New Men, New Cities, New South: Atlanta, Nashville, Charleston, Mobile, 1860-1910

By Don H. Doyle | Go to book overview

1

The Urbanization of Dixie

We have sown towns and cities in the place of theories, andput business above politics. -- Henry Grady, 1886

A steamboat chugged down the Mississippi River sometime in the 1850s. On deck a passenger from New York, visiting the South for the first time, paced nervously. He peered with great curiosity at the river banks lined with trees which, knowing southerners aboard realized, hid from view many a "princely plantation" surrounded by vast cotton fields. The apparent desolation, in the mind of this northern visitor, was only more evidence of the "curse of slavery." Perplexed by the unfamiliar landscape, he finally blurted out to his southern shipmates: "Where's your towns?"1

Where indeed were the towns of the South? In all of Mississippi and Louisiana-the richest of the plantation states -- the 1850 census reported only three places in each state with a population of even 2,500. The entire eleven states of what would become the Confederate South had only thirty-four such places. Ten years later, in the wake of substantial railroad and industrial development, the South claimed only fifty-one of the nation's nearly four hundred urban places.2 Beginning in colonial times, critics of the South saw the absence of towns as one of the most striking distinctions of the region. They invariably blamed slavery and the plantation system and argued that the lack of urban development was both cause and symptom of a region incapable of economic and social progress.3 Even in largely rural societies, towns and cities had always been the centers of economic, government, religious, and educational activities, not in the North alone, but in all of Western civilization as it had been known in England and Europe for centuries.4 What made the South so different?


Antebellum Shackles

Slavery and the plantation did limit urban development, as the Yankee visitor and other critics of slavery so often claimed. But quite apart from the

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