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Cotton and Conquest
How the Plantation System Acquired Texas
By Roger G. Kennedy
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Lineaments of Force
The Texians—as they were then called—declared their independence from Mexico in 1836 and formed a republic. Their republic gave up that independence in 1845 and merged into the United States, only to join the Confederacy early in 1861. Texans fought for both sides during the Civil War of 1861–65. Some of them were still fighting each other five weeks after Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his army surrendered to U.S. lieutenant general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Lee's surrender left unprotected the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and all those associated with his government in Richmond. Two Texans, Francis R. Lubbock and John H. Reagan, were among the small entourage accompanying Davis on his subsequent flight westward and then southward. Lubbock, the former governor of Texas, was serving as a military aide to Davis. Reagan, a former congressman, was acting secretary of the Confederate treasury. They got as far as Irwinville, Georgia, where on May 10, 1865, they were apprehended by a detachment of the U.S. Cavalry.
For those accustomed to reading commercial documents, the primary theme of the narrative you have now opened could be extrapolated from a folder of papers Reagan was carrying when he was frisked by the cavalry, and that was taken from him. Thousands of other Civil War mementos—caps, buckles, sabers, and spurs—are solemnly presented in Confederate museums today on shelf after shelf, but thousands of documents have disappeared, including "cotton acceptances," promises on the part of British and French merchants to the Confederate government, as assignee, of sums to be paid in Confederate money for shipments of contraband cotton through Mr. Lincoln's blockade. Such records thus represent the demands of an international textile trading system that dominated the economic life of the cotton states for half a century.
When read with a few annotations from economic and political history, these acceptances are as articulate as diaries, logbooks, newspaper accounts, or ledgers in setting forth the lineaments of force stretching across the Atlantic from the cotton fields of the American South to the textile mills of Britain and back again to the marts of trade in America. Those lineaments had brought the Confederacy into existence, and engendered the Civil War that ended the plantation system, with its enslaved workforce, its dispossession of Indians, and its insatiable appetite for land.
John Reagan was an agent of that system. He had resigned his seat in the U.S. Congress to join Davis's cabinet in the unglamorous role of postmaster general. He had emerged as a strong voice in its councils for the strategic importance of the West; in 1863 he alone opposed Robert E. Lee's commitment of the Confederacy's reserves to the invasion of the North that culminated at Gettysburg, urging instead that those reinforcements be rushed to succor the garrison besieged in Vicksburg by Grant. The Vicksburg garrison could not break Grant's siege, and nearly thirty thousand were starved into surrender.
Lee lost twenty-eight thousand at Gettysburg, and the Confederacy never fully recovered.
On Sunday, April 2, 1865, Reagan had arisen from a cot in the War Department to receive word from Lee that he could no longer sustain the defenses of Richmond against the battering of Grant's much superior forces. Reagan informed Davis and Lubbock, on their way to church, that the Confederate capital would have to be abandoned. Lee's telegram confirming his defeat and his decision to leave Richmond to Grant was brought to Davis during the service. Afterward, as Lee struggled to escape the convergence of Grant's armies, Davis, Reagan, Lubbock, and what was left of the Confederate government boarded a train bound westward and then southward down its only remaining rail link to the fragments remaining of the Confederate states. Reagan wrote many years later that, from the last rail station in Confederate hands, they hoped to ride to Florida and board a British ship that would take them to Texas.
Before Lee had surrendered his remaining 28,231 tattered, hungry, and exhausted men to Grant on April 8 at Appomattox Court House, 16,900 went into battle at Sailor's Creek against Grant's 36,500; the Cherokee war whoop that Texans had learned and made their own as the "Rebel Yell" was heard for the last time in Virginia; the canister and grapeshot tore through the onrushing ranks for the last time; bullets thudded into flesh, and cries of pain were heard for the last time; and the last hope of escape died. General John B. Gordon, commander of one of the few corps of Lee's infantry that could go into battle as a unit, reported that he had "fought my corps to frazzle." About 2,400 of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry managed to break out of Grant's tightening cordon.
On the Gulf Coast the great cotton port of Mobile might once have been an aperture through which a fleeing Confederate government could have escaped, but on the day of Lee's surrender a besieging Federal army, including a division of U.S. Colored Troops, broke through the Confederate defenses, and a week later, on the day on which Lee's men were stacking their arms, Mobile surrendered.
