Mid-South Genealogy & History Network

About the Southern United States....A Short History (Part 1)

compiled by historian Bill White

Part 1

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Reconstruction (1865–1877)

The Reconstruction era began following the end of the Civil War in 1865 and lasted until 1877. During this time, the Union Army took control of former Confederate states, except for Tennessee; the start and ending times of Union Army occupation varied by state. Slavery ended and the large slave-based plantations were mostly subdivided into tenant or sharecropper farms of 20–40 acres. Many white farmers (and some blacks) owned their land. However sharecropping, along with tenant farming, became a dominant form in the cotton South from the 1870s to the 1950s, among both blacks and whites. By the 1960s both had largely disappeared. Sharecropping was a way for very poor farmers to earn a living from land owned by someone else. The landowner provided land, housing, tools and seed, and perhaps a mule, and a local merchant provided food and supplies on credit. At harvest time the sharecropper received a share of the crop (from one-third to one-half, with the landowner taking the rest). The cropper used his share to pay off his debt to the merchant. The system started with blacks when large plantations were subdivided. By the 1880s white farmers also became sharecroppers. The system was distinct from that of the tenant farmer, who rented the land, provided his own tools and mule, and received half the crop. Landowners provided more supervision to sharecroppers, and less or none to tenant farmers.

Material ruin and human losses - Reconstruction played out against a backdrop of a once prosperous economy that lay in ruins. According to Hesseltine (1936)

Throughout the South, fences were down, weeds had overrun the fields, windows were broken, live stock had disappeared. The assessed valuation of property declined from 30 to 60 percent in the decade after 1860. In Mobile, business was stagnant; Chattanooga and Nashville were ruined; and Atlanta's industrial sections were in ashes.

Estimate of Confederate losses were 94,000 killed in battle, 164,000 who died of disease, and 26,000 who died in Union prisons. Estimate of Union losses were 110,000 killed in battle, 225,000 who died of disease, and 30,000 who died in Confederate prisons. Northern military deaths were greater than Southern military deaths in absolute numbers, but were two-thirds smaller in terms of proportion of population affected.

The number of civilian deaths during the war is unknown, but was highest among refugees and former slaves. Most of the war was fought in Virginia and Tennessee, but every Confederate state was affected, as well as the border states of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Indian Territory; Pennsylvania was the only northerner state to be the scene of major action, during the Gettysburg Campaign. In the Confederacy there was little military action in Texas and Florida. Of 645 counties in 9 Confederate states (excluding Texas and Florida), there was Union military action in 56% of them, containing 63% of the whites and 64% of the slaves in 1860; however, by the time the action took place some people had fled to safer areas, so the exact population exposed to war is unknown.

The Confederacy in 1861 had 297 towns and cities with 835,000 people; of these 162 with 681,000 people were at one point occupied by Union forces. Ten were destroyed or severely damaged by war action, including Atlanta (with an 1860 population of 9,600), Columbia, and Richmond (with prewar populations of 8,100 and 37,900, respectively), plus Charleston, much of which was destroyed in an accidental fire in 1861. These eleven contained 115,900 people in the 1860 census, or 14% of the urban South. Historians have not estimated their population when they were invaded. The number of people who lived in the destroyed towns represented just over 1% of the Confederacy's population. In addition, 45 courthouses were burned (out of 830). The South's agriculture was not highly mechanized. The value of farm implements and machinery in the 1860 Census was $81 million; by 1870, there was 40% less, or $48 million worth. Many old tools had broken through heavy use and could not be replaced; even repairs were difficult.

The economic calamity suffered by the South during the war affected every family. Except for land, most assets and investments had vanished with slavery, but debts were left behind. Worst of all were the human deaths and amputations. Most farms were intact but most had lost their horses, mules and cattle; fences and barns were in disrepair. Prices for cotton had plunged. The rebuilding would take years and require outside investment because the devastation was so thorough. One historian has summarized the collapse of the transportation infrastructure needed for economic recovery:

