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

By Don H. Doyle | Go to book overview
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3
Ebb Tide

Seldom with a deeper ruin of the old has there been a more hopeless chaos out of which to construct a new order of things than Charleston presented in those days.

-- Robert Somers, 1870

"New men" will soon be the order of the day, in Mobile and in many another center of Southern aristocracy.

-- Whitelaw Reid, 1866

The tide of the postwar South, which buoyed the economy of Atlanta and Nashville, moved against many of the seaports that had flourished under the old order. Charleston, South Carolina, an eastern seaboard city founded two centuries earlier, and Mobile, Alabama, a thriving Gulf port that had served some of the richest plantation country in the Old South, languished in the backwaters of the New South.

War, emancipation, and Reconstruction brought economic chaos and political subjugation that left lasting marks on each city. As the new order emerged in the commercial realm, merchants who for years had grown fat from the profits of a virtually captive clientele now found themselves facing unfamiliar competition. Small general-store merchants in interior crossroads towns, along with hordes of drummers from the larger railroad centers who invaded the southern hinterland, were now stealing business that by custom had always belonged to the seaports. The railroad, which earlier had supplemented the river systems that fed trade into the ports, now siphoned away cotton and other goods into a growing stream of overland trade.

In what seemed an almost helpless response to the political and economic forces that reshaped their world, Charleston and Mobile sank into a prolonged season of demoralizing stagnation. Where private enterprise failed to over- come the obstacles to economic revival, local and state governments offered little aid. In the face of massive debts incurred both before and after the war, the public sector entered a phase of severe retrenchment precisely when aid might have made a crucial difference. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that new opportunities surfaced. Change was provoked by external forces that came with the Spanish-American War, federal harbor improvements, and new ventures by outside capitalists. Only then did a new generation of business leaders emerge to exploit the belated benefits of the postwar order.

-51-

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