Land Conflict and the American Civil War

I had promised to spend some of my blogging time looking at the American Civil War, in addition to looking at aspects of conflict.  Most recently I have been writing about land conflict, so a reasonable question to ask is whether the Civil War had elements of land conflict.  In fact, it did.

A good book that addresses land and conflict in the Civil War is Roger Ransom’s Conflict and Compromise.  It’s an analysis of slavery and the Civil War from the perspective of political economy.  I like Ransom’s book because of its clarity and insightful analysis.

One could suggest that the most obvious involvement of land in the American Civil War was the whole question of where slavery began and ended.  This was a question of territory, which is somewhat dissimilar to land conflict.  Territory, the way discussed in the context of the Civil War, had strong political overtones.  Territory equated with political control.  Whereas land, in the way I am using it, concerns economic and social control and the exploitation of resources for one’s livelihood.  The focus on working lands in the American Civil War concerns farms and plantations.

Land was an issue for both northerners and southerners.  The burgeoning population of the north was hungry for land onto which people could move and exploit.  In the south the population expanded at a slower pace, but the intensive exploitation of the soil left some plantations and farms depleted.  Economic growth in the north had two bases- agriculture and booming industrialization.  Likewise the south had two bases for economic growth, both of which required land, namely agriculture and slavery.  Cotton was king in the south, and the prohibition on the importation of slaves made the domestic slave market highly valuable.

Northern farmers, without the economic and social tradition of slavery, opposed the extension of slavery into the north certainly on competitive grounds.  Southern farmers would have a competitive advantage in farming if they relied upon slave labor.  Northern farmers, without an investment in slaves and without the experience of working with slaves would have been at a disadvantage.  And, of course, I have not even addressed the obvious moral elements of opposition to slavery.  So, northern farmers had no interest in seeing slavery expanded westward.  Whereas, southerners felt differently.

In addition to the political gain to be made by southern westward expansion, southern pressure to move westward was also born from the depletion of eastern soils, division of plots into smaller and smaller holdings as inheritance, class mobility promised by obtaining new land, and the ease with which mobile slave labor made such farming expansion possible.  This is not to say that these were the realized results, but these reflected a promising future.  None of these factors directly led to war, however.  Unlike many civil wars today, disputes over land tenure did not fester into widespread conflict.  Rather, the social and economic dynamics of working land use helped to fuel the political conflict.

In the aftermath of the Civil War land tenure became an issue.  How would former slaves care for themselves?  Did they have rights to land?  If given land, from whom was the land taken?  Was compensation involved?

This entry was posted in civil war, essays, land, Peace and Conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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