[ skip to content ]

BOOK BY HISTORY PROF EXPLORES INDUSTRY IN THE CONFEDERATE SOUTH

When people think of the Civil War South, they think "Gone with the Wind," plantations, cotton fields and slavery. Business and industry do not immediately leap to mind. However, in his new book, "Confederate Industry: Manufacturers and Quartermasters in the Civil War," Harold Wilson debunks the myth that the South was nothing but agriculture.

In fact, the associate professor of history explains that it was the strength of the Southern business community, particularly manufacturers and quartermasters, that made it possible for the Confederacy to survive as long as it did, as these mills were appropriated by the Confederate Army to make weaponry, clothing and other materials for war. In many cases, these mills were then destroyed -- sometimes by Southerners themselves, sometimes by the North as a strategy for victory -- contributing to the post-war idea that the South was not industrial.

"The South had some industry exploited for military purposes and lost it as a result," said Wilson. "And ironically they [the mill owners] were often Unionists."

The expertise of the mill owners and manufacturers was not lost on many the Union victors who, after the war, called on them for assistance in rebuilding. "[President Andrew] Johnson turned to the South's industry leaders," Wilson noted. "Manufacturers became leaders in the early reconstruction governments." However, Johnson lost power following his
impeachment, and the subsequent government, led by former Gen. Ulysses Grant, was less concerned with reconstructing the decimated industry of the South.

Though born in East Tennessee, Wilson considers himself a Virginian, and as such, a true Southerner. In researching the book -- a labor of love and scholarship that took him to every Southern state over the course of a decade -- Wilson found document upon document detailing the lives of the other Southerners, many who don't fit the stereotypical mold of the Civil War South. At Harvard University, he found records from a credit agency that showed manufacturing was alive in the South and that these business leaders regularly interacted with their counterparts in the North. In the National Archives, he found more than 1,000 rolls of microfilm detailing Confederate business activities.

"The records were almost impossible to decipher," he said, explaining that there was a great deal of shorthand and symbols -- almost like a code. "No one had gone through it, but I dug in on it and tried to make sense of it." In doing so and by looking at Confederate census data acquired by the military, he was able to see a picture he and other scholars hadn't seen before. "There were casualties behind the lines as well. The civilians in the South paid a very, very heavy price."

These civilians are unsung heroes in Wilson's mind, and his book brings their glory to light. His hope is that descendants of these mill owners who lived and worked in towns and cities across the South will learn what their ancestors did. "They made a material contribution to the Confederacy," he said, adding that their descendants should be proud not only of the men who worked in these factories, but also of the more than 50,000 women and children -- of all races -- who continued that work when the war raged.

For more information on the work, including the book's index with references to specific towns, mills, and families involved in manufacturing during this era, visit http://members.cox.net/haroldwilson.

This article was posted on: November 15, 2002

Old Dominion University
Office of University Relations

Room 100 Koch Hall Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0018
Telephone: 757-683-3114
http://www.odu.edu/news

Old Dominion University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.