One of the greatest calamities which confronted Southerners was the havoc wrought on the transportation system. Roads were impassable or nonexistent, and bridges were destroyed or washed away. The important river traffic was at a standstill: levees were broken, channels were blocked, the few steamboats which had not been captured or destroyed were in a state of disrepair, wharves had decayed or were missing, and trained personnel were dead or dispersed. Horses, mules, oxen, carriages, wagons, and carts had nearly all fallen prey at one time or another to the contending armies. The railroads were paralyzed, with most of the companies bankrupt. These lines had been the special target of the enemy. On one stretch of 114 miles in Alabama, every bridge and trestle was destroyed, cross-ties rotten, buildings burned, water-tanks gone, ditches filled up, and tracks grown up in weeds and bushes. ... Communication centers like Columbia and Atlanta were in ruins; shops and foundries were wrecked or in disrepair. Even those areas bypassed by battle had been pirated for equipment needed on the battlefront, and the wear and tear of wartime usage without adequate repairs or replacements reduced all to a state of disintegration.

Railroad mileage was of course located mostly in rural areas. The war followed the rails, and over two-thirds of the South's rails, bridges, rail yards, repair shops and rolling stock were in areas reached by Union armies, which systematically destroyed what it could. The South had 9,400 miles of track, and 6,500 miles were in areas reached by the Union armies. About 4,400 miles were in areas where Sherman and other Union generals adopted a policy of systematic destruction of the rail system. Even in untouched areas, the lack of maintenance and repair, the absence of new equipment, the heavy over-use, and the deliberate movement of equipment by the Confederates from remote areas to the war zone guaranteed the system would be virtually ruined at war's end.

Political Reconstruction - Reconstruction was the process by which the states returned to full status. It took place in four stages, which varied by state. Tennessee and the border states were not affected. First came the governments appointed by President Andrew Johnson that lasted 1865–66. The Freedmen's Bureau was active, helping refugees, setting up employment contracts for Freedmen, and setting up courts and schools for the freedmen. Second came rule by the U.S. Army, which held elections that included all freedmen and excluded over 10,000 former Confederate leaders. Third was "Radical Reconstruction" or "Black Reconstruction" in which a Republican coalition governed the state, comprising a coalition of freedmen, scalawags (native Southern whites) and carpetbaggers (migrants from the North). Violent resistance by the Ku Klux Klan and related groups was suppressed by President Ulysses S. Grant and the vigorous use of federal courts and soldiers. The Reconstruction governments spent large sums on railroad subsidies and schools, but quadrupled taxes and set off a tax revolt among conservatives. Stage four was reached by 1876 as the white conservative coalition, called "Redeemers", had won political control of all the states except South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. The disputed presidential election of 1876 hinged on those three violently contested states. The outcome was the Compromise of 1877, whereby the Republican Rutherford Hayes became president and all federal troops were withdrawn from the South, leading to the immediate collapse of the last Republican state governments in the 19th century.

Railroads - The building of a new, modern rail system was widely seen as essential to the economic recovery of the South, and modernizers invested in a "Gospel of Prosperity". Northern money financed the rebuilding and dramatic expansion of railroads throughout the South; they were modernized in terms of rail gauge, equipment and standards of service. the Southern network expanded from 11,000 miles in 1870 to 29,000 miles in 1890. Railroads helped create a mechanically skilled group of craftsmen and broke the isolation of much of the region. Passengers were few, however, and apart from hauling the cotton crop when it was harvested, there was little freight traffic. The lines were owned and directed overwhelmingly by Northerners, who often had to pay heavy bribes to corrupt politicians for needed legislation.

The Panic of 1873 ended the expansion everywhere in the United States, leaving many Southern lines bankrupt or barely able to pay the interest on their bonds.

Backlash to Reconstruction - Reconstruction was a harsh time for many white Southerners who found themselves without many of the basic rights of citizenship (such as the ability to vote). Reconstruction was also a time when many African Americans began to secure these same rights for the first time. With the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (which outlawed slavery), the 14th Amendment (which granted full U.S. citizenship to African Americans) and the 15th Amendment (which extended the right to vote to black males), African Americans in the South began to enjoy more rights than they had ever had in the past.

A reaction to the defeat and changes in society began immediately, with vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan arising in 1866 as the first line of insurgents. They attacked and killed both freedmen and their white allies. By the 1870s, more organized paramilitary groups, such as the White League and Red Shirts, took part in turning Republicans out of office and barring or intimidating black people from voting.