Reagan burned all the treasury's Confederate bonds and notes and distributed all its gold and silver coins to pay the troops and to provide some relief to needy civilian refugees—$86,000 (U.S. dollars) in gold bullion and coins, plus $71,000 in silver coin and bullion—much of it gained from cotton sales to the British and French via Mexico. He had kept in his wallet the British acceptances after all, but a little coin and currency was left to him. Why did he bother? Those promises of payment were of doubtful use to soldiers straggling home in tattered grey uniforms: the cotton brokers who issued them had excellent lawyers and were unlikely to fulfill obligations to customers whose cause was irrecoverably lost. Reagan was an excellent historian, and he may have clung to those acceptances because he understood the long history inherent in them, culminating in the interaction of the nineteenth-century "Southern way of life" with the British way of life, statecraft, and commerce that had been maturing since the emergence of the English from their own colonial status in the Middle Ages. That long, slow emergence of a great economic power is chronicled in the next few chapters, together with an account of the collateral growth of French economic imperialism.
John Reagan may also have clung to those bankers' acceptances for their extra-economic value—the shipments they acknowledged had escaped the U.S. Navy along routes that his old friend "Rip" Ford had endeavored to keep open for four years. The last fought for the Confederacy, Ford's final battles were also Reagan and Ford's. When the Civil War came, the two men had been in midcareer, ambitious and accustomed to serving the planters' interests, though neither were cotton planters. Ford was born in 1815, Reagan in 1818, in Cherokee country in eastern Tennessee, on the northern flanks of the Great Smoky Mountains. Ford was trained as a doctor and Reagan as a lawyer, although in the 1830s, after they migrated to Texas, they worked as surveyors of cotton land and served as militiamen in campaigns to drive the Cherokees from territory coveted by the planters for cotton production. When the question of slavery came up for public debate, both made speeches in its defense that cause modern-day readers to wish they had chosen silence. And though both were apprehensive about the consequences of secession, they did not take a public stand against it.
Following his militia service in the 1830s, Reagan became a farmer and surveyor, studying law at night. After setting himself up in practice in Buffalo, Texas, he was elected a judge, then a state legislator, and in 1857, a Texas representative to the U.S. Congress as a Sam Houston Democrat. In 1860 he broke from Houston on the great question of secession. Reagan went with the tide, while Houston refused to accommodate and was forced from power. After his service to the Confederacy as postmaster general and as secretary of the treasury, and his capture by the U.S. Cavalry, Reagan was imprisoned on an island in Boston harbor with Alexander Stephens, the former Confederate vice president. He was released after urging his fellow Texans to accept the failure of secession. Thereafter, his advocacy of extending the suffrage to former slaves, and his practice of referring to the "Civil War," rather than the "War between the States," aroused the antipathy of Confederate diehards; he was nevertheless elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and then to the U.S. Senate. After returning from the Senate, he became railroad commissioner for Texas, with plenty of fight left in him. He put it into service of the ideals he had advanced in the Senate when championing an Interstate Commerce Commission. So, before he turned to memoir writing, the old man secured stiffer regulation of the Texas railroads carrying cotton to international markets.
COTTON! COTTON! COTTON!
When the cotton states sought to secede to form their own confederacy in 1861, they issued truculent declarations of independence, but in reality were accepting a condition of aggressive dependency. They proclaimed the entry of their new government into the ranks of sovereign powers, but in fact they were settling even more deeply into neocolonial dependence upon the British and French, and acquiescing to the demands of international markets.
Secession meant destruction of an uneasy, unstable, yet remarkably persistent equilibrium that had held together long enough to become the world in which Sam Houston, Rip Ford, and John Reagan had come to manhood, and in which they made their self-defining choices. When the cotton states destroyed that equilibrium, they brought an entire social structure down around them. And with that social structure went the familiar domestic scenes of mansion house and slave cabins, of cheroot-smoking, julep-drinking masters presiding from the verandah while under an unrelenting sun the black slaves harvested and hauled huge sacks of bolls.
The collapse of this system in the Civil War and Reconstruction years shook loose a multitude of arrangements, understandings, and mutual tolerances. For four years highland Southerners fought lowland Southerners, white Unionists fought white Confederates, blacks fought Indians and Indians fought other Indians, royalist Mexicans fought antiroyalist Mexicans, who fought Confederates. Mexicans sympathetic to or doing business with Confederates fought Unionists, some of whom were black, some "Anglo," some of Mexican descent. The violence spared no one. More than six hundred thousand young men died. Cities were reduced to rubble. Cotton fields became killing fields. Rich people became poor, and poor people destitute.
