Review: Alabama: The History of a Deep South State (Until 1861)

By Hunter Wallace

In preparation for my upcoming book on the South’s economy, I plan to research the history of every Southern state. I’ve started with Alabama and have read through Leah Rawls Atkins section in Alabama: The History of a Deep South State which covers the period from arrival of Hernando de Soto in 1540 up to the Confederacy’s defeat in 1865.

It’s a long story, but the ultimate defeat of Confederate Alabama can be explained in a few key excerpts:

“The route Davis took to Montgomery illustrated a serious problem the South and Alabama faced during the war: an inadequate transportation system and the near impossibility of moving troops and supplies through some areas. Davis traveled to Vicksburg by river, then by railroad to Jackson. Because there was no rail connection between Meridian and Montgomery, he took the railroad north to Grand Junction, then boarded the Memphis and Charleston Railroad and went across north Alabama to Chattanooga. From there he traveled south to Atlanta and southwest to West Point. At the Alabama border, Davis was met by a welcoming party and boarded a special car, complete with a four-poster bed, provided by the Montgomery and West Point Railroad.”

Because there was no direct railroad connection between Jackson and Montgomery, President Jefferson Davis had to travel to Montgomery by way of Chattanooga and Atlanta to be inaugurated.

“When Thomas Hubbard Hobbs left his home in Athens in 1855 bound for the opening of the Alabama legislature in Montgomery, he was able to travel the Memphis and Charleston to Chattanooga, the Western and Atlantic to Atlanta, and finally the West Point line to Montgomery.”

At the time, there was no direct railroad connection between Athens and Montgomery either, which today would be a simple drive on I-65. North Alabama wasn’t connected by railroad with South Alabama.

“Although the antebellum commercial conventions always addressed the lack of Southern manufactures, only minimal progress was made in promoting industry and manufacturing in Alabama during the decade before war came in 1861. Those who advocated secession seemed oblivious to the possibility that independence might have to be won by force of arms. The existence of minerals in the north Alabama hill country was known by the early settlers, but it was not appreciated and was little exploited. When the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell visited the state in 1846, he shocked the Black Belt planters by announcing that although their soil was rich, the wealth of Alabama was in the hill country. The assessment was reinforced by Professor Michael Toumey of the University of Alabama, who was appointed the first state geologist two years after Lyell’s visit. Yet in 1859 when the state legislature was considering a railroad route through the section, south Alabama planter interests opposed, and Judge Thomas A. Walker of Calhoun County, who was involved with the Tennessee and Selma Railroad Company, castigated the hill country “as so poor that a buzzard would have to carry provisions on his back or starve to death on his passage.”

Amazingly, even though the Birmingham District was the most geologically fortuitous place in the world to make steel, there was little interest before the war in exploiting its industrial potential or building railroads through the region.

“Disgusted with an attitude he considered backward, the editor of De Bow’s Review rebuked Alabama: “God may have given you coal and iron sufficient to work the spindles and navies of the world, but they will sleep in your everlasting hills until the trumpet or Gabriel shall sound unless you can do something better than build turnpikes.”

Alabama was in poor condition to fight a war:

“Alabamians hoped that secession could be accomplished peacefully and that the North would not try to use military force to coerce an independent South. The state was in poor condition to fight a war. Despite the iron ore and coal deposits in the mineral district, there were few iron furnaces and no railroads into the hill country. In fact, vast areas of the state were isolated without river or rail transportation and without telegraphic communication. Banks were weak and had little specie accumulation. Most of the manufactured goods – plows, tools, sewing needles, buttons, nails, woolen materials, machinery parts – were supplied by Northern or foreign industries. Planters relied upon imported flour, sugar, coffee, textiles, and especially salt to preserve meats, and mules were regularly purchased from Missouri and Tennessee. Although small farms were more self-sustaining, their production of food depended upon white male labor that soon would be absent, gone to defend the South.”

How do we explain this? The answer is the strength of Jeffersonian ideology in antebellum Alabama.

1.) For decades, Southerners had blocked Henry Clay’s program of federal support for “internal improvements” like railroads. At the state level, government support for railroads was repeatedly shot down by Governor Winston in the 1850s.

2.) Insofar as there were any railroads at all in Alabama in 1860, the Mobile and Ohio and the Montgomery and West Point had been subsidized by the state legislature. These were exceptions to the rule though.

3.) The “Invisible Hand” of laissez-faire economics led Southern planters to invest their profits in ever more land and slaves. Thus, there was more interest in quixotic crusades like transplanting slavery to places like Kansas or Utah than in developing Alabama’s own vastly greater industrial and commercial potential.

4.) The Jacksonian hostility to banks and internal improvements retarded the development of commerce and manufacturing in Alabama. So did the Jeffersonian aversion to industrialization.

5.) At the time, many planters feared that an industrial economy would pose a threat to their political dominance and labor force. The subsequent history of Alabama showed otherwise.

