit.

For starters I recommend a 2014 series in the Lynchburg paper about the battle of Lynchburg (not really a battle, but an important move to save a vital logistics center). Most of the sections are on the military moves and countermoves, but on section deals with the state of slavery in Lynchburg, where roughly 40% of the population was in bondage.

Slaves weren’t hired out for dangerous jobs because the owners wanted to protect their investment. Tobacco warehouses had little to no machinery and most of the work was done by hand. Children also worked in the factories, Potter said.

The more dangerous jobs, such as construction work on the railroad or canals, were taken by Irish immigrants who were desperate for work and drawn to the good pay. The Irish immigrants in Lynchburg often had a stonemasonry background, too, he said.

In a previous review of Deborah Petite’s Women Will Howl I talked about work in the Roswell mills (subsequently burned by Sherman’s cavalry).

Dickensian conditions prevailed in the mills. Workers were paid in scrip good only at the company store, worked long hours (dawn to dusk six days a week) in dangerous, unhealthy conditions. While this and frequent outbreaks of disease and occupational hazards like brown lung pushed many into an early grave, it did provide employment for the impoverished local population. Surprisingly, the mill owners (there was another mill at New Manchester thirty miles west) preferred free white labor over slaves. Bound labor was more expensive—hired slaves cost the mill owner the same $7 a month as a free laborer, but he had to provide their room and board. Then too, the slave had a powerful benefactor, his master, who saw to it that his property was not abused or mistreated. Free workers, on the other hand, could be hired and fired at will, and the factory owner need have little concern for their welfare. The mill owners hoped further white emigration would continue to provide a source of cheap labor.

Child labor was common, indeed preferred, for their sharp eyes and nimble fingers. Men tended toward skilled and supervisory positions while women and children, most of whom were illiterate or barely literate, tended the machines. Thus, as Petite points out, these women were not in the best of situations even before the war. “Uneducated, unskilled, paid in scrip, with every aspect of their lives under the control of the factory, the mill workers in Georgia lived lives little better than that of slaves.”

Then there was the cotton trade. Slaves did perform most of the agricultural work, but this was fairly safe. When it came to loading the cotton on the steamboats, things were different.

Ideally, cotton landings were located below high bluffs rising out of the river. Cotton warehouses were located on the top of the bluffs and were connected to the landings below by wooden slides. The men who worked at the top of the cotton slide were called “rolladores” and were usually slaves; whereas Irish immigrants typically made up the class of workers called stevedores, who performed the more dangerous jobs at the bottom; slaves were too valuable for such work.

I remember reading an account of loading cotton onto the ocean-going ships at the Mobile docks. There were two crews. One on the docks loaded the cotton onto the deck from the dock, another worked down in the hold receiving and stowing the bales. Neither job was easy, but in the Alabama summer heat conditions in the hold were downright hellish. Yet it was the black slaves on the dock and Irishmen down in the hold. When one visitor asked why, he was told simply that “Negroes cost money.” Irishmen were cheap, slaves were not. Ironically, there actually were some advantages to being property.

So I don’t think the situation is nearly as clear-cut as Guelzo would have it. Slavery wasn’t free—in some ways it was more expensive than free labor, especially given that the African slave trade had been closed, but European immigration was open-ended. A slave was an investment to be protected, a worker could be used and thrown aside. This might have been different if the African slave trade could somehow have been reopened, but even given a Southern victory it’s unlikely that they could have prevailed against both the U.S. and British navies.

Anyone familiar with working conditions in the 19th century knows that they were dangerous, paid poorly, and there was little job security. Accidents were common, as were industrial diseases like black and brown lung, and the hours were exceedingly long. It was certainly not a situation into which a master would want to put a valuable chattel. On the other hand, if he’s right, perhaps industrial reforms might have come much sooner. The slaves had no power to strike or negotiate, but their masters certainly did.




One response to “The Economics of Industry in the South”

  1. Ted Savas Avatar
    Ted Savas

    “speculating about what might have happened if the South had seceded. ”

    The South DID secede.

    — tps

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