Slavery-based, Indian-dispossessing, European-dependent, cotton imperialism came to its final agonies along the Rio Grande, at its westernmost extremity, beyond which lay desert and Indian Territory. California glimmered on the sunset horizon as if on another continent. Southward was Mexico, still seething with resentment at the loss of half its territory in the wars of 1835–36 and 1846–48, the first against the Anglo-Texans, and the second against the United States. When the French invaders marched into Mexico City in 1859, they went about stoking that anger, encouraging talk of how an American civil war would offer an occasion to recover Texas. The failure of the French designs was largely attributable to the wisdom of Mexico's leader, Benito Juárez, who had no ambitions to lead his countrymen toward a reverse Manifest Destiny.
Cotton imperialism had come subtly into the Southland a half century earlier—as if emanating from mighty magnets situated in the British Midlands and the textile towns of northern France. Those magnets derived their power from whirling looms drawing ever more fibers into a nexus of force we may call "cotton pull," reinforced in the American South by "soil-exhaustion push." Pulled and pushed, masters and slaves were propelled westward, thrusting Indians out of their way. Indian removal was justified as a triumph of the civilized over savages, and justified as well according to the theology of "highest and best use." Thousands of Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Seminoles, and Chickasaws were killed or driven to the west. The non-Indian population in cotton-growing Alabama grew from 9,000 in 1810 to 130,000 in 1820 and to 600,000 in 1840. In Mississippi it increased from less than 5,000 in 1810 to 75,000 in 1820 and 380,000 in 1840; in Arkansas from 1,062 in 1810 to 4,300 in 1820 and 100,000 in 1840. The non-Indians living in Texas in 1825 numbered less than 3,500. A decade later, 30,000 of its 40,000 inhabitants were American settlers and their slaves. In 1850 the population of Texas was 213,000; after the frenetic cotton boom of the 1850s, it was 600,000.
Between 1790 and 1860, a million slaves were sold to planters in the West in interstate trade so profitable as to become one of the precipitating causes of the Civil War. In 1860, the cotton states once more threatened to leave the Union unless the North again offered portions of the public domain for slave-based agriculture, creating markets for the slave sellers. Those markets most recently opened to the slave merchants were those brought into the Union by the integration of Texas, and by its sequel, the war of conquest against Mexico. The lands of the Louisiana Purchase had been picked over by the 1840s: Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri produced wondrous crops of cotton; Texas would soon do even better.
Whether territories could grow cotton or not, when cut into states, they could grow senators. So the plantation system demanded not only new fields to conquer but also prevention of future threats from new Senate seats held by its antagonists. In 1860 the cotton states feared the loss of their effective control of the Senate and its capacity to restrict the interstate traffic in slaves. In his address to the Provisional Confederate Congress on April 29, 1861, Jefferson Davis was explicit that among "the evils with which they [the cotton states] were menaced" was that while they might continue to sell their cotton to the British and French, they would be unable to market their crop in human beings to new plantations in the West. Davis warned of the Lincoln administration's desire for "the total exclusion of the slave States from all participation in the benefits of the public domain acquired by ... conquest or purchase." Those benefits would be primarily the provision of a market for slaves. That, coupled with the exhaustion of the soil currently worked by the planters in the Old South, would have the effect of "rendering the property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless, and thereby annihilating in effect property worth thousands of millions of dollars."
Between 1790 and 1860 two agricultural systems, those of the North and the South, had raced westward as a healthy, energetic people, experienced in warfare and well armed, came over the Appalachians and saw before them land that might be easily acquired, cultivated, or sold at a profit. North and South, they went after it. The desire to make fresh beginnings, to establish some measure of individual independence, and to be rid of neighbors led to great movements of people and to additional demand for cotton clothing; new ginning machines expedited the removal of unwanted fibers and seeds from raw cotton; other new machines made the ginned fibers into cloth cleverly and cheaply; and only a relative few of the laborers in the fields were able to escape slavery. The rates of increase in demand for cotton clothing, the number of slaves at work on cotton plantations, and the number of acres of Indian lands put under cotton cultivation increased commensurately.
Excerpted from Cotton and Conquest by Roger G. Kennedy. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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