The Myth of the Antebellum South

At the time of the Civil War, the South was in crisis and a Slave Empire seemed the only solution

Americans, if auld lang syne ever comes to mind, look back on the Old South and the Old West through the distorting spectacles of school history, cinema, television, and other fictional sources. The Old West is seen as gun duels, white cowboys, manifest destiny, and homely wisdom. The role of the girls in the saloons is not brought up. It was actually murder from ambush, bitter struggle and ethnic cleansing, domination of the weak by the strong, corruption, veniality, waste, and illiteracy. The natives who did not perish by the gun were destroyed by religion.

The Old South, in imagination, was a land of prosperous plantations and happy Negroes, large white houses with window glass, cultured people who could read and write, music and literature, and a stable economy based on cotton. It was actually one of the most unpleasant and hellish societies ever invented by man, and one well on the way to dissolution when it was destroyed in fire and war. The peculiar institution, slavery, sheltered horrors that are difficult to appreciate from this distance. It was curious in a 'free' country to meet with kaffles of chained slaves being driven along the National Road, a sight that impressed many a European traveler.

If a young buck killed a slave, his family was liable for the value of the slave, not the slave's life. Killing a free black was probably cheaper. When a slave murdered a white, he could be burnt at the stake. This happened not once, but at Knoxville, New Orleans, and other places. The judiciary was present among the executioners; it can't be excused by calling it a lynch mob: it was official. The region was in constant apprehension and terror of slave rebellion, and with good reason. Dogs were specially bred to track Negroes, and men made manhunting a trade. Literary decency made open discussion of the sexual aspects of slavery impossible. Few people now even realize that open prostitution was a universal feature of American cities and towns until relatively recently, regularly resorted to by the male element. Recently, some people were appalled at the suggestion that Thomas Jefferson could have had sexual relations with a slave. Actually, most of the little blacks around Monticello tended to look like massa Tom. This practice was not exceptional, it was common. Later, when the exhausted soil meant that slave-breeding was the only possible employment for Virginia planters, the owner and overseers did the honors, up to the limits of their abilities. It is seen today in the faces of African-Americans. A darker subject is necrophilia, which the slave society made available if one had the money. This still seems to be practiced in the South, but does not appear in the daily papers except by innuendo.

The official line was that slaves could not learn, and were suitable only for field labor. It was a felony to teach slaves to read and write (fear of rebellion), but slaves often taught each other, and so well that in places they wrote letters and kept records for the illiterate planter. Slave-drivers were normally black, and did well in this leadership position, often no more humanely than the white overseer who managed the estate. In the 1830's, slaves were not considered suitable for construction work. The true reason was the great inefficiency of slave labor as then practiced; more could be got out of immigrants, and the bodies of the immigrants were worth nothing, an advantage in case of mishap. The stated reason was that the black slave could not do the work properly. However, it became obvious that, properly managed, blacks could do such work both efficiently and well. The State of Virginia bought slaves and put them to work on state projects, such as the Virginia Central railroad. Government and private enterprise were very close in the Old South, and where one ended and the other began was hard to determine. Because southern whites would not work, the use of slaves was necessary, and the theory adapted itself to the unpalatable fact.

When it was realized that slaves could be exploited in industry as well as in agriculture, a new dream was conceived. The dream was of a stratified society with a few rich at the top to enjoy the harvest, many slaves at the bottom to do the work, and a numerous intermediate class of free whites to provide soldiers to propagate the faith around the Caribbean. This dream was set into motion during the 1850's, and prompted a war in 1861, but to the great benefit of the human race, collapsed in 1865. The thought of corporate ownership of slaves should even make the most conservative horrified. We have achieved the same result in a different way. John Henry (the original song had him an expert with a different tool than a rock drill) was either in penal servitude from the state prison, as some say, or was a state slave. Of course, he could be imaginary. Southern states continued to use prison inmates as slaves in competition with free labor for many years; custom dies hard.

