Cotton in Savannah


Anna Ruff

Cotton has been an important crop to the South since before the American Revolution.  Cotton brought a lot of wealth to many plantation owners.[1]  The cotton of the American South supplied the North’s and Britain’s cotton mills and helped maintain a balance of trade with Europe.[2]  Before the American Revolution in the 1740s to 1760s cotton was a crop grown for household use.[3]  After the Revolution, cotton production moved from along the coast inward because there was a switch to short-staple cotton.[4]  People increased the amount of cotton they produced because they no longer relied on the British for goods.[5]  In the early 1800s, farmers made growing cotton cheaper and more efficient.[6]  As the production of cotton increased, the economy was on the rise.[7]  Prices for cotton were high and people earned a lot of money.[8]  Cotton was packed into bales because it made it easier for transportation.  Cotton baling began in the early 1800s; before cotton was put into bales, farmers put it loosely into bags.[9]

Slaves were a major part of the life of cotton in the South.  Because of the need for people to pick cotton there was an increased need for slaves.[10]  Cotton was a hard crop to plant and harvest.  Cotton “grew just tall enough to inflict paralyzing backaches from bending and stooping, but not so low that it could be picked clean by kneeling comfortably between rows.”  It also had jagged burrs that surrounded the part that was needed.  The lint and seeds were very hard to pull from the plant.[11]  The production of this tough plant depended greatly on slave labor.[12]  Before the rise of the Cotton Kingdom, slavery was thought to be in decline, but with cotton there was a new use for slaves; Chaplin states an opposing view that “early cotton cultivators used cotton to preserve a world already shaped by commercial agriculture and slavery.”[13]  Nevertheless at the end of the antebellum period most of the seventy percent of slaves in the Deep South worked with cotton.[14]  African Americans were the laborers that moved the cotton down the Savannah River, and the number of slaves increased with the growth of the cotton industry.[15]

Savannah was the third-largest exporter of cotton in the antebellum South. The city was able to thrive because of its location close to coastal rice plantations, cotton plantations inland, and access to foreign markets across the Atlantic and Northern markets.[16]  The reasons why Savannah was a great place for the trade of cotton were access to outside of the United States and tributaries around the city.[17] Cotton greatly changed the influence of Savannah as a port city.[18]  Savannah had access, because of the Savannah River, to the cotton plantations of Georgia and South Carolina that produced a considerable amount of the United States cotton crop in the early 1800s.[19]  Cotton bales were taken to Augusta from nearby plantations and put onto rafts that took them to ships in Savannah going to England.[20] The coastal area also had shallow waterways that could be used to get sea-island cotton to the Savannah harbor.[21]  Rafts and boats took cotton down to the port to be exported.[22]  Railroads were another way to transport cotton into Savannah.  In the early to mid 1800s, railroads were able to transport cotton relatively inexpensively and much faster than before.[23]  With the railroads Savannah and Charleston had to compete for the cotton of inland Georgia and South Carolina.  A railroad was built from Augusta to Charleston, so cotton instead of going down the river to Savannah went to Charleston instead.  Savannah was worried about their access to cotton in the South.  A railroad line to Macon was built and it was to be continued past Macon to Tennessee in order to trade with the cotton belt.[24]  In the 1830s, cotton grown in Alabama and Tennessee was transported by railroad into the city to be shipped.

Before the Civil War, Savannah exported more than half a million bales of cotton a year.[25]  During the Civil War, Savannah could no longer transport cotton.  In 1862, the United States captured Fort Pulaski and blocked Savannah from the ocean.[26]  The port was inactive, and Savannah’s economy was not doing well.[27]  When General Sherman captured Savannah, he seized over 30,000 bales of cotton that were stored in warehouses in the city.[28]  Cotton was still transported to Savannah and stored in warehouses to be taken by blockade runners.[29] When news of the amount of cotton in Savannah reached the North, many merchants and people working for the war and treasury departments wanted to gain control of it or gain access to it.  This amount of cotton would help settle the economic debt to Europe and also meant that they could look forward toward the vast amount of products that would be available to them once the war was over and Southern ports opened to the North again.[30]  Officials of the Union sought to gain control of the cotton because it meant that the North could have more power over the South after the end of the Civil War.[31]  After the Civil War, Savannah was still a major port, but it was dependent on cotton that was depleting the soil.[32]  The port of Savannah expanded and warehouses were built to hold cotton and other exports.[33]  The price of cotton dropped, and the South continued to depend on the crop and established tenant farming and sharecropping in order to produce cotton.[34]  By 1880, the South was producing more cotton than before the Civil War, but at prices far lower.  “The crop had essentially conditioned the South to serve its needs even when its needs no longer served the South.”[35]

The coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina had a special type of cotton called Sea Island cotton.  It grew on the islands that fronted the ocean, making them the “sea islands;” in Georgia, it grew on Ossabaw, St. Catherine’s, Sapelo, and St. Simon’s Islands.[36]  Sea Island cotton had black seeds and loose lint that could have a length of two inches compared to upland that had a green seed and “tightly adhering lint” that was never over an inch in length.  The only time that Sea Island and upland cotton met was in Savannah and Charleston.[37]  Sea Island cotton sold for a higher price than that of upland cottons because of its length and quality.[38]  In 1793, half as much Sea Island cotton cost twice as much as upland cotton.[39]   This cotton was known as the “cashmere of cotton,” because it felt like satin.[40]  People had tried to plant Sea Island cotton inland, but it never was able to grow.[41]   It had a long growing season, and it was thought that the salty, ocean air helped the cotton grow to perfection.[42]   This cotton was never produced on the scale of upland cotton because of its low yield, which was most likely due to where it was able to grow.[43]  Sea Island cotton cost more to gin that regular cotton because the fibers could not break.  Gins did not break the fiber, but seeds could be crushed, ruining the lint.  Sea Island cotton was not packed into bales, but was put into bags in order to prevent clotting.[44]  Ossabaw Island is the third largest barrier island of Georgia and is located 16 miles south of Savannah.[45]  In the early 1790s, this type of cotton replaced indigo as the key crop of Ossabaw.[46]  Thomas Spalding, who owned Sapelo Island from 1802 to 1851, was one of the lead planters of Sea Island cotton.[47]  As time went on, less Sea Island cotton was being produced.  In Chatham County, there were 1000 bales of Sea Island cotton in 1860, but by 1900 only 10 bales were produced.[48]  Sea island cotton died out with the boll weevil devastation in the early 1900s.[49]  Sea Island cotton was produced in Georgia and South Carolina for two hundred years.[50]

Eli Whitney improved the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove Plantation, one of the main rice plantations in Georgia.[51]  Whitney became friends with the widow of General Nathanael Greene in 1792 on a ship to Savannah.[52]  He had come to Georgia because of job prospects, but found that he was not able to get a job once he arrived.  He then became a tutor for the Greene children.[53]  Whitney was a guest at Mulberry Grove for a few days when a group of cotton planters stopped at the plantation.  The guest and Whitney talked about cotton, and Whitney learned how hard it was to separate the fiber from the seed.  These planters wanted a better way than the roller which was awkward and took a long time to separate the seed.[54]  Cotton was not planted in great amounts because of the time needed to produce the fiber.  A five hundred pound bale of cotton took a slave sixteen months to separate by hand.[55]  In other words, a slave could only cleaned about one pound of cotton a day.[56]  Whitney was able to solve this problem within a few weeks.  He set wires into a wooden cylinder, which revolved against the slatted side of a box containing cotton.  The wires caught the cotton fiber and pulled the lint from the seed that was too big to fit through the slats.  The wires got clogged with the fibers so he put another cylinder with a brush to clean the lint off as soon it came out of the box.[57]  The gin helped greatly with the production of upland cotton because Sea Island cotton was easier to separate from the seed than the cotton grown inland.[58]  The cotton gin was able to separate about fifty pounds of cotton a day.[59]  Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793 made cotton a better commercial product.[60]  The cotton gin made the agricultural economy of the South healthier and wealthier.[61]  It helped to make cotton the cash crop of the South and renewed the “institution of slavery, which in turn triggered the escalating political, moral, religious, and economic discord that led to bloodshed.”[62]


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