Editor’s Note: I’m having so much fun that I plan to continue this series indefinitely. Far from being a new thing on this blog, I started working on this project years ago and never finished it. I am currently retrieving and editing material from the archives.
In preparation for my upcoming book on the Southern economy, I plan to research and analyze the economic history of every Southern state.
I’ve decided to start with Alabama and have read through Leah Rawls Atkins’s section in Alabama: The History of a Deep South State which covers the period from arrival of Hernando de Soto in Alabama in 1540 up to the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865. While it is a long story, I believe 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.”
Since there was no direct railroad connection between Jackson and Montgomery due to the South’s inferior antebellum era infrastructure, Jefferson Davis had to travel to Montgomery by way of Chattanooga and Atlanta to be inaugurated as the Confederate president in 1861.
“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, AL and Montgomery, AL either, which today would be a simple north to south drive on I-65. North Alabama wasn’t even connected by railroad with South Alabama in the antebellum era.
“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 of Alabama was the most geologically fortuitous place in the world to make steel, there was little interest before the War Between the States in exploiting its industrial potential or building railroads through the region. In the late 20th century, we free traded away the steel industry to East Asian countries like South Korea which have no such natural geological advantages and where the iron ore is imported all the way from Australia.
“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 underdevelopment?
The answer is the strength of Jeffersonian ideology in antebellum Alabama.
- 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.
- 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.
- The “Invisible Hand” of laissez-faire free-market 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.
- The Jacksonian hostility to banks and internal improvements retarded the development of commerce and manufacturing in Alabama. So did the Jeffersonian aversion to industrialization until it was too late and the War Between the States was upon us.
- 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 thought to be more vital to “Southern Rights” than having 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 and more cheaply imported from Britain was also discredited by the Union blockade.