Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era

Confederate Cities: The Urban South during the Civil War Era

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When we talk about the Civil War, we often describe it in terms of battles that took place in small towns or in the countryside: Antietam, Gettysburg, Bull Run, and, most tellingly, the Battle of the Wilderness. One reason this picture has persisted is that few urban historians have studied the war, even though cities hosted, enabled, and shaped Southern society as much as they did in the North.

Confederate Cities, edited by Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers, shifts the focus from the agrarian economy that undergirded the South to the cities that served as its political and administrative hubs. The contributors use the lens of the city to examine now-familiar Civil War–era themes, including the scope of the war, secession, gender, emancipation, and war’s destruction. This more integrative approach dramatically revises our understanding of slavery’s relationship to capitalist economics and cultural modernity. By enabling a more holistic reading of the South, the book speaks to contemporary Civil War scholars and students alike—not least in providing fresh perspectives on a well-studied war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226300344
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Andrew L. Slap is professor of history at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era and editor of Reconstructing Appalachia: The Civil War’s Aftermath. Frank Towers is associate professor of history at the University of Calgary. He is the author of The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War and coeditor of The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress.

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Confederate Cities

The Urban South during the Civil War Era

By Andrew L. Slap, Frank Towers

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30034-4


Regionalism and Urbanism as Problems in Confederate Urban History


Almost a decade ago the folks at the Journal of Urban History asked me to write a review essay considering the recent work on Civil War cities and the broader issues raised by that emerging scholarship. I thought it was an interesting task, and I tried to come up with a handful of observations that spanned a diverse array of topics and texts. I suggested that an expanded consideration of Civil War cities might enhance our understanding of the Civil War itself, and also our sense of the experiences of both civilians and Civil War cities in wartime. Of course such a discussion neglects a broader consideration of how the Civil War as a conflict fits into the broad narrative of American urban history. Rather than considering the wartime experience of a particular city (or its denizens), what happens when we ask about the wartime experience of "cities"? How much might such a discussion suggest something about the significance of regional differences? What is the real history of cities and urbanism in the Confederate South, and how is that history fundamentally different from the northern urban narrative?

To put the issue in a slightly different form, consider the much more substantial scholarship on the constitutional history of the Civil War. As Mark Neely Jr., borrowing from Harold Hyman, has observed, much of the scholarship on the Civil War's constitutional history has concentrated on the impact of the war on the Constitution (civil liberties, conscription, emancipation, and so on). In his short book The Union Divided Neely proposed "to consider the way the Constitution shaped the war, rather than the other way around." Perhaps there is some value in adopting a similar approach to urban history and the Civil War. Rather than asking how the war affected cities and urban dwellers, what might we learn by asking how cities shaped the Civil War?

I do not propose to offer grand answers here, but I would like to lay out some parameters for discussion. First, what exactly are we talking about when we discuss "cities" as a collective group? The scholarship offers multiple types of definitions, most of which are largely contingent on place and time. Often early cities — or at least towns — emerged around political, legal, and economic functions that drew people together, and sometimes around the military need to protect them behind fortifications. Thus, communities that supported courts, legislative bodies, or established markets emerged as urban places, drawing the diversity of individuals who needed the town's services and those who in turn settled to serve those people. Developments in trade, transportation, and manufacturing played major roles in determining the size and location of urban centers and the relationships among cities. In the early nineteenth century, nearly all US cities had easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. With the development of canals, enhanced river transportation, and eventually railroads, the nation's network of cities expanded and moved into the hinterland, although water routes remained crucial.

We generally define "urban places" by the size of the population and perhaps the overall population density. It is common practice to describe an "urban place" as a town with a population of at least 2,500 people. By that measure, for example, the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, just fell under the bar, with 2,400 people. Gettysburg was the county seat, had a small train station, and stood at the intersection of several fairly substantial roads. It was a bustling town, but hardly an urban center. Vicksburg, Mississippi, the other community that dominated military discussions in the first week of July 1863, was roughly twice as populous as Gettysburg, with about 4,600 people in 1860. So by the traditional measure, Vicksburg would be considered a modest-sized urban place. Less than two weeks after Vicksburg fell and Lee abandoned Gettysburg, all eyes turned to New York City, where draft riots raged over several days. In 1860 New York City was the nation's largest city, boasting a population of 813,669. If the census takers are to be trusted, New York City was about 177 times the size of Vicksburg in 1860. Meanwhile, neighboring Brooklyn ranked as the nation's third-largest city with a population of 266,661. Clearly when we speak of urban places the range is broad.

