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South Carolina African Americans – Economic Effects of the Civil War - 1865-1900

South Carolina SC African Americans SC Reconstruction Economic Effects of the Civil War

Economic Effects of the Civil War

This article was written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation.

After the Civil War, the biggest problem across the South was labor. To the African-Americans who had been held in bondage their entire lives, freedom meant many things. It meant freedom from white control, autonomy both as individuals and as a community, freedom from the innumerable regulations of slavery, freedom to hold mass meetings and to worship, freedom to own property, and most importantly, freedom to "have land, and turn it and till it by [their] own labor." In other words, black people wanted to work for themselves, not for their former masters.

Tenant Family

Not everyone was able to acquire his own land, however. Some stayed to work on their old plantations. The Freedmen's Bureau helped establish a system of wage labor. One advantage of this system was that it gave blacks the power to break their contracts and move to a new plantation if they wanted to. Nevertheless, many blacks chose to leave the South altogether. An Englishman traveling through the state immediately after the war reported: "Thirty-seven thousand negroes, according to newspaper estimates, have left South Carolina already, traveling west."

The lives of everyone in the South changed dramatically. White yeoman farmers (who cultivated their own small plots of land) suffered devastating losses. Before the Civil War, many yeomen had concentrated on raising food crops and instead of cash crops like cotton. After the war these farmers found themselves deep in debt, often with buildings destroyed and lands untended. Their plight was magnified by a series of crop failures in early Reconstruction years. Needing to borrow money to resume planting, many fell deeper into debt – debt that only increased with each successive cotton crop failure.

At the same time, many wealthy plantation owners abandoned their property and emigrated to Europe or reestablished themselves as planters in Brazil, where slavery was still legal. Those who stayed developed a romanticized notion of the Confederate experience, celebrating the failed struggled as a "noble Lost Cause." Although this myth of the Lost Cause didn't reach its heyday until the late 1880s and early 1890s, it was born during Reconstruction. As historians Eric Foner and Olivia Mahoney explain, "In the strange logic of a plantation society, African-Americans who sought to become self-sufficient farmers seemed not examples of industriousness, but demoralized freedmen unwilling to work – work, that is, under white supervision on a plantation."


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