From Cotton to T-Shirts: The Role of Cotton in the Civil War

Cotton is one of those rare substances that are virtually timeless. The earliest known examples of cotton, found in Mexico, are at least 7,000 years old, and are extraordinarily similar to the cotton grown today. While cotton is used in the 21st century for everyday products like clothing and textiles, it has a surprisingly interesting history. During the Civil War, in particular, cotton functioned as the equivalent of 21st century gasoline oil with regard to worth and value. ;Once the war had ended, cotton was the United States’ ticket back into the global economy, and continues to be a massive export to this day.

History of Cotton

As mentioned above, cotton and cotton cloth that date back 7,000 years have been recovered. With that fact in mind, it’s no surprise that by 3,000 BC, cotton was being grown and woven on a commercial scale in the Indus River Valley and along the Egyptian Nile. Cotton traveled to Europe at around 800 A.D., courtesy of Arabian traders. It was not, however, passed along to America in the same way. When Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, he was surprised to discover cotton in the Bahaman Islands. Cotton began growing in the southern United States around 1556, and by 1793, it was being spun by Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The cotton gin completely revolutionized the speed with which cotton could be produced. Before its introduction, laborers had to struggle to pick clean one pound of cotton per day. With the help of the cotton gin, a single worker could clean and produce fifty pounds of cotton per day. Of course, this meant that more laborers would mean more money for plantation owners, and this put slaves at high demand.

Role in the Civil War

By 1860, just before the beginning of the Civil War, cotton made up almost 60% of American export goods and the American south produced more cotton than the rest of the world combined. The income produced by the sale of cotton amounted to almost $200 million per year. ;This revenue intake made it possible for the United States to begin borrowing money in a global market. Southern farmers leapt on the chance to increase their earnings and created massive cotton plantations that would have previously been impossible to maintain, but with the cotton gin, all landowners needed were more laborers to run the gins. The demand for slaves increased to the point where about half the population of the four major cotton states – Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana - was comprised of slave laborers. The South successfully transitioned into an economy built solely upon cotton and rooted firmly in an antiquated feudal system. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederate States, comprised of the cotton-producing south, devised a plan to use cotton as leverage. The South burned over two million bales of cotton in an attempt to create a shortage and therefore draw in Britain as an ally in exchange for the material. The “cotton famine” was staved off until 1862, due to a surplus in Britain, but when cotton ran out, the price of a pound escalated from 10 cents to $1.89. The South was then able to use cotton as a bartering tool to secure ships and weapons from British companies, and effectively financed their half of the war with cotton. This was not done without effort, as the Union forces began a blockade of ocean ports in 1861 to cut off Southern trade, and any cotton that made it to Europe had to first be smuggled through.

How it Affected the Economy

After a devastating war, in which over 600,000 people died, the Confederate States finally surrendered to the Northern Union in 1865. The war had effectively and irrevocably altered the farming world of the south, and one of the main struggles faced by the southern states was finding a way to revive the cotton economy. ;During the reconstruction, many white farmers who had previously been occupied with growing food for personal use switched to producing cotton. Former slaves continued to work in cotton production as sharecroppers, where they retained 1/3 to ½ of the crop for themselves and delivered the rest to the owner of the land they “rented”. ;The system was only marginally fairer than the one it replaced, and most of the south became trapped in poverty. ;It was successful in one regard; by 1870, the United States had reclaimed its status as the largest producer of cotton, and remained as such until 1937.