In 1790 roughly 5 percent of the nation's population lived in towns and cities with populations of 2,500 or larger. Seventy years later, that national figure had risen to 20 percent. In that same period of time the overall population of the country had grown quite rapidly, from just under 4 million people to over 31 million. In 1790 the southern states were roughly 2 percent urbanized, while the entire nation was closer to 7 percent urban. In 1860 the states of the Confederate States of America were nearly 7 percent urban, or roughly comparable to the nation in 1790. The states that would remain in the Union were nearly 25 percent urban. Thus, on the eve of the Civil War, Union states were not only several times more populous than the Confederate states, they were more than three times as urbanized. The overwhelming majority of Americans lived in small towns or rural areas.

Let us, for the sake of discussion, focus on cities with a population of at least 10,000 in 1860. On the eve of the Civil War ninety-three communities in the United States reached that mark. Of the nation's fifty largest cities, only seven — New Orleans, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; Mobile, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Savannah, Georgia; and Petersburg, Virginia — became part of the Confederate States of America. Five other Confederate cities ranked among the nation's largest ninety-three communities. The total population of these twelve cities was less than a third of the combined population of New York City and Brooklyn. Each of the nine Confederate cities ranked after New Orleans had a population not much more than that of Baltimore, Maryland, the fourth-largest Union city. The Baltimore example raises a further point worth noting. Between Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the border states that remained with the Union had five cities in the top ninety-three, totaling over 470,000 people.

So, if we consider the nation on the eve of the Civil War, some observations seem to be clear. The southern states were certainly growing more urban, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the entire population, but in 1860 the region's overall level of urbanization was still roughly comparable to the national level seventy years before. In the same period of time the northern states had produced far more cities and had a much more highly urbanized population. Beneath these broad observations there are a few analytic and empirical issues — and debates — to reckon with.

One debate concerns the notion of "modernization." From one perspective, the North was "modernizing" more rapidly than the South in that during the antebellum decades the region experienced a more rapid pace of economic development, as measured by a wide assortment of economic and institutional variables, including industrial output, investment in transportation, the application of technology in agriculture, the state of the banking and finance sector, and so on. A counterargument rejects the term "modernization" as implicitly indicating a preferred evolutionary path. Different economies, working with different variables, might develop in different ways. Who is to judge which is more "modern" at a particular point in time, especially if modern is understood to mean "superior"? The easiest way out of that discussion is to set aside the term "modern" and dismiss any idea that the economic discussion ought to be interested in making value judgments about competing systems. An empirical description of a particular point in time, or an analysis of the pace and pattern of change, need not be freighted with such baggage.

Of course in our particular case, even if we choose to set aside any consideration of which patterns of economic development were "better" and which were "behind" or "inferior," it is reasonable to ask which patterns of development would best serve a nation that would soon be mobilizing for a major military conflict. By that standard, the mid-nineteenth-century nation that is producing more industrial goods, more iron, more miles of railroad tracks (as well as rolling stock and engines), and more ships is likely to have a military advantage, other variables being relatively equal. Thus, the northern states might reasonably be understood to have been "ahead" of the states that would form the Confederacy in their material preparedness to fight a large war, even if in other senses the two worlds might be understood to be developing along different — but equally successful — paths.

A further set of interpretive issues focuses on how we should measure and describe the pace of urban change, and how those measurements might shape our understanding of regional differences. By many measures it seems that the gap in both manufacturing and urbanization was widening with each passing decade, thus expanding the material advantages that the North would enjoy once war began. But if we consider the slave states as a separate region in 1860, they were in the midst of impressive growth and development on many fronts, including urbanization. If we count the number of individuals living in urban places as a percentage of the entire population, that percentage (not the absolute number) was actually growing at a rapid rate. That is an intriguing statistic, although it is not entirely clear what it tells us. Between 1800 and 1850 the urban population of the southern states increased from 3 percent to 8.6 percent. Frank Towers has noted that this rate of increase (3.59%) is just behind the rate of increase for the northeastern states (3.73%) over the same five decades. But between 1800 and 1850 the Northeast witnessed a net increase of 2,075,092 urban residents, while the urban population in the South experienced a net increase of 823,022. This was the case despite the fact that the two regions were very similar in total population in 1800. Thus, the southern population was urbanizing at a rate comparable to that in the Northeast, but at midcentury the northeastern states were 27 percent urban.

One final observation is crucial. When we speak of the Civil War, we tend to use an imprecise shorthand when we characterize the conflict as between the "Free States" and the "Slave States." Indeed, most of the slave states fought with the Confederacy, and large numbers of slaveholders in those border states that remained in the Union cast their lot with the Confederate states. But when we consider wartime cities, the calculus shifts in important ways. For instance, Towers notes that in the antebellum South urban dwellers clustered in the region's larger urban centers, with nearly two-thirds living in the South's largest ten cities. This is an important observation when compared with the northern states, which actually had bigger cities but also far more smaller cities, producing an ironic result in that a greater percentage of the North's urban dwellers lived in smaller cities. But Towers's list of ten large southern cities includes four slave-holding cities — Baltimore, St. Louis, Louisville, Washington — that remained in the Union. These southern cities proved crucial in framing the South's antebellum political debates, but they did not fall on the Confederate side of the ledger sheet when it came time to mobilize. In both political and military discussions, the distinction between "Confederate cities" and "southern cities" (or "slave-holding cities") becomes crucial.