Early Rural South

The South remained heavily rural until World War II. In the decades before the 1940s, there were only a few scattered large cities in the region, with small courthouse towns serving the mostly rural population. Local politics revolved around the politicians and lawyers based at the courthouse. Mill towns, primarily focused on textile production or tobacco product manufacture, began opening in the Piedmont region, especially in the Carolinas. Racial segregation and outward signs of inequality were commonplace in many rural areas and rarely challenged. Blacks who violated the color line were liable to expulsion or lynching. Cotton became even more important than before, even though prices were much lower. The number of small farms in rural areas overtime proliferated, and became smaller and smaller as the population grew.

Many white farmers, and some black farmers, were tenant farmers who owned their work animals and tools, and rented their land. Others were day laborers or impoverished sharecroppers, who worked under the supervision of the landowner. Sharecropping was a way for landless farmers (both black and white) to earn a living. The landowner provided land, housing, tools and seed, and perhaps a mule, and a local merchant loaned money for food and supplies. At harvest time, the sharecropper received a share of the crop (from one-third to one-half), which paid off his debt to the merchant. By the late 1860s, white farmers had also become sharecroppers. The cropper system was a step below that of the tenant farmer, who rented the land, provided his own tools and mule, and received half the crop. Landowners provided more supervision to sharecroppers, and less or none to tenant farmers.

There was little cash in circulation, since most farmers operated on credit accounts from local merchants, and paid off their debts at cotton harvest time in the fall. Although there were small country churches everywhere, there were only a few dilapidated schools in rural areas. High schools were available in the cities, but were hard to find in most rural areas. All the Southern high schools combined graduated 66,000 students in 1928. The school terms were shorter in the South, and total spending per student was much lower. Nationwide, the students in elementary and secondary schools attended 140 days of school in 1928, compared to 123 days for white children in the South and 95 for blacks. The national average in 1928 for school expenditures was $70,700 for every 1,000 children aged 5–17. Only Florida reached that level, and seven of the eleven Southern states spent under $31,000 per 1,000 children. Conditions were marginally better in newer growing areas, such as in Texas and central Florida, with the deepest poverty in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Hookworm and other diseases sapped the vitality of many Southerners in rural areas.

Origins of the New South

The classic history was written by C. Vann Woodward, The Origins of the New South: 1877–1913, which was published in 1951 by Louisiana State University Press. Sheldon Hackney explains:

"Of one thing we may be certain at the outset. The durability of Origins of the New South is not a result of its ennobling and uplifting message. It is the story of the decay and decline of the aristocracy, the suffering and betrayal of the poor whites, and the rise and transformation of a middle class. It is not a happy story. The Redeemers are revealed to be as venal as the carpetbaggers. The declining aristocracy are ineffectual and money hungry, and in the last analysis they subordinated the values of their political and social heritage in order to maintain control over the black population. The poor whites suffered from strange malignancies of racism and conspiracy-mindedness, and the rising middle class was timid and self-interested even in its reform movement. The most sympathetic characters in the whole sordid affair are simply those who are too powerless to be blamed for their actions."

Race: from Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement - After the Redeemers took control in the mid-1870s, Jim Crow laws were created to legally enforce racial segregation in public facilities and services. The phrase "separate but equal", upheld in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, came to represent the notion that whites and blacks should have access to physically separate but ostensibly equal facilities. It would not be until 1954 that Plessy was overturned in Brown v. Board of Education, and only in the late 1960s was segregation fully repealed by legislation passed following the efforts of the civil rights movement.

The most extreme white leader was Senator Ben Tillman of South Carolina, who proudly proclaimed in 1900, "We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting] ... we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it." With no voting rights and no voice in government, blacks in the South were subjected to a system of segregation and discrimination. Blacks and whites attended separate schools. Blacks could not serve on juries, which meant that they had little if any legal recourse. In Black Boy, an autobiographical account of life during this time, Richard Wright writes about being struck with a bottle and knocked from a moving truck for failing to call a white man "sir". Between 1889 and 1922, the NAACP calculates that lynchings reached their worst level in history, with almost 3,500 people, three-fourths of them black men, murdered.[

African-Americans responded with two major reactions: the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Great Migration began during World War I, hitting its high point during World War II. During this migration, black people left the racism and lack of opportunities in the South and settled in northern cities like Chicago, where they found work in factories and other sectors of the economy. This migration produced a new sense of independence in the black community and contributed to the vibrant black urban culture seen in the emergence of jazz and the blues from New Orleans and its spread north to Memphis and Chicago.

