Southern Reconstruction: Part One (Protracted Poverty)

(November 6, 2016.) Provided below is Part One of a forty-five minute lecture I gave on Southern Reconstruction yesterday in Tullahoma, Tennessee. The rest to the speech will be provided in serial format at this website in the days ahead. 

Modern historians have reinterpreted Civil War Reconstruction over the past fifty years. Shortly before the Centennial it was commonly believed that the chief aim of the Republican-dominated Congress was to ensure lasting party control over the federal government by creating a reliable voting bloc in the South for which improved racial status among blacks was a coupled, but secondary, objective. By the Sesquicentennial, however, it had become the accepted view that Republicans were primarily motivated by an enlightened drive for racial equality untainted by anything more than negligible self-interest. Consequently the presently dominant race-centric focus on Reconstruction minimizes political and economic factors that affected all Southerners regardless of race.

Contrary to popular belief, for example, Southern poverty has been a longer-lasting Civil War legacy than has Jim Crow or segregation. Prior to the war the South had a bimodal wealth distribution with concentrations at the poles. The classic planters with fifty or more slaves had prosperous estates but they represented less than 1% of Southern families. Partly because 1860 slave property values represented 48% of Southern wealth, seven of the ten states with the highest per capita wealth would soon join the Confederacy.

Since nearly 70% of Confederate families did not own slaves, however, the regional per capita income was only slightly ahead of the north central states and well behind the average northeastern state. A century later eight of the bottom ten states in per capita income were former members of the Confederacy. The depth of post Civil War Southern poverty and its duration were far greater, longer, and more multiracial than is commonly supposed. It took eighty-five years for the South’s per capita income to regain the below average percentile ranking it held in 1860.


The war had destroyed two-thirds of Southern railroads and two-thirds of the region’s livestock was gone. Steamboats had nearly disappeared from the rivers. Excluding the total loss in the value of slaves resulting from emancipation, assessed property values in 1870 were less than half of those of 1860. Approximately 300,000 white Southern males in the prime of adulthood died during the war and perhaps another 200,000 were incapacitated, representing about 18% of the region’s approximate 2.7 million white males of all ages in 1860 and about 36% of those over age nineteen.

During the war, Southern farms drifted back to nature. Since their protective levees had been destroyed, thousands of square miles of Mississippi delta cotton lands were overrun with briers and cane thickets. Returning Confederate soldiers often found that their families were starving. In December 1865 an estimated half-million whites in three Gulf states alone were without life’s necessities, and some had starved to death.

Historian David L. Cohn adds:

When there was a shortage of work stock, the few surviving animals were passed from neighbor to neighbor. [When] there was no work stock [the men] hitched themselves to the plow. By ingenuity, backbreaking toil, and cruel self-denial thousands of Southern farmers survived reconstruction…They received no aid from any source, nor any sympathy outside the region.

By 1870 Southern bank capital totaled only $17 million, compared to $61 million ten years earlier in 1860. So great was the devastation and anemic the rebound that by 1900 the South had barely recovered to the level of economic activity prior to the Civil War. Economic conditions in the South after the Civil War were largely ignored by national policies until President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned a report in 1938, which was nearly eighty years after the end of the Civil War.

The Roosevelt-commissioned study disclosed that the South remained America’s poorest region. Its 1937 per capita income of $314 was only about half of the $604 for the rest of the country. Since residents paid one another less than elsewhere for local goods and services the South also had a lower cost of living. The difference, however, was minor. A 1935 survey that placed the American family poverty line at $75 monthly, estimated the figure was only three dollars lower in the South at $72. Shortly after the Great Depression began, the president of General Motors voluntarily cut his annual salary from $500,000 to $340,000. His $160,000 cut was more than all the income taxes paid by two million Mississippi residents that year.

Conditions were worst among the farmers who powered the South’s main economic engine. During the last year before the Great Depression that started in 1929, Southern farmers earned an average of $190, which was about 65% below the $530 average of other American farmers. Yet their revenue was a gross income out of which operating expenses such as fertilizer, seed, and interest on debt had to be paid. As a result there was often little money left for food and clothing and none for such common articles as books and radios. Cotton and tobacco provided two-thirds of Southern farm income.


Even as late as the 1930s, more than half of Southern farmers depended upon cotton alone. Price fluctuations in the World cotton markets were sheer gambles, yet they were often the key determinant of the one-crop farmer’s income. Cotton prices dropped from $0.20 a pound in 1927 before bottoming-out at $0.06 in 1931. Only once during the ten years from 1927 to 1937 did the price change less than 10% annually.