On the eve of the Civil War, the Confederacy's level of urbanization was both a reflection of the South's distinctive culture and economy, and an important factor shaping its present and future. Most of the more populous urban centers in the Confederacy and in the border states were on the region's periphery, connecting the southern states with the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, or the northern states, thus reflecting the region's economic emphasis on trade. In the North, far more smaller cities had emerged, fueled by industrial development, massive expansion in canals and railroads, and — especially in the decades of the 1840s and 1850s — major tides of immigration. Southern urban places beneath the level of the region's larger cities tended to grow more slowly, serving multiple urban functions without developing a comparable industrial sector and without attracting European immigrants in similar numbers. The result was, as David R. Goldfield put it more than three decades ago, "urbanization without cities." This was, he explained, "a condition consistent with the relatively few economic functions such cities performed in support of a staple crop economy." In the absence of major industrial development, a fully developed financial sector, or the broader institutional infrastructure emerging in northern cities, southern towns grew into small urban centers without becoming true cities. Goldfield argued further that in many senses these southern cities maintained an agrarian flavor. The rhythms of city life followed agricultural cycles, with many wealthier denizens maintaining both country and city homes. The racial patterns established in planter society were built upon slave labor and shaped southern urban culture, where African Americans were both free and enslaved. Even the southern urban architecture followed agricultural traditions. Goldfield concluded that it was a world that was "modernized without northernizing." Another way to frame the same point would be to say that the urban places that emerged in the antebellum South — and particularly in that portion of the South that would become the Confederacy — met the particular economic and cultural needs of that society.

Certainly these patterns of growth and development owed much to the presence of slavery, as both an economic and cultural force. For decades, investment in slaves as agricultural labor effectively crowded out other forms of investment, as many slave owners and prospective investors put their capital into tobacco and cotton at the expense of alternative investments in industry and transportation. This is not to say that slave labor was incompatible with either industrial work or urban settings (it was not), but only that agriculture provided an attractive option for investment dollars while also allowing many southern planters to remain within a culturally appealing agrarian setting rather than venturing into less familiar economic arenas.

European immigrants play an important role in this narrative, again suggesting how cause and effect become intertwined. The data show that immigrants opted to head for the free states in overwhelmingly disproportionate numbers. To some extent these migratory decisions reflected a moral distaste for the institution of slavery as well as a resistance among poor immigrants to enter a society where they would be competing for work with slave labor and with free blacks. More broadly, poor immigrants gravitated to urban ports and to cities and towns that offered the best options for work, while those migrants with greater resources chose paths that would enable them to purchase land and compete as small farmers. And with the passage of time, immigrants followed where other immigrants had already settled. In sum, the presence of slave labor made the South less appealing to immigrants, while in the North the expansion of immigrant communities and growing work opportunities in factories made those states above the Mason-Dixon Line progressively more appealing.


Excerpted from Confederate Cities by Andrew L. Slap, Frank Towers. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

David Goldfield
Introduction: Historians and the Urban South’s Civil War
Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers
Part One: The Big Picture
1. Regionalism and Urbanism as Problems in Confederate Urban History
J. Matthew Gallman
2. Urban Processes in the Confederacy’s Development, Experience, and Consequences
David Moltke-Hansen
Part Two: Secession
3. To Be the “New York of the South”: Urban Boosterism and the Secession Movement 77
Frank towers
4. Gender and Household Metaphors in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Nation-Building Cities
T. Lloyd Benson
Part Three: Gender
5. Stephen Spalding’s Fourth of July in New Orleans
Michael Pierson
6. “More like Amazons than starving people”: Women’s Urban Riots in Georgia in 1863
Keith S. Bohannon
Part Four: Emancipation
7. African American Veterans, the Memphis Region, and the Urbanization of the Postwar South
Andrew L. Slap
8. Black Political Mobilization and the Spatial Transformation of Natchez
Justin Behrend
9. African Americans’ Struggle for Education, Citizenship, and Freedom, in Mobile, Alabama, 1865–1868
Hilary N. Green
Part Five: A New Urban South
10. Invasion, Destruction, and the Remaking of Civil War Atlanta
William A. Link
11. Freeing the Lavish Hand of Nature: Environment and Economy in Nineteenth-Century Hampton Roads
John Majewski
Conclusion: Cities and the History of the Civil War South
Andrew L. Slap and Frank Towers

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