Agriculture was, however, the basis of the Old South during most of its existence. Tobacco, cotton, indigo, sugar, and hemp were produced by slave labor of amazing inefficiency. The cultivation was primitive, and very destructive to the soil, both by exhaustion and by erosion. As land was worked out, settlement moved West, first to the coastal uplands, then to Alabama and Mississippi, and finally to Texas.

The natives were the first victims of the migration. They had largely adopted civilization, farmed, dressed like Europeans, had their own local governments, and were independent of the states in which their lands lay. Georgia took the lead in driving out the Cherokees, who were doomed as soon as a little gold was found on their land at Dahlonega. Ethnic cleansing followed with the Chickasaws, Creeks, and Choctaws in Alabama and Mississippi, who were pitilessly driven west to Oklahoma and their property confiscated. In Oklahoma, they were much later robbed again. Curiously, these people later supported slavery and the Confederacy--possibly out of revenge.

Large estates usually concentrated on a single crop, such as sugar in Louisiana. Slaves came from Virginia and the Carolinas, and were also smuggled in via Pensacola, Florida, to replace the fallen. The United States had officially forbidden the external slave trade (under pressure) but money was not appropriated to enforce the prohibition. American slave traders continued to operate, alongside their Portuguese and Spanish colleagues, until the Civil War, hustled only by British frigates. In 1859, when the US Navy finally took notice, 11 slavers were taken. The clipper Rebecca brought in 1200 slaves in October 1859 at $350 per head; they entered in small parcels on sloops from Cuba. Boston and Providence made their wealth on slaves; the profits were enormous, as on narcotics today. Although slavery was legal only in certain states, the United States as a whole was a slave country, and one could take his property anywhere, it must be remembered.

The big house was usually unpainted, with oiled paper instead of glass in the windows, doors badly hung and lacking proper hardware. Sanitary arrangements can be imagined. The slaves lived in cabins not much inferior, but much smaller. There were no books or newspapers, or other imported amenities. This was the typical mansion of the middling planter, who might stay through the year, often drunk. Management was entrusted to a white overseer, but except for this person and the planter's family, everyone else was black. Murder was unprofitable and severely punished, so flight was the usual recourse of the unhappy slave. If he or she did not cross the Ohio, the runaway was brought back and punished, sometimes losing one or more body parts.

There were grand houses, such as depicted in Gone With The Wind, of course. In Virginia, the aristocracy had departed almost to a man during the War of Independence, something that also occurred in the rest of the new country. It was replaced by the lower nabobs who assumed the style, but lacked the education and refinement. The rich planter sent his sons to Harvard and Yale, and lived in New York or Baltimore, if not in London or Paris. These were indeed people of culture and refinement, but they did not live in the Old South. They would visit their plantations in the winter (when the weather and insects were bearable to humans), have entertainments and parties, and then return to London or Paris after a few weeks.

The Old South had no middle class, unless the immigrant Jewish, German or Irish merchants in many towns can be so called. The planters regarded business as below them, and the other whites were incapable of it, so immigrants supplied the lack. This middle class was not in sympathy with many local practices, such as slavery and murder, and is seldom acknowledged in Southern folklore. It was occasionally subject to the less civilized attentions of the majority. This is a subject that could stand some study.

The free whites (there were also bond whites, indentured for crime or for their passage) were mainly rural, living in the uplands in rude cabins, owning or renting a little land, or, in the more remote areas, squatting. Those who had the means owned one or two slaves to act as servants and to produce what cash crops they could, usually a bale or two of cotton each season. Slaves were valued according to the number of bales they could make, and were surprisingly inefficient. White people considered themselves not suitable for labor, and craved the American dream of being waited on hand and foot. The living was rude, however. Diet consisted mainly of corn pone (corn bread without wheat flour) and fat pork, both of which were raised in an amount only sufficent for immediate needs, not as cash crops as in Indiana. Pellagra and rickets were widespread, and children were small, gray, crooked, and pediculous.

Without means to acquire slaves, even the whites had to work, or starve. Usually this meant subsistence farming (maize and rough hogs), but here and there wood had to be cut as locomotive or steamboat fuel, as well as for forges and smelters, or coal dug from a hillside, or ginseng root dug up, or unlicensed spirits distilled, that resulted in a few pennies for luxuries like coffee, calico, and opium. Illiteracy was the rule; there were no schools, no books, no newspapers. These people opposed slavery, since they were in direct competition with slaves for their existence. The more enterprising loaded up their mule and their wife, and set out for Indiana or Illinois, trailing children and hogs, where there was more promise and less slavery. This migration was steady, and these butternuts formed a considerable fraction of the midwest's population by 1860.

Like all American cities of the time, the few cities in the South were unhealthy, the climate rendering the usual plagues more frequent and virulent than in the North. New York and Philadelphia had built safe water supplies around 1800, but in most places cholera and typhoid fever, spread by infected water, were prevalent. Malaria was a national scourge. Although it eventually became rare in the midwest, it remains in the South. Yellow fever was a greater scourge, especially in New Orleans. Both malaria and yellow fever are spread by mosquitoes, so good water supplies do not prevent them. Pestilence claimed the young as well as the old, a circumstance noted in much southern song and story. The cities -- Richmond, Charleston, Savannah, Montgomery, Nashville, Knoxville, New Orleans, and Natchez -- had ambitious but cheap architecture. The Capitol at Richmond is stucco, not marble, a mere facade instead of the noble building it appears to be.

The industrial development of the states in rebellion in the Civil War is usually simplistically contrasted with that of the loyal states. The United States was still industrially backward and undeveloped in 1860, North and South. The rapid development that made the Northeast an industrial empire had not yet begun. A true railway network had been formed in the 1850's and was available both North and South. The difference was one of management, not facilities. The United States created the United States Military Railroad, and put capable people in charge, such as Tom Scott. The Confederacy ignored the problem, took no steps to close a few very important gaps in their system, or to arrange for the wisest use of the limited supply of iron. Breaks in gauge were not as significant as modern scholars believe; interchange of rolling stock was still unusual. Far more important is the fact that the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac had no rail connection at Richmond with lines to the West and South, and similar bottlenecks existed elsewhere that were not eliminated, or were eliminated too late. When the USMR got to the South, it exploited the railways excellently.

The blockade meant that the Confederacy was cut off from its usual supplies of iron from England. The iron in northern Alabama was not yet known; Richmond and its coal and ore were the Confederacy's principal resource. What iron there was was allocated according to political influence and the chance of profit, not with regard to need. The government bought a corps of slaves to use where necessary (for example, transloading goods at gaps in railways or breaks of gauge), but even this was poorly exploited. The philosophy of slavery, that blacks were only good for mindless labor, was a hindrance at every turn.

The United States, however, had sufficient supplies of iron from Pennsylvania for its needs, though it continued to rely on imported supplies. The American iron industry was never able to compete until it became a corporate steel industry. It moved troops rapidly from Virginia to Tennessee by rail, a remarkable accomplishment for the time, and for the state of the railway network. Telegraph communications were about equally bad in both North and South, that is to say, available but unreliable.

The term Civil War, is, by the way, the Confederate usage. The official name is War of the Rebellion, as any look at official papers will show. This example of American violence has naturally appealed to the public ever since, and the Civil War is popular in fact and fiction. None of this does any honor to the people who struggled and died on either side, whether the Confederate draftee or the Union volunteer, or helps in the realization that the Confederacy fought for the worst cause that men ever fought for, however offset by bloodthirsty ambition and lust for glory. In fact, the War for Independence was really not much different, since the cause, however fraudulent and canting, was at least better on the surface. The Civil War was appalling in its effects on the humble and innocent. It was the natural outcome of the culture of the Old South.

Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and became an alcoholic New York songwriter. Thus was the myth celebrated in popular song.

If you would like to check my statements, I would suggest you do better and form your own opinions, basing them on primary sources, and not on the voluminous later stories founded on myth. There is a huge amount of material, but I suggest works like those in the References, representing as many different points of view as possible, but always concentrating on eyewitness or documented information. Most histories of the Civil War are eager to get to the bungling and blood, and are very poor on contemporary realities or any technical subject whatever.

The historian Roger Lane, as reported in Scientific American, Oct. 2000, concludes that the extraordinarily high murder rate in the United States is a joint result of the cult of "honor" of the antebellum South and its use of lethal force to control slaves, and the frontier gun culture that has left a legacy of gun ownership. Indeed the current passion for gun ownership probably descends from a fear of slave revolt. Other societies with only one of these factors do not seem to have high murder rates. Even in the U.S., high murder rates are found only in the southern tier of states from California to Virginia, plus those areas farther north where there are large urban areas much of whose population emigrated from the South. In Iowa and the Dakotas, murder rates are no higher than in Canada or Europe. The antebellum United States has been forgotten and mythologized out of recognition, but it still affects the country today.


  1. F. L. Olmstead, The Cotton Kingdom (New York: Da Capo Press, 1996). Originally published 1861 by Mason Brothers, New York.
  2. J. S. Wise, The End of an Era (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901). A nostalgic apology, mainly about the Civil War, written long afterwards. Deals only with Virginia and the upper classes, but illustrates the hypocrisy and equivocation of such people very well. The little sketch of white people for the first time actually working amid the ruins of Richmond is telling.
  3. F. M. Trollope (Mrs Trollope), Domestic Manners of the Americans (London: Whittaker, Treacher & Co., 1832).
  4. G. F. Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving (Salem, MA: Marine Research Society, 1927).
  5. R. C. Black, The Railroads of the Confederacy (Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of N. Carolina Press, 1998.)
  6. W. C. Davis, The Cause Lost (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1996). Mainly about Confederate military leaders, the final two chapters on myths and the Civil War in film and television give modern views, explaining how accuracy has suffered from myths. Slavery is only mentioned briefly, in confirming that it was the essential cause of the war. Comparison is made with the Third Reich in that Jews volunteered for the Wehrmacht, and blacks volunteered for the Confederate army. The Jews volunteered at the beginning of the war to show loyalty, but the blacks were only reluctantly marched about Richmond in 1865 to jeering. Hitler never proposed enlisting the Jews when the Reich was falling like the Confederacy, and Confederates viewed blacks in the military as Nazis viewed Jews (cf. N. B. Forrest at Ft. Pillow). In fact, raking over the ashes of the Confederacy is much like raking over the ashes of the Third Reich these days, an occupation of enthusiasts. Davis really deprecates Joe Johnston, who was at least better than most Confederate generals, and neglects his actions at Kennesaw Mountain. Davis also seems to think the Emanicpation Proclamation affected Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland, and that slave owners did not have the right to take their slaves into any part of the United States. He intimates that the Confederacy might have abolished slavery as a condition of independence, which is absurd, and that there was a fear of "racial amalgamation" at the time. Sex with the slaves was as common as spitting. He quite rightly remarks that the motives of Confederate soldiers, drawn from the lower classes, were not the same as those of the slaveowners, but does not mention that they might have been fighting for the right to look down on slaves, who could easily become their social equals after emancipation. He finally acknowledges that the Confederates were only a pretense of a nation that was never confirmed, though always talking as if they were a separate country in the earlier part of the book. Only victory would have made them a nation, and upheld the fact of secession. Because of this, there was no "Confederate soil," only United States soil, and the area was far from unanimous in rebellion.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 17 September 2000
Last revised 6 April 2001