Introduction - The Civil War and the South's Gentry - Economic and Social Effects of the War

The Civil War (1861-1865) was no doubt one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history. When one includes non-combat related fatalities such as disease, no other conflict in American history has claimed as many lives as the war between the blue and the gray did. The issue of slavery was increasingly becoming polarized and the slave-based economy of the south thought it would be in its best interest to secede from the Union to protect the institution. After the first shots were fired by the Confederacy at Fort Sumter in 1861, the United States under President Lincoln would do everything in its power to preserve the Union until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865 along with the abolition of slavery with the passage of the 13th amendment. Those in the south, including the gentry, were not spared from the torments of the war, and they would continue to have bitter ideas after the war. Considering that the south was economically devastated by the war which had lasting impacts, this project hopes to explore how the Civil-War era southern gentry was affected by using three examples from the Mason family as a lens. In other words, how were the southern gentry affected by the Civil War?

The south was economically devastated for numerous reasons. First, the Anaconda Plan or the Union blockade, where the United States Navy blocked off all access to Confederate ports in the Atlantic to cripple the south’s economy with the idea that it would bring a quicker end to the war. The Confederacy, not heavily industrialized, would not be able to export its cotton or import crucial supplies such as rifles, clothing, and other essentials from Europe, the Caribbean, or other parts of the globe. As Holland Thompson, a historian of the south puts it, “…the blockade prevented the renewal or replacement of manufactured articles. Tools, implements, household furniture, and the better grades of clothing, could not be replaced when they were worn out, either substitutes were found or the family did without".[1] Most importantly, it became extremely difficult for the south to export its cash crops, leading to a deterioration of the wealth among the gentry. The blockade was not the only factor that crippled the southern economy as the Union military also saw it beneficial to the war to demolish infrastructure, particularly railroad and the gentry owned plantations which were the economic powerhouses of the Confederacy. Thompson notes that after the war, many would come home to find their homes dilapidated, no longer the owner of slaves, and with cotton production down, many planters being unable to pay off debts were forced to sell or give up their properties with few potential buyers.[2] Countless men and women in the gentry started doing menial jobs which before were only reserved for slaves and had to adopt tenant farming or find some other way to earn an income allowing the south to start becoming industrialized.[3]

The social effects on the south and its gentry were also extreme. With chattel slavery being unconstitutional and many losing land, we also see a decline of the aristocratic gentry. The breakdown of the hierarchy of the south began during the war as while officer positions in the Confederate military were mainly reserved for the elites, the Confederate military saw many men rise to high ranks who were not of the gentry.[4] After the Civil War, the fortunes of the gentry had deteriorated and many families languished over their loss of prestige and glory.[5] As many languished on their bitter and resentful ideas during the Reconstruction Era, they would leave ideas embedded into later generations who would rebel once again only this time not in warfare, but in thought.[6] In other words, the feelings felt by the ex-gentry of the south would contribute to the pseudo-historical notion that the Confederacy was that of a just and righteous cause famously known as the "Lost Cause of the Confederacy".

Ryan Betts, HIST 300, Spring 2020, Undergrad


[1] Thompson, Holland, "The Civil War and Social and Economic Changes" The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 153 (1931): 11.

[2] Thompson, "The Civil War and Social and Economic Changes", 11-13.

[3] Thompson, "The Civil War and Social and Economic Changes", 14-17.

[4] Thompson, "The Civil War and Social and Economic Changes", 17.

[5] Thompson, "The Civil War and Social and Economic Changes", 17.

[6] Thompson, "The Civil War and Social and Economic Changes", 20.

Introduction - The Civil War and the South's Gentry - Economic and Social Effects of the War