Before the Civil War, cotton was the major export of the United States, where along with other various southern products it accounted for about 56% of American exports or around $158,000,000 in domestic products. All of that cotton was produced in the South were as James Hammond put it, “No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.” In contrast the North output in agriculture was still low with the corn and wheat belts still developing into full potential. The Crimean War in Europe caused an increase in agriculture sorely needed for the developing corn and wheat belts, allowing northern farmers to purchase more machinery and southern farmers to sell more cotton. This was a major split between the Northern and Southern agriculture, with the North using more machinery and the South continuing to use tried and trusted human labor, in other words, slaves. The increase in exports leads to a crucial surplus in cotton for European merchants, who still relied on southern cotton more than any other exporter. Europe was able to produce most of their own grain and food so this crucial surplus didn’t occur to such an extent with the Northern crops of corn and wheat.
During the Civil War, Southerners looked to trusted King Cotton to force Europe’s hand with foreign intervention. Without Southern cotton there would quickly be a shortage of much needed cotton in Europe, so the major European countries would be forced to settle the Civil War for the Confederacy in order to receive the blockaded cotton. However, along with a need for cotton, Europe also had an equal if not greater need for the food crops of corn and wheat that the North produced, having experienced a grain failure that forced then to rely on imports for necessary food. This need led to Europe being forced to stay neutral in the Civil War instead of risking Northern ire and the possibility of the North cutting off corn and wheat exports in retaliation. The aforementioned surplus of cotton would sustain Europe long enough for other cotton producing countries to step up and take the South’s place, removing the possibility of Europe’s foreign interference for economic reasons while encouraging Europe to stay neutral and keep the grain exports coming in from the Union. Not only was the North encouraging further agriculture and industry with the Homestead Act of 1862, but Union soldiers were also starting total war tactics, destroying the south and freeing slaves as they marched. As a result the measly amounts of cotton that got past the Union blockade shrank even more in contrast to an increase in Union agricultural exports. King Cotton had failed to save the South, while the rising agricultural stars of corn and wheat usurp cotton and become the new kings of agriculture as one phrase puts it. “Old King Cotton’s Dead and Buried: Brave Young Corn is King”
With the end of the Civil War, the South had been ravaged by the war and it showed in the slow recovery of the southern cotton industry, still reliant on human labor, but now based on share croppers. On the other hand, the North came out better with matured corn and wheat belts stretching across the Midwest. This focus on producing food with agriculture gave the Union more room for industry and advancements as corn and wheat farms didn’t take up nearly as much space as cotton plantations. the war also showed the superiority of mechanized labor over enslaved human labor, as one man can do the jobs of multiple people, not to mention the fact that the labor didn’t have a major incentive to run away and abandon the farm. It is quickly apparent that the agriculture difference between the North and the South had helped win the war. With a reliable labor force and a needed crop, the North forced Europe to stay neutral in the conflict and stay away from openly helping the South, much in contrast to the American Revolution where foreign intervention won much of the war for the colonies. If the South had been able to rely on their King Cotton, the Union victory would have been doubtful, but the good luck of the European crop failure secured Union victory and gave the Union the diplomatic edge needed to face down the European powerhouses of Britain and France.
Reis, Júlio. US Secession map 1861. February 23, 2007. Dec. 14, 2013. Digital.
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Arrington, Benjamin T. Industry and Economy during the Civil War. National Park Service. December 5, 2013. Dec. 14, 2013. Web
Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture. Agriculture in the Classroom. Dec. 14, 2013. Web.
Document D. What Caused the Civil War DBQ. 2006. Dec. 14, 2013. Print.
*Image created from various cited sources.