The migration also empowered the growing civil rights movement. While the movement existed in all parts of the United States to combat Jim Crow law policies, its focus was against the Jim Crow laws taking place in the South. Most of the major events in the movement occurred in the South, including the Montgomery bus boycott, the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, some of the most important writings to come out of the movement were written in the South, such as King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail".

As a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all Jim Crow laws across the South and elsewhere in the United States were dropped. This change in the South's racial climate, combined with the new industrialization in the region, helped usher in what is called the New South.

Collapse of the Black belt socio-economic plantation system

Economic historians of the South generally emphasize the continuity of the system of white supremacy and cotton plantations in the Black Belt from the late colonial era into the mid-20th century, when it collapsed. Harold D, Woodman summarizes the explanation that external forces caused the disintegration from the 1920s to the 1970s:

"When a significant change finally occurred, its impetus came from outside the South. Depression-bred New Deal reforms, war-induced demand for labor in the North, perfection of cotton-picking machinery, and civil rights legislation and court decisions finally... destroyed the plantation system, undermined landlord or merchant hegemony, diversified agriculture and transformed it from a labor- to a capital-intensive industry, and ended the legal and extra-legal support for racism. The discontinuity that war, invasion, military occupation, the confiscation of slave property, and state and national legislation failed to bring in the mid-19th century, finally arrived in the second third of the 20th century. A "second reconstruction" created a real New South."

South in American foreign policy

The South always had a strong, aggressive interest in foreign affairs, especially regarding expansion to the Southwest, and the importance of foreign markets for Southern exports of cotton, tobacco and oil. All the southern colonies supported the American Revolution, with Virginia taking a leading position within the colonies. The South generally supported the War of 1812, in sharp distinction to the strong opposition in the Northeast, from the remaining Federalist Party activists. Southern Democrats took the lead in support of Texas annexation, and the war with Mexico. Low tariff policy was a priority, with the partial exception of the sugar region of Louisiana. Throughout southern history, exports were the main foundation of the southern economy, starting with tobacco, rice and indigo in the colonial period. After 1800, cotton comprised the chief export of the United States. In the American Civil War, Confederate officials thought mistakenly that European need for cotton would require intervention to help the South, for “Cotton is King.” Southerners calculated their need for international markets called for aggressive internationalist foreign policies.

Woodrow Wilson, who served as U.S. president from 1913–1921, had a strong base in the South for his foreign policy regarding World War I and the League of Nations. In the 1930s, isolationism and America First attitudes were weakest in the South, and internationalism strongest there. Southern Conservative Democrats opposed the domestic policies of the New Deal, but strongly supported Franklin Roosevelt's internationalist foreign policy during World War II. Historians have given various explanations for this characteristic, such as the region having a strong military tradition. General George Marshall, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, is famous for the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe after World War II. Rather than pacifism, the South fostered chivalry and honor, pride in its fighting ability, and indifference to violence. Virginia Senator Carter Glass proclaimed in May, 1941: "Virginia has always been a leader in the vanguard of the fight for freedom. She is ready today as in the past to give virile leadership to the nation.” During the Vietnam War, there were some dissenters from aggression such as J. William Fulbright (Arkansas), and Martin Luther King Jr. (Georgia), as opposed to Lyndon Johnson (Texas) and Secretary of State Dean Rusk (Georgia), but the war was generally more supported in the South.

Mid-20th century to present

In the years and decades following World War II, the old agrarian Southern economy evolved into the "New South" – a manufacturing region with strong roots in laissez-faire capitalism. High-rise buildings began to emerge throughout the mid-to-late 20th century, in skylines of cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans, San Antonio, and Tampa. The former main economic base that focused largely on agriculture, such as cotton production, was phased out with mechanization technologies and economic diversification of new industries. There were 1.5 million cotton farms in 1945, and only 18,600 remained in 2009. By 2020, many Fortune 500 companies were headquartered in the South including Texas with 50, Virginia with 22, Georgia with 18, Florida with 18, North Carolina with 13, and Tennessee with 10. In 2022, Texas led the nation with the most Fortune 500 company headquarters with 53.

