The words “King Cotton” and the Confederacy are almost synonymous today, and rightly so, as cotton production dominated the Southern economy in the decades before the Civil War. Southerners boasted that the world’s demand for cotton would win the nascent Confederacy friends and allies across the world—particularly Great Britain. It’s easy to see why Southerners felt that way, as the states below the Mason-Dixon Line produced an astonishing 5 million bales of cotton in 1860.
But huge, profitable cotton crops were not always the rule in the South. Before 1800, tobacco, rice and indigo—a plant that produced a blue dye for cloth—were the most abundant and profitable crops grown on plantations, well outpacing cotton.
Some plantations, however, did grow high quality cotton known as long-staple. Long-staple cotton derived its name from the fact that the cotton boll—the white fleecy bloom that was woven into cloth—contained one large seed, or “staple,” that was relatively easy for slave laborers to remove by hand as the crop was harvested. But the plant was finicky; it only thrived in coastal areas of the Carolinas and Georgia and would not grow productively on plantations outside that region, which limited its profitability.
Another variety, short-staple, could be grown just about anywhere in the South. The boll of short-staple plants contained smaller, shorter seeds with fibrous shells that helped entangle them in the cotton boll. The seeds were not easily removed by hand, and the process pulled and tore the boll, damaging the quality of the fiber.
Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Southern planters in these other areas faced an economic dilemma. Tobacco made money but rapidly depleted the soil of nutrients, and it required a great deal of attention to bring to harvest. Rice and indigo, like long-staple cotton, could only be grown in coastal areas. In short, the South had no crop that could be grown in huge quantities in a variety of climates except cantankerous short-staple cotton.
Enter Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, short for “engine.” Cotton gins had been around for eons, but it was Whitney who figured out how to mechanize the process. His gin had a rotating drum covered with bent metal hooks that would snag the cotton bolls and pull them through a metal fence with gaps too narrow to allow the seeds to pass. The seeds would therefore be “combed” out. Whitney, a Massachusetts native, had invented a device that allowed short-staple cotton to become a feasible cash crop.
Whitney invented his machine in 1794, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that the design was refined and ready for large-scale factory production. Once the gins were widely available, they brought enormous changes to the South. Southerners eager to take part in the cotton boom began to move west to cultivate new lands, and the white and slave populations of Mississippi and Alabama soared. In fact, one of President Andrew Jackson’s motives for moving Native Americans out of the Southeast was to open up land for more cotton plantations.
Cotton production burgeoned from 720,000 bales in 1830, to 2.85 million bales in 1850, to the prewar high in 1860. And as cotton growth flourished, so did the South’s dependence on slavery and the plantation system as the bulwarks of its economy—the two main factors that distinguished the Southern worldview from the North’s.