Final Project Prototype

On April 13, 1861, Confederate forces launched a cannon barrage on the Union garrison occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. This act of aggression signaled the start of the American Civil War. When we think of the Civil War as the conflict over slavery between the industrial North and the agrarian South for the unity of our country. While slavery was crucial part of the war, what most people miss is the impact the Civil War had on the Atlantic world. Industrialized European nations like Great Britain and France relied on cotton imports from the American South. When the war started, the cotton trade was disrupted which caused a ripple effect throughout the Atlantic world. Even though they were not directly involved in the conflict, Great Britain and France’s symbiotic relationship with the American South caused the European textile industry to be thrown into chaos. That leads to the focus of my final project. Due to the American Civil War, the production of cotton changed from a slave based economy to a system based on the manufacturing model. This change not only affected the United States and Europe, but it’s impact was felt worldwide.

Before the war, the American South was the leading cotton producer in the world. In his article, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” Sven Beckert states that Civil War and the resulting cotton famine changed the cotton economy by shattering the planter-slave dynamic and having it replaced with a manufacturer-worker economy. Beckert states that the South produced over a billion pounds of raw cotton to European nations before the war.[1] Sticking to their antiquated system and their dominance in the market, the South relied on Europe’s hunger for cotton to keep themselves in power.[2] When the war broke out, Union warships established a blockade around Southern ports. This blockade not only stopped goods from Europe on the way to Southern ports, but it also reduced the flow of cotton to Europe. A prideful people, the Confederacy saw this as a threat to their sovereignty as new emerging nation, so they implemented a self-imposed embargo on Southern cotton. According to David M. Potter, the Southern embargo would force Great Britain and France to come to the aid of the Confederacy to break the Union blockade.[3] Using cotton as a bargaining chip, the South gambled on Europe’s need for American cotton. The gamble did not pay off and the South suffered economic destruction because of their pride.[4]

On the other side of the Atlantic, both Great Britain and France were both feeling the sting of the Union blockade and the embargo. As a result, Europe in 1862 suffered from the “cotton famine.”[5] According to Beckert, the result of the “famine,” led to the closing of textile factories in Lancashire which led to thousands of unemployed factory workers.[6] In his article, “A Reconsideration of the Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’,” Eugene A. Brady states that there was no physical “cotton famine” because before the war, the South overproduced and shipped excess raw cotton He goes on to say that the oversaturation of cotton products on the market led to a depression in Lancashire.[7] Even though Great Britain played with the idea of breaking the blockade,[8] they were in the process of finding self-sufficient cotton market. They looked at Brazil, Egypt, the West Indies, and India. Even though the quality of Indian cotton is substandard to American cotton,[9] Great Britain found that their colony India was capable of meeting the demands of the British textile industry.[10] As a result, Gujarat, Deccan, and Khandesh became the biggest cotton producers in India. In order to control the means of production, Great Britain established new laws which limited communal land and placed the burden of success on the individual.[11] Since the regions were not close to Bombay City, which was the main cotton port in the 1860s, it took the cotton up to sixty days to travel from harvest to the port.[12] In order to bring the cotton to market sooner, Great Britain initiated the infrastructure investments which established railroads to port cities.[13] According to Frenise A. Logan, the standard of living rose in India, especially with the ryot, who were growing the cotton. Because of the high price of cotton, Logan goes on to say the ryot were able to pay off their debts.[14] Breckert paints a different picture of the ryot. He states that the ryot needed to take out loans to pay for land, seed, and tools. These loans were backed by the harvest potential of their cotton crop.[15] As a result, the landless agricultural workers rose to thirty to forty percent of the total population.[16] Whether it was beneficial for the indigenous population or not, India became the biggest cotton producer in the world until 1870.[17] The map from French civil engineer, Charles Joseph Minard will show the extent of the Indian cotton trade.

Today cotton is a simple staple and is readily available, but over 150 years ago countries who had the means to grow and control cotton welded immense power. All that changed during the American Civil War. The war smashed the old systems of cotton production and ushered in a new global economy based on free trade, capitalism, and imperialism.

[1] Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” The American Historical Review 109, 5 (2004): 1408 – 1409, Accessed October 28, 2016.

[2] Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire,” 1409.

[3] David M. Potter, “Jefferson Davis and the Political Factors in the Confederate Defeat.” In Why the North Won the Civil War, ed. David Herbert Donald. (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005), 97.

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