Tenant farmers and sharecroppers that composed more than half of all Southern farmers were at the bottom of the heap. Many lived in circumstances comparable to the Russian serfs of the nineteenth century. Sharecropper per capita incomes ranged from $38 to $87 annually, which equated to $0.10 to $0.25 per day. By comparison, during the depression that followed the 1873 Financial Panic sixty-five years earlier, the Ohio Department of Labor Statistics estimated the poverty line at one dollar a day. Perhaps most surprising to present-day audiences, Roosevelt’s report disclosed that whites composed half of all sharecroppers and that they lived “under economic conditions almost identical with those of Negro sharecroppers.”

Since cotton was the cornerstone of the South’s economy nearly all residents shared the farmer’s hazards to some extent. Financing the farmers, for example, was more costly than elsewhere because of the greater risk of failure. One 1934 study revealed that 10% of Southern farmland was owned by lenders who had been forced to foreclose on mortgages.

Poverty bred poor health. Ailments such a pellagra, rickets and hookworm that were almost unknown in other parts of the country and could be prevented by cheap dietary changes, better sanitation and shoes, plagued the South for almost a century after the Civil War. Even in Southern cities an average of three-fourths of the poor did not have enough money to afford the preventive diets. So short was the life expectancy in South Carolina that as late as 1930 half the state’s population was under age twenty.

Of three million farm homes surveyed in 1930 only 6% had piped-in water. More than half were unpainted. Only about one-third had screens. Nearly eighty years after the end of the Civil War the Roosevelt study concluded that half of Southern families needed new housing.

The next installment (Part Two) will cover how federal laws adopted during the Civil War laid the foundation for decades of policies that impeded Southern economic development.

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5 thoughts on “Southern Reconstruction: Part One (Protracted Poverty)

  1. Mark Hartshorne

    It is surely a positive outcome that the country was not divided, and eventually, that slavery was extinguished. However, this article demonstrates one of the two “unmentionable” factors few enough want to admit — that slavery was a construct created by the ENTIRE country, from which North AND South benefitted, and more so, that of the horrendous cost of this war that barely cracked open the door to racial equality, the South paid a far more disproportionate share. Were those factors admitted, I would stand down.

  2. Eddie Inman

    According to Thad Stevens ascendency of the Republican party was one of the primary reasons of Reconstruction measures —


    There are several good reasons for the passage of this bill. In the first place, it is just. I am now confining my argument to negro suffrage in the rebel States. Have not loyal blacks quite as good a right to choose rulers and make laws as rebel whites? In the second place, it is a necessity in order to protect the loyal white men in the seceded States. With them the blacks would act in a body; and it is believed then, in each of said States, except one, the two united would form a majority, control the States, and protect themselves. Now they are the victims of daily murder. They must suffer constant persecution or be exiled.

    Another good reason is that it would insure the ascendency of the Union party. “Do you avow the party purpose?” exclaims some horror-stricken demagogue. I do. For I believe, on my conscience, that on the continued ascendency of that party depends the safety of this great nation. If impartial suffrage is excluded in the rebel States, then every one of them is sure to send a solid rebel representation to Congress, and cast a solid rebel electoral vote. They, with their kindred Copperheads of the North, would always elect the President and control Congress. While slavery sat upon her defiant throne, and insulted and intimidated the trembling North, the South frequently divided on questions of policy between Whigs and Democrats, and gave victory alternately to the sections. Now, you must divide them between loyalists, without regard to color, and disloyalists, or you will be the perpetual vassals of the free-trade, irritated, revengeful South. For these, among other reasons,I am for negro suffrage in every rebel State. If it be just, it should
    not be denied; if it be necessary, it should be adopted; if it be a punishment to traitors, they deserve it.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks for sharing the entire quote. My speech excerpted some of it as you will see when I post additional installments of my presentation.

      Even though Stevens was probably among Northern politicians most genuinely interested in racial equality it is important to note that even he attributed his advocacy for black suffrage in the South at least partly to a desire to perpetuate Republican Party control of the Federal Government.

  3. josepharose

    Phil, this is a very convincing article. Along with the economics, I especially like the beginning, which compared the shifting perspective on Reconstruction. The partisan Republican designs go largely unmentioned these days.

    1. Phil Leigh Post author

      Thanks, Joe.

      My host for the speaking engagement allowed me to examine his library, which included a copy of *Grant Under Fire.*


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