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Published by EH.NET (July 2006)

Chad Morgan, Planters’ Progress: Modernizing Confederate Georgia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005. xii + 163 pp. $55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8130-2872-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Sean Patrick Adams, Department of History, University of Florida.

Do we need another case study of the American Civil War? While the public demand for the beards and bullets side of America’s Iliad appears insatiable, many historians have wondered if every single aspect of this struggle has already been thoroughly chronicled. For those interested in questions of political economy, however, the American Civil War offers some tantalizing and yet unexplored possibilities, as wartime conditions can trigger dramatic changes in societies. The peculiar demands of a prolonged military struggle on a nation can erode longstanding institutional practices once considered as solid as bedrock. War can also thrust new actors to the forefront of a society; not just in military venues, but in the civilian realm as well. Fissures created by the unique demands of wartime, moreover, allow new entrepreneurs to blossom where they previously had no succor. Thus, there is still a great deal to learn about the intersection of political, military, and economic policies during this well-traveled period.

Chad Morgan’s slim volume entitled Planters’ Progress: Modernizing Confederate Georgia offers a new perspective on the impact of the Civil War upon southern industrialization. Morgan, a Triangle Research Libraries Network Fellow at North Carolina State University, takes issue with the longstanding argument that military exigencies forced the South to industrialize. He argues that Confederate industrialization was not a “clean break with the past” but “instead an elaboration and acceleration of existing tendencies” p. (2). As such, Morgan finds more continuity than change among planters’ conceptions of industrial growth at the same time that the Civil War years placed an unprecedented strain on Georgia’s economy. While his argument is not without its faults, Planters’ Progress is a valuable contribution to the burgeoning field in nineteenth-century political economy.

Morgan begins with an overview of Georgia’s antebellum industrial sector and attempts to challenge the prevailing wisdom about the antebellum southern state. After chronicling the rise of cotton mills in antebellum manufacturing centers like Athens, Augusta, and Columbus and the concurrent expansion of railroads in Georgia, Morgan reminds us that the South compared quite favorably with other nations in terms of industrial growth. He also makes a case for Georgia’s economic prowess by the eve of the Civil War. Here Morgan follows in the footsteps of Milton Sydney Heath, whose Constructive Liberalism still resonates a half-century after its publication.[1] Heath argued that Georgia’s public officials vacillated between laissez-faire and “constructive liberal” policies in the antebellum decades and drew upon an avalanche of statistical evidence to demonstrate that point. Morgan, on the other hand, asserts that Georgia witnessed a steady increase of state power and that planters did not oppose industrial development, but merely wanted to control it. “If industrialization ever took off in earnest, as happened during the Civil War,” Morgan claims, “slaveholders could bring state power to bear on industrialists to block their ascendance while preserving jurisdiction over manufacturing for the government” (p. 17)

Restoring agency to the South’s public policymakers makes sense, but Morgan’s main body of evidence for this trend comes from a close read of the writings of proslavery ideologues George Fitzhugh and Henry Hughes rather than a systematic exploration of Georgia’s political economy. By focusing on intellectual trends at the expense of political battles, Morgan avoids the sloppy world of legislative policymaking altogether. Yet this leads him to assign a great deal of prescience to Georgia’s planters, to whom, “Secession finally gave … an opportunity to pursue a modernity they had long sought” (p. 31). Was the goal of economic “modernity” so clear cut in nineteenth-century America? The work of historians such as Colleen Dunlavy, Robin Einhorn, Richard John, John Larson, William Novak, and Heather Cox Richardson — all of whom have restored contingency and conflict to nineteenth-century political economy — certainly questions that premise.[2] In fact, Morgan’s claim that the Civil War “was a fight over how the South would modernize — with or without slavery” (p. 109) evokes the same assumption that Planters’ Progress attacks throughout the text; namely that the South was a “pre-modern,” “pre-industrial,” and “pre-statist” society that needed to catch up to the North’s more advanced status in these categories. Whiggish conceptions of economic development thus undermine the argument at points, particularly when Morgan attempts to place Georgia’s case within the broader context of nineteenth-century political and economic history.

Planters’ Progress is much more effective in its discussion of Georgia’s wartime economy. Josiah Gorgas, the head of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, made Georgia the hub of Confederate military production and the state’s industrial sector thrived as a result. The Civil War also saw the rise of Atlanta as a significant rail and manufacturing center, a process that Morgan attributes to the state-sponsored production of war materials. In areas where antebellum industries were established, wartime demand pushed production levels even higher. Morgan’s depiction of the “seemingly overnight creation of a government manufacturing establishment” (p. 44) and the heavy-handed Confederate oversight in running it is a compelling story of how rapid industrialization can occur out of necessity.

The story of labor relations in Georgia during the Civil War is an important one for Planters’ Progress. Here the strong presence of the Confederacy in Georgia’s manufacturing sector muted the labor unrest that often accompanies rapid industrialization. More specifically, Morgan argues, the presence of government officials allowed industrialists to employ a variety of black and white, male and female, and free and enslaved labor in ways that a civilian economy would find unpalatable. Of course, at the same time that a “combination of repression, segregation, and outright luck” in Confederate Georgia “defused a potentially explosive situation,” this style of industrial development resulted in “reprehensible conditions for workers” (p. 86). As the fortunes of the war shifted in the Union’s favor by 1864, this overwhelming state presence shifted from a managerial role into a more humanitarian one, as Georgians from all castes and classes drew upon public resources to survive the deprivations triggered by General Sherman’s invasion of the state.

In the end, Planters’ Progress provides an instructive case study of a state’s economic transformation during wartime conditions. Although Morgan’s wider arguments about Georgia’s “modernity” are less convincing, his concise account of rapid economic development during the Civil War is a model of efficient and effective prose backed by evidence. In a field often overburdened with duplication, Planters’ Progress is recommended reading for economic and political historians grappling with the complex nature of southern industrialization during the turbulent decades of the mid-nineteenth century.

Notes:

1. Milton Sydney Heath, Constructive Liberalism: The Role of the State in Economic Development in Georgia to 1860 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954).

2. While not a formal school or organization, these historians are commonly cited as good examples of the “new institutionalist” approach that has revitalized the study of political economy in the nineteenth-century United States. See Colleen Dunlavy, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Robin Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833-1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Richard John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); John Larson, Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); William Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Heather Cox Richardson, The Greatest Nation on Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Sean Patrick Adams is the author of Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).