The industrialization and modernization of the South continued to pick up speed with the ending of racial segregation policies in the 1960s. Today, the economy of the South is a diverse mixture of agriculture, light and heavy industry, tourism, and high technology companies, that help serve both the national economy and global economy. State governments in the South recruited corporate businesses to the "Sun Belt", promising more enjoyable weather and recreation, a lower cost of living, skilled work force positions, minimal taxes, weak labor unions, and a business-friendly environment. With the expansion of jobs in the South, there has been migration of people from other U.S. regions and immigrants from other countries, increasing the population and political influence of southern states. The newcomers and growing population within the region helped in displacing the old rural political system, built around courthouse cliques from the late 19th century through mid-20th century. Many suburb areas became the base of the emerging Republican Party within the region, which became dominant in presidential elections by 1968, and in most state politics by the 1990s.

With the economy growing into other job sectors during the mid-to-late 20th century, farming was less emphasized as before (and the remaining farmers more often specialized in things such as soybeans and cattle, or citrus in Florida). The need for cotton pickers largely ended with the utilization of mechanization technologies, and nearly all of the black cotton farmers moved to urban areas either within the region, or to cities in the North or Midwest. Former white farmers, usually moved within the region to nearby towns or cities. The early-to-mid 20th century also saw many factories and service industries opening in towns throughout the region for employment, which served as new job occupations.

During the 20th century, Millions of non-Southern U.S. migrants and retirees have moved down for job opportunities and mild winters. Often times they have moved into homes located near the coast, which, over the years, resulted in increasingly expensive hurricane damages. Tourism has become a major industry as well, especially in venues such as Williamsburg, Virginia, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, San Antonio, Texas, Orlando, Florida, and Branson, Missouri.

Apart from the still-distinctive weather climate, the living experience in the South increasingly resembles a melting pot of cultures in many places, especially in urban and metropolitan areas. The arrival of millions of non-southern U.S. migrants (especially in the suburbs and coastal areas), including millions of Hispanics, along with many immigrants from different countries, has led to the introduction of different cultural values and social norms not rooted in Southern traditions. Observers conclude that collective identity and Southern distinctiveness are thus declining, particularly when defined against "an earlier South that was somehow more authentic, real, more unified and distinct." The process has worked both ways, however, with aspects of Southern culture spreading throughout a greater portion of the rest of the United States in a process termed "Southernization".

Southern presidents

During the history of the United States, many of the individuals who have served as U.S. president have been from the South. Virginia was the birthplace of seven of the nation's first twelve presidents (including four of the first five).

This list encompasses members of the Whig Party, the Republican Party, and the Democratic Party; in addition, Washington, while officially non-partisan, was generally associated with the Federalist Party.

Presidents born in the South or identified with the region include:

George Washington of Virginia (term 1789–1797)

Thomas Jefferson of Virginia (term 1801–1809)

James Madison of Virginia (term 1809–1817)

James Monroe of Virginia (term 1817–1825)

Andrew Jackson of the Carolina's (term 1829–1837)

William Henry Harrison, born in Virginia (term 1841)

John Tyler of Virginia (term 1841–1845)

James Knox Polk of North Carolina (term 1845–1849)

Zachary Taylor of Virginia (term 1849–1850)

Abraham Lincoln, born in Kentucky (term 1861–1865)

Andrew Johnson of North Carolina (term 1865–1869)

Woodrow Wilson of Virginia (term 1913–1921)

Dwight D. Eisenhower, born in Texas (term 1953–1961)

Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas (term 1963–1969)

Jimmy Carter of Georgia (term 1977–1981)

George H. W. Bush, born in Massachusetts, but spent his adult life in Texas (term 1989–1993)

Bill Clinton of Arkansas (term 1993–2001)

George W. Bush, born in Connecticut, lived from early childhood in Texas (term 2001–2009)

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