In hindsight, it is hard to believe that Kansas was more vital to “Southern Rights” than a sound financial and transportation system and a vibrant industrial sector capable of producing war material. The theory of the free-traders that everything we needed could be easily imported from Britain was also discredited by the Union blockade.

22 Comments

  1. I came across an interesting little book some years ago in a bookstore in the low country of South Carolina titled, “Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys” by George C. Rogers, Jr.

    Anyway to make a long story short. Mr. Rogers points out that the city fathers of Charleston would not permit the railroad to come into the city until the Civil War. All goods had to be off loaded from the railroad onto wagons transported to the port and off load to ships or warehouses. This might have been nice for the residents, but, not at all efficient.

    Like local train service in Alabama, if you ask about it. LOL.

  2. A major problem that prewar Alabama faced was that cotton fever sucked much of our population to Texas before we were barely removed from the frontier. This was an even greater problem in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

    In the eastern South, soil exhaustion and emigration hurt the economy more than anything else, but the tariff was blamed for the economic retardation and commercial decline that had been caused by the free-market. The tariff was dramatically cut before the war and federal spending on internal improvements had been blocked since Jackson vetoed the Maysville Road bill.

  3. @Mr. Griffin…

    ‘I should add here that the black population was a fifth column that contributed 10,000 troops to the Union Army.’

    It was the same, Sir, here in North Carolina – many thousands of black troops taking Federal uniform, along with many thousands of Tarheel scalawags, and then, under Burnside and others, seizing control of most of the coastal areas of the state.

    Additionally, they pillaged regularly, as far as into the center of the state…

  4. The rail system, however, here, was adequate enough to move troops around.

    It was, however, a thorn in the side of the Tarheel Confederacy, as the rails were constantly targeted by the Federals, particularly the one, close by, in Weldon/Roanoke Rapids, which, during the last two years of the war, kept Lee’s army supplied.

  5. “When the English geologist Sir Charles Lyell visited the state in 1846, he shocked the Black Belt planters by announcing that although their soil was rich, the wealth of Alabama was in the hill country.”

    Yes–Sir Charles Lyell. Let’s make sure we’re clear as to the historical magnitude of that man, whose insight the south Alabama planters saw fit to ignore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lyell

  6. I’d recommend Railroads of the Confederacy by Robert C. Black. Although published in the late fifties to early sixties, it’s still considered the definitive source on the subject.

  7. A major problem that prewar Alabama faced was that cotton fever sucked much of our population to Texas.

    HW, south and central Texas was a colony of Alabama. North Texas was settled by Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and South Carolina. In the grocery stores here, we have Butler’s Texas Gold, which is a mustard based BBQ sauce. That’s the Carolina influence. In the 19th Century “GTT” or gone to Texas was chalked on many abandoned homesteads in Dixie.

  8. “The theory of the free-traders that everything we needed could be easily imported from Britain was also discredited by the Union blockade.” It is a fatal error to allow your supply lines or sources of information to be under the control of your enemies. We are under a leftist anti-White information blockade. Think about the K.K.K. and blacks. On a per capita basis, black men probably commit a hundred times more murders and a thousand times more rapes than klansmen, but the MSM conveys the opposite impression. Remember George Wallace’s 1963 speech (written by Asa Carter):
    “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Now the best we have is Trump. “We are … going over the cliff at full speed or half speed.” – Don Black

  9. 3.) The “Invisible Hand” of laissez-faire economics led Southern planters to invest their profits in ever more land and slaves. Thus, there was more interest in quixotic crusades like transplanting slavery to places like Kansas or Utah than in developing Alabama’s own vastly greater industrial and commercial potential.

    Do you have any information that shows there were marginally higher returns on investment in planting than in industry? Typically, there is more money to be made in finished products than raw goods. Also, land was cheap and the only way to acquire additional slaves (in the aggregate) was through childbirth. Unless all land and human capital were dedicated to agriculture, there is no logical reason why a cotton plantation and a textile mill could not coexist.

    5.) At the time, many planters feared that an industrial economy would pose a threat to their political dominance and labor force. The subsequent history of Alabama showed otherwise.

    In previous threads I questioned whether the South’s aversion to industry had more to do with politics. This confirms is. If the decision to discourage industry was due to politics, it cannot be blamed on “free markets” and laissez-faire economics. As far as I can tell, much of the post Civil War industrialization of the South has come from non-Southern investment (e.g. textile mills from New England moving to the South).

    • Jeff,

      1.) In 1860, there were about a dozen textile mills and a few blast furnaces operating in Alabama. While there were great returns to be made in industrialization, Southerners overwhelmingly preferred to invest their capital in land and slaves.

      2.) Daniel Pratt, a Yankee from New Hampshire, was Alabama’s leading industrialist. He founded Prattville as a company town.

      3.) There were no formal legal barriers to industrialization and the tariff should have encouraged the development of the Birmingham District before the war.

