The end of the conflict between the North and the South didn’t just mark the end of a war; it marked the end of an entire way of life. The plantation society of hoop skirts and mammies, of gentlemen and stable boys, could not exist anymore. Beyond the obvious fact that the driving force of much of that society—slavery—was illegal, the agricultural economy of the South was destroyed beyond invigoration. The South, wearing down the uncomfortable crutch of the Reconstruction, needed to reimagine its fate in order to survive. The answer lay in the New South.
Following the conclusion of the War, the South had subtly, slowly, begun reconstructing its bones. The first step to revitalizing the region’s economy, regardless of the path that economy would take, was reestablishing the tangled railroad lines and charred ports that had fallen during the War. Before 1860, there were some 10,000 miles of track across the South; by 1880, that number was 20,000, doubling again by the end of the decade. As for ports, cities like New Orleans, Mobile, and Galveston were buoyed by millions of dollars in federal funding to rebuild their harbors.
By the mid-1880’s, our Southern region was physically prepared for a new age—we just needed a champion. That came in the form of Henry Grady.
As editor of the Atlanta Constitution, the South’