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Why Does the South Still Commemorate the Civil War, But Not the North? Peter Coclanis Answers Your Questions

Last week we took stock of the Civil War commemoration situation: namely that the South seems to be taking more pride than the North in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the war’s start. We wondered why that was, particularly when it was the South that was left so economically devastated by the war. For some answers, we turned to Peter Coclanis, a professor of economic and business history at the University of North Carolina, whose research focuses on the American South in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Coclanis offered some intriguing thoughts on the economic legacy of the Civil War in the South, and why many southerners are still so keen to remember it. We also solicited your questions for him. Now, Coclanis gives you his answers.
Q. You can present all the sentimental, romantic, patriotic, loyalist pseudo-logic rationalizations you can conjure and none will eviscerate enslavement of its defilement. What I would like to know is if Hayes had not agreed to terminate Reconstruction (even though he was a supporter of the program and of racial equality) would the South have fared better economically? Could the policy ever have led to gradual social integration and a mutually beneficial economic plan? I have lived for extended periods in the Northeast, the Northwest, and the South. Racism obviously exists everywhere and no doubt the North uses the even playing field rationale to ignore white privilege. –Tom O’Brien
A. The South might have fared a bit better had Reconstruction not ended in 1877, but the momentum to build a “new” South on a more equitable, biracial basis in the post-bellum era had faded well before 1877. Other problems in the U.S. in the 1870s, most notably a severe economic downturn, diverted whatever interest remained in the North for “reconstructing” the South. Moreover, it should be noted that as things developed there was little economic content to Reconstruction in any case. There was little capital injected into the region, for example, and no major, much less systematic efforts at land reform.
Q. Peter Coclanis is your typical revisionist trying to apply today’s standards to yesterday’s news. First of all, Slavery was horrible, and I’m still sorry to this day that the New Englanders from Massachusetts and Rhode Island brought that practice to the new world by enslaving first the Native Americans, and then moving on to Africa and bringing that slave trade to America.
Second, the wealth in the South was taken away. It did not erode because of economic forces. The South was invaded imperially, much of it burned to the ground, and during “reconstruction” was absolutely looted to the last dime.
Third, the economy of the South would have been much more diverse and fundamentally strong if it weren’t for the tariffs enacted by the Federal Government, which like all taxes stifled innovation and concentrated the wealth in the hands of a few oligarchs. Were it not for the oppressive economic policies of the Federal Government in the South, Slavery would have gone away peacefully like it did in the rest of the world. Instead the North looted the South and used the money to build roads, railroads, canals, bridges, etc, a.k.a. the infrastructure needed for all those factories.
Finally, the reason Southerners such as myself still celebrate Dixie and the people who fought against the Yankee invasion is because we are proud of our ancestors (95% of which didn’t own slaves) for trying to keep the Federal Government from killing independence and freedom. It’s too bad they lost. Tom
A. The trade in African slaves in the Western Hemisphere existed well before Massachusetts and Rhode Island were established, and traders from these areas were bit players in the African slave trade as a whole. For the record it should be noted that in the Americas the institution of slavery was firmly entrenched among Native Americans well before any Europeans or Africans ever set foot in the Western Hemisphere.
With emancipation, a good deal of the South’s wealth—the proportion (almost 50 percent) held in the form of human beings — was in fact “taken away” or at least redefined in ways that impeded former slaveholders from controlling it in the same way or to the same degree that they had prior to the Civil War.
The South as a region was not “absolutely looted” during Reconstruction, although parts of the region were devastated during the war itself, causing short-term economic dislocations.
Re the tariff: Northerners certainly would have paid higher taxes without the income the U.S. collected on imported goods financed by exports of cotton, tobacco, and rice produced in the South (albeit largely by slaves).
It is certainly debatable, however, whether tariffs stifled innovation in the U.S. in the 19th century. The U.S. was quite innovative over the course of the century, as measured by metrics relating to rates of manufacturing growth, the shift over the course of the century to more sophisticated, higher value-added industries, patents issued, etc. One could, in fact, make an “infant industries” argument that tariffs promoted innovation in the U.S. in the 19th century.
Your figure for the percent of “our ancestors” who did not own slaves (95 percent) is vague and ambiguous. In the South in 1860 about 75 percent of free households held no slaves. I assume what you mean is that 95 percent of the free population as a whole—men, women, boys, and girls– held no slaves. For obvious reasons it seems mistaken to use individuals rather than households in this regard. The fact that not many babies, toddlers, and youths owned slaves in 1860 is not very interesting or revealing.
Q. Beyond emancipation, how consequential do you think other factors (such as capital losses from almost all the battles being fought in the South or loss of trade between the North and the South during the war) were in the economic stagnation the Southern states faced after the war? –Stephen Pariser
A. As your question implies, factors other than emancipation per se were involved in the South’s economic problems after the Civil War. Property losses during the war, the long-term slowdown in the growth rate of demand for certain key southern staples (cotton and rice, for example), changes in labor supply (the decline in labor force participation rates as African-American females withdrew from field labor), and what Myrdal famously called “backwash effects” from the dynamic, increasingly powerful, urban-industrial “core” emerging in the region north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River also played roles. Regarding the last: The rapidly growing and increasingly efficient manufacturing core in the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. sucked up most of the available resources (including capital) and helped to bring about the stagnation and decline of the South’s more advanced, higher-order industries (iron founding and machinery, steam engines, etc.).
Q. “There was also the obvious labor advantage of slavery. But that advantage wasn’t so much economic as it was coercive.”
I have a problem with this line. Slavery was fundamentally an economic advantage. Anyone would’ve done that hard work for the right pay. When the author contends that the work wouldn’t have been done without coercion he tacitly admits the south did not have the economic means to pay for this work.
I also find the author’s premise, that southerners are celebrating better times, hard to believe. Hardly anyone alive today knows that things were much better for whites before the civil war.
Lastly, I think the question, “but where else in history do we see the losers commemorating a war while the winners, by comparison, largely ignore its anniversary?” has a lot of possible examples. I believe a group of people might more fully identify with a group identity because of losing a war.
Ghorkaland in India comes to mind. Certainly some Native Americans commemorate the Trail of Tears. You could make an argument for the Vietnam War. I suspect there are similar commemorations in Tibet. –Owen
A. While the desire to coerce labor via slavery obviously was motivated by economic considerations, it is incorrect to argue that “[a]nyone would’ve done that hard work for the right pay.” For epidemiological reasons and because of the arduousness of the work involved, it was virtually impossible, for example, to get white field workers to work on sugar plantations in the West Indies or Louisiana or on rice plantations in the South Carolina/Georgia low country in the 18th or 19th century. Indentured labor and free labor were tried in these areas, but without sustained success. Moreover, slave labor in the Western Hemisphere was not cheap, generally speaking, but expensive in a world context.
I agree that there are cases in history where “losers” commemorate wars, lost causes, valiant defeats, and the like: Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Jacobites, and all that; the Serbs and Kosovo; Hindus and Ayodhya; and maybe even Jews and Masada.
Q. How mobilized were the two economies (not just in terms of conscription of manpower, but of resources)? Were the governments always paying for things? It is an important element in war, and one I feel many history books gloss over. For instance despite the popularity of WWII most people don’t realize that Germany did not fully mobilize until very late in WWII (44), long after they had lost (Spring 42). People like to think in terms of “total war”, but that is rarely politically feasible. Joshua Northey
A. The Union had large advantages over the CSA (Confederate States of America) both in resources and in the capacity to mobilize. The North had a 2-to-1 advantage in population, for example. Levels of urbanization are often used as proxies for economic development. Ten percent of the South’s population was urban in 1860 as opposed to 20 percent in the U.S. as a whole. In that year, 36 percent of the population of the Northeast was urban—and 14 percent of the North Central states was urban. The South, with a third of the nation’s population in 1860, accounted for only 10 percent of manufacturing output, 10 percent of manufacturing employment, and 11 percent of manufacturing capital in that year. The “Northeast”—New England and the Middle Atlantic states—alone accounted for 68 percent of the nation’s manufacturing output in 1860, 72 percent of manufacturing employment, and 68 percent of manufacturing capital. The Union’s financial capacity and capabilities were much greater than those of the CSA. The Union was able to raise a much higher percentage of war revenues from taxation and borrowing than was the CSA, which had to resort to the printing press for fully 60 percent of its revenues during the war. While the Union raised only about 13 percent of its revenues in this way. The CSA’s resort to the printing press led to massive inflation, as we all know. Then there are the differences occasioned by slavery per se. When one keeps in mind that roughly 35 to 40 percent of the CSA’s population was enslaved and that until almost the end of the war, the CSA was unwilling to mobilize this population for war in the same way (or to the same degree) that the much larger population in the North was mobilized, the CSA’s disadvantages become more striking. Such resource disadvantages notwithstanding, some scholars have argued that the CSA’s biggest disadvantage vis-à-vis the Union was in the quality of its political leadership (particularly Davis v. Lincoln).