Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The economy in post-War Laurens County, SC

Map of South Carolina highlighting Laurens County
Laurens County in South Carolina (Wikipedia)
Let’s begin by looking at the realities of Laurens County’s economy and generalities of life at the end of the War for Southern Independence.  

The poverty which the post-bellum Confederate was to know was first of all a direct result of the North's hatred and blatant destruction of the South. But there was an element of the poverty that the slave owner brought upon himself.  Before the war, men would live not much better than their slaves in order to
“keep the Negroes up” and protect the value of their human investments.  A slave was worth about a year’s wage, and of the small percentage of the population which owned a slave in the first place, most could not afford more than three.  Farmers would let maintenance on the house and barns go.  Their children went without shoes, his wife without new clothes, all this in order to put as much as possible into their investment in one to three slaves.  When the slaves were freed at war’s end, the white farmer’s investment evaporated. He was left with nothing but barefooted children and a dilapidated farm. Holders of Confederate bank notes or bonds likewise found themselves broke, and the widespread destruction of basic infrastructure due to the War coupled with the sudden disappearance of nine billion dollars in human capital had a devastating effect on the Southern economy.

The high price of cotton just after the war became another financial trap.  Each post-war year as farmers planted more, cotton prices fell from $1.00 a pound to six cents.  Freed slaves found that newfound freedom alone didn’t put food on the table, and the great expense of farming drove many "to the wall."[1]  To add to the difficulties, "the war had ended late in the spring of 1865, so that the crops of that year were short, and there were crop failures for the next two years."[2]

            Laurens County had sent 2,535 soldiers into the Uncivil War, and half were either killed or disabled.[3]  The fortunate ones made it back to places like poverty stricken Clinton. William Plumer Jacobs, who was to found Thornwell Orphanage and Clinton (later Presbyterian) College, lamented Clinton’s condition, "the general opinion being that Clinton had seen her best days; and very few were there to prophesy otherwise."  No organized United States troops entered the county during the war, but the smoke of Columbia could be seen in Laurens County, and Jacobs recounts that "a mighty multitude of Refugees from Fairfield, Richland, and Lexington counties poured through our streets, leaving the citizens in an uproar of confusion and anxiety, but the scare was all and nothing followed."[4] One of the more famous refugees was President Jefferson Davis, his remaining Cabinet, and an armed escort of 2,000 South Carolina troops who had heard Lee was going to surrender, broke through the Union lines, and joined the President to conduct him safely through the Palmetto State
President Davis on his “Flight from Richmond,” entered Laurens County on April 30, 1865, at the Brick House between Clinton and Whitmire, where their horses were watered, and spent the night in the home of L. Lafayette Young near Milton that night. The next morning, President Davis gave a speech on the second floor portico of the Griffin-Williams Home in Mountville encouraging the citizens to remain faithful to the cause of Southern Independence, despite the fact that Generals Lee and Johnston had surrendered all the Confederate troops east of the Mississippi River. President Davis would leave Laurens County for Abbeville, where he would hold his famous “Last Cabinet Meeting” before being captured in south Georgia about ten days later.
            For the average family, life was not as hard in Laurens County as in other parts of the state scorched by Sherman.  Folks in Laurens County overall had enough to eat after the war, which was better than average for South Carolinians.  In Laurens County, the end of the war brought a great sense of relief to people. It was finally over. was no Scarlett O’Hara swearing never to be hungry again. In a 1916 interview, Eliza Watts Ball was asked, “Were you greatly distressed or was there gloom in Laurens when the Confederacy collapsed?”
            She answered, “Why no, we were not distressed, we were all too glad that the war was over to think about that.  The terrible suspense was at an end, and we young people had a good time that spring and summer.  I suppose it was quite different in parts of the state that had been invaded, but our homes had not been burned and our property had not been stolen.  The soldiers were coming home, there was nothing for them to do, and it was months before they could settle down to work.  I am sure they were enjoying the relief, we still had what we needed to eat, and we danced, we had picnics and frolicked, we had what would be called 'house parties' now, and there was [Laurensville Female] college commencement.  We were poor, but we were never in need, and we had a gay time that spring and summer.  I never had a better time."[5]
African-American writer W.E.B. DuBois would agree with Ball.  He writes, albeit arguing that Reconstruction was a good thing, that the cotton crop had recovered by 1870, and by 1876 the entire economic rebirth of the South was in sight.  "The public debt was large," he said, but was counted with depreciated currency contending with war losses and new governmental reach. The legislation apparently was not faulty, DuBois argued, since it stood for many years, some of its principles remaining yet.[6]  Basic foodstuffs were plentiful even for the newly freedmen. Freed slave Laura Caldwell said, "The farms had large gardens and we raised most everything to eat. Large patches of turnips, cabbage, and green vegetables was the custom at that time."[7]   

Laurens County child of slaves, Mattie Wilson Hudson, relates:

Daddy was an outstanding farmer who often hummed while he worked and knew how to get the best out of us.  Mother, with her tremendous responsibility, managed well and worked hard too. . . . There was always plenty of food from the big garden.  They raised flocks of fowl, dairy products, and hogs.  Fruits, berries, and other commodities were plentiful also.[8]

            The Laurensville Herald regularly published new recipes, which reveal a culinary wealth.  In the March 22, 1872, issue, the ladies of the community were educated in mincing mutton for use as rissoles of mutton, kromeskys, pultices, mutton casseroles, mutton croquettes, and mutton scallops, making sure to fry to "a golden color in hot lard."[9]

[1]Thornwell Jacobs, ed., William Plumer Jacobs:  Literary and Biographical, (Oglethorpe University:  Oglethorpe University Press, 1942), p. 52.
[2]W.E. Burghardt DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, (Cleveland:  World Publishing Company, 1962), pp. 385‑386.
[3]Laurens County Advertiser, June 10, 1970, Tricentennial Edition.
[4]Jacobs, Literary, p. 13, 19.
[5]William Watts Ball, The State That Forgot, (Indianapolis:  Bobbs‑Merrill Co., 1932), p. 129.
[6]DuBois, p. 382.
[7]Laura Caldwell (77), interviewed May 20, 1937, in Slave Narratives:  South Carolina Narratives, (St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press, Inc., 1976), Vol I, Sec. i, p. 169.  She was born in Union County near the Tyger River ferry.
[8]Mattie Wilson Hudson, "Warren Wilson Family," in Jacobs, William P., ed., The Scrapbook:  A Compilation of Historical Facts About Places and Events of Laurens County, South Carolina,  (Clinton:  Laurens County Historical Society and Laurens County Arts Council, 1982), pp. 408‑409.
[9]Laurensville Herald, March 22, 1872.