Let the New Kings Rule: The Plant War

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.

Inline image 1

Reis, Júlio. US Secession map 1861. February 23, 2007. Dec. 14, 2013. Digital.


Vardeman, Kimberly. Cotton field kv06. November 7, 2009. Dec. 14, 2013. Photo.


Vmcreddy. Madipally corn. December 12, 2012. Dec. 14, 2013. Photo.


H20. Wheat-ha-Hula-ISRAEL2. March 25, 2007. Dec. 14, 2013. Photo.


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.


6 thoughts on “Let the New Kings Rule: The Plant War

  1. I really liked your incite about how the economy was one of the primary forces driving the North to a victory in the long term. It showed how the South started to fall apart after some time, since it lacked foreign aid and supplies. Not only did you include the South’s weakness, but you acutely explained how the North managed to avoid making fatal errors on the worldwide front.

  2. Oh definitely. The economy was such a huge part of the Civil War, and I don’t think a lot of people recognize that. Once cotton was king, it was going to be very hard to go back. Cotton-based economy + slavery + passionate abolitionists + passionate pro-slavery people = war.

  3. I knew that the economy played a big role in the out come of the civil war, but I liked how you broke down which parts of the economies of the North and South had different impacts. It was super informative and definitely well written. Even though the economy is something people think about a lot during modern times, I don’t think people realized just how much it shaped our country in the past (like bafoley16 said). Nice job showing the importance of the economy and its role in the outcome of the Civil War.

  4. This relationship proves how dangerous it is to be so reliable on other places. Even though Britain was neutral, that left them in a very awkward and helpless position. I think that this also shows that after you have been so reliant on someone else for such a long period of time, it takes a while for anything to start working out again, just like the sharecropping. People were hesitant, as they should be, because of how unstable their products had been overseas and for the North. I think you did a really good job of mapping out the transitions of one economic state to the next in the South!

  5. In Chapter 16 of the American Pageant, it talked about how the cotton plantation and slave trade economic system was fundamentally unstable, and I think this is something that you could have explored in your post. What if there hadn’t been a grain shortage in Europe, and the South had won the Civil War? Of course this has many other, more major implications, but what if the unstable cotton economy had been allowed to run it’s course. Would the economy of the South have collapsed, or would they have figured out crop rotation in time, and become an obscenely powerful country?

    In any case, I thought your post was very interesting and informative. I was especially interested by the quote you put in “Old King Cotton’s Dead and Buried: Brave Young Corn is King” as I hadn’t heard that before, and it sums up your post pretty well.

  6. While I completely agree with your analysis, I saw that you didn’t touch on the psychology of the King Cotton issue. The Southerners saw King Cotton as their lifestyle, something that should be preserved at all costs, since an end to cotton meant an end to the South’s economy. The Northerners saw King Cotton as immoral, because it called on the enslavement of countless souls, and they saw a moral obligation to help put an end to the enslavement brought by King Cotton.

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