      4.) In Alabama, the free-market produced a slave-based, agricultural economy, and Jeffersonianism and Jacksonianism made its inherent tendencies worse by creating an ideological bias against commerce and industry that retarded the development of the South’s economy.

      5.) Because of that ideological bias, Confederate Alabama was left with an underdeveloped financial system and infrastructure on the eve of the war. Because of the “Invisible Hand,” Alabama had an economy that was specialized in the export of cotton and was “wealthy” in slaves.

  10. Maybe you can submit it at CHRONICLES or THE FLEMING FOUNDATION or both. It would make for interesting discussion.

  11. Since Sir Charles Lyell has been mentioned, I’ll present the following, from his account of his passage, by ship, south from Charleston, South Carolina, more than a decade before the Civil War …

    An old Spanish fort, south of Beaufort, reminded me that this region had once belonged to the Spaniards, who built St. Augustine, still farther to the south, the oldest city in the United States, and I began to muse on the wonderful history of the Anglo-Saxon race in settling these southern states. To have overcome and driven out in so short a time Indians, Spaniards, and French, and yet, after all, to be doomed to share the territory with three millions of negroes!

    –Lyell, Charles, A SECOND VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES OF NORTH AMERICA, VOLUME 1, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1849, page 231 (Chapter XVII).

    So much for any suggestion that the race problem was not foreseen.

    Here’s the link:
    https://archive.org/stream/asecondvisittou07lyelgoog#page/n6/mode/2up

  12. not one word about Southern tariff monies not being spent where collected.. they however did get spent of Lincoln’s RR.

  13. Hunter this is absolute brilliance. Thomas Jefferson was idolized in the South for generations, but he was a false god. The DiLorenzo Crowd still says YAY JEFFERSONIANISM!.A lot of people don’t understand Jefferson. He supported race-mixing and said that whites should interbreed with American Indians to assimilate them. He also supported the French Revolutionary Convention which had Negro slaves sitting in the Convention and demanded George Washington recognize them, and Washington wisely said NO! and petulant Jefferson went back to Monticello pouting.

  14. John Adams had theoretically closed our borders in 1798 after he passed a law that said it was a mandatory 14 year waiting period for citizenship. He also passed laws against States allowing French Revolutionary Literature re:Communist from being published. Jefferson and Madison issued the Virginia and Kentucky Resolution saying that Free Speech is an absolute right. In 1801 Jefferson opened our borders wide, they remained so until 1921. He did this because Democrats relied on Open Borders in 1801 as they do now.

    Virginia had almost half a million people in 1790, but thanks to Jefferson the North was deluged with Immigrants, thus artificially raising their electoral vote count which ended up in the War in 1861. A good example of this problem is this, French Revolution ends in 1815, USA allows Revolutionaries refuge, 1848 European revolutions, we end up deluged by German Jews. 1880s, more Jews follow. Thank you Thomas Jefferson. He was ANTI-CHRISTIAN and at the end of the day ANTI-WHITE as he created an atmosphere where Whites were not protected from the world’s slime and evil ideas

  15. Hunter we need to do an article on Negro Voting in Antebellum America. What everyone must understand is PRE 14th AMENDMENT there were two types of citizenship STATE and FEDERAL. Free Negroes had state citizenship in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky Maryland Delaware Pennsylvania, New York with property and all of New England. Only in VA SC and GA were they in their place.

    The Founding Fathers under Jefferson/Madison’s influence decided that State Citizenship was superior to Federal and although the Immigration Act of 1790 said Whites Only, it allowed Jews and Gypsies as Jews and Gypsies were under law considered White. However as states decided who could vote, one could be an eligible federal citizen, and not be a state citizen. Though Negroes had no rights in Federal courts, they had them at the state level.

    The Northwest Territory and Mississippi Territory and all further territories taken by the Federal Government it was dictated that nonwhites would not be allowed to vote in these states, but it didnt apply to the 13 colonies and Vermont which were grandfathered in. By 1820, except for Mass, Maine, Vermont New Hampshire, New York Pennsylvania an North Carolina, Negroes were not allowed to vote. In 1835, North Carolina was the last Southern State to completely designate Negroes non citizens. In 1838 Pennsylvania banned Negro voting although they still maintained basic state citizenship protections.

    Rhode Island restored Negro voting rights in their 1842 Constitution, When Dred Scott was decided in 1857 as Taney couldn’t invalidate state citizenship, it only meant that Negroes weren’t federal citizens. When Lincoln was elected in 1860 Negroes in RI, MASS, VT, NH ME and a few Negroes with property in New York voted in the election.

  16. The April 11th Lincoln Speech which Booth referred to at the time there was no possible way for Negroes to be allowed to vote because states still set the voting requirements under the 1787 Constitution. This was why the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment was passed by the scumbags, which revoked state citizenship for all time and established a universal federal citizenship, but states were still sort-of allowed to set voter requirements as there were few enforcement procedures with these amendments, until the 1950s. Which brings us to 2016

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