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The South before the war: an island in time

by | Jun 28, 2015 | Antebellum era, News

The first thing a modern time-traveler would notice, on arrival in the antebellum South, would most likely be the silence. There might be movement among dry leaves, or the snort of a horse. Bird songs, surely, and, somewhere, a barking dog. But no dense overlay of competing noises. Allowance would have to be made, of course, for the setting: town or countryside; open farmland, or a forest in which the dominant sound was that of the ebb and flow of the wind in a sea of long leaf pine. But in a place where a calf bawling for its mother could be heard more than a mile away, a rural homebody might spend a lifetime and hear nothing more unsettling than a thunderclap, the crack of a hunter’s rifle, the squeals of swine at hog-killing time or, near a river, the dry blast of a steamboat’s whistle announcing the coming of passengers or freight – and warning the ferryman up ahead to secure his flat and sink his ropes. In town, things were different without providing stark contrast. Fish, meat and fresh produce were sold to local buyers, so find a place on your noise scale, if you like, for people chatting and haggling over prices. There was industry, but noise from a gristmill or a water-powered cotton mill would have been no more of a disturbance than hymns from the nearest church. There was heavy emphasis on transporting goods to distant markets and ports, so add the intermittent rattle of trains and freight wagons to your auditory inventory. Traffic was brisk (and amplified, in the decade before the war, by the construction of plank roads), although it offered nothing to rival a modern freeway. The views awaiting the time-traveler might include the rest of the Milky Way above, or a flight of passenger pigeons darkening the daytime sky hour after hour. And the view on the ground could be as diverse as the land, the wildlife, the people and their pursuits. There were the planters, few in number but great in influence. They owned huge spreads devoted not only to planting and harvesting cotton, corn, tobacco and rice, but also to anything else that might turn a profit – from milling to beekeeping to innkeeping to distilling whiskey and turpentine to ferrying wagons and buggies across rivers to raising sheep, goats, cattle, swine and whatever else could be sheared, milked, slaughtered or put in harness or bridled. They invested in banks and railroads, and held public offices. In their spare time they raced horses, hunted foxes and generally played to the hilt the role of “America’s royalty.” In the vast piney woods, uneducated people too poor to own land or even pay rent lived a modern serfdom, earning the plantation owner’s tolerance by doing him services. The rest of their time was spent putting food in their own mouths by whatever means were available: traps, guns, hoes. Their rude accommodations, awkward speech and unfamiliar behavior repulsed not only planters but many farmers (who could at least rent a slave from time to time), and those with neither means nor prospects were derided as “white trash” and blamed for their plight. Widespread illiteracy and the lack of a distinct middle class meant that the term was sometimes applied to landed whites, as well, leaving only successful white business and professional people with any claim to respectability. Nevertheless, all those groups had something in common: direct or indirect dependence on an economy undergirded by the forced labor of dark-skinned Americans who had no citizenship and “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as a Supreme Court justice worded it. Soon, all would give sons – as conscripts, volunteers or paid “substitutes” — to a bloody, futile war against change. Our traveler would arrive, then, knowing that the bucolic scene was an illusion. The seeming complacency of the plantation was already strained by runaways and the memory of slave revolts like those in Haiti, Jamaica and Southampton County, Va. The South was no island, after all.

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