Life in the South after the Civil War
The 11 Southern states that had decided to leave the Union in 1860 and 1861 were basket cases by 1865. Only Texas, where there hadn’t been that much fighting, was in relatively decent shape. Southern cities such as Atlanta, Charleston, and Richmond were in ruins.
Few businesses of any kind were still operating, little capital was available to start new businesses, and few outsiders were willing to risk investing in the area. For example, 7,000 miles of railroad track were laid in the South between 1865 and 1879. In the rest of the country, 45,000 miles were laid.
Before the war, the South’s economy had been based almost strictly on agriculture, mainly cotton, tobacco, and sugar, and all these industries suffered, especially cotton. Southern cotton production in 1870 was half what it was in 1860.
The education system in the South had virtually disappeared, along with the old plantation system. More than 250,000 of the South’s young men were gone, too. “Pretty much the whole of life has been merely not dying,” wrote the Southern poet Sidney Lanier about the Reconstruction period.
Two postwar changes dominated Southern life. One was the bewildering new world faced by the freed slaves. The other was a new farming practice, known as sharecropping, that would ultimately make life more difficult for both ex-slaves and poor whites.
Starting a new life
For more than 3 million African Americans, the whole of life post–Civil War had become pretty darn confusing. They had their freedom but didn’t know what they should do with it. Few former slaves had any education or training.
Some thought freedom meant freedom from work; others were fearful that to continue working for white people would put them in danger of being enslaved again. And many believed a widespread rumor that the federal government would be giving each slave “40 acres and a mule” to start their own farms.
Such a plan never existed, but in 1865, the federal government did organize the Freedman’s Bureau, an agency designed to help freed slaves during their transition from slavery to freedom by providing food, education, and other support.
From 1865 to 1868, the bureau helped as many as 200,000 former slaves learn to read. About 10,000 black families were settled by the bureau on land that had been confiscated by Union troops, although most of them were eventually forced off the land by whites who swindled them out of it or used dubious legal means.
Most blacks and many whites couldn’t afford to buy land of their own, so a new form of farming became the basis for the Southern agricultural economy: sharecropping. Under sharecropping, the farmer farmed land owned by someone else, and the two shared the profits.
That was the ideal, but in most cases, the sharecropper had to borrow money to make ends meet until the next crop was harvested. This borrowing left him with so little when the crop was harvested that he had to borrow on the next crop. Thus, many sharecroppers, both black and white, became virtual slaves to debt.
The sharecropping system dominated many parts of the South, replacing the plantation system. In 1868, perhaps one-third of the area’s farms were tended by renters. By 1900, that percentage grew to about 70 percent. The system, coupled with low cotton prices and the ravages of an insect pest called the boll weevil, virtually guaranteed that few farmers could become successful, no matter how hard they worked.