EXTRACTING THE NEW SOUTH
With the war at an end, one captain in the Confederate army returned home to his father's plantation. He was in for a rude awakening. “Our negroes are living in great comfort,” he wrote. “They were delighted to see me with overflowing affection. They waited on me as before, gave me breakfast, splendid dinners, etc. But they firmly and respectfully informed me: ‘We own this land now. Put it out of your head that it will ever be yours again.’” 1
As events unfolded, the captain had less to fear than he thought. The struggle over slavery had ended, only to be replaced by a new conflict over who would control the political and economic destiny of the South, a battle that the former masters and their descendants would decisively win. As far as the land itself was concerned, however, neither the freedmen nor the whites would be completely in charge of their fate.
It is no doubt one of history's great ironies that a culture that once coerced an entire group of people into a state of severe dependency later found itself reduced to semicolonial status, its resources ravaged by outsiders. The South emerged from the war—its fields and livestock plundered, its forests cut down for firewood and barrack timber—as an economically crippled region and persisted that way for at least the next half century. The cotton monoculture, which had gained a strong foothold in the region during the antebellum period, advanced across the landscape at a pace that would have challenged even the most accomplished Confederate cavalryman. In its wake, it left the land scarred, its people, black and white farmers alike, destitute and more dependent on outside sources of food as well as capital. As the region descended into poverty, people from outside the region— northern capitalists, midwestern lumbermen, and British financiers—siphoned off its natural wealth, especially its forests and minerals. The ecological origins of the New South that grew up on the ashes of war centered squarely on the extraction of resources for the benefit of the greater national economy. Blacks were set free in a region enslaved.
King Cotton emerged from the war more imperious and despotic than ever before. As the single most important cash crop in the postbellum South, the staple soared in importance, turning autumn in the stretch from South Carolina to east Texas into a sea of white that drifted off toward the horizon. Like addicts unable to control themselves, Southern farmers grew so much cotton that they continued to undercut their ability to feed themselves. By 1880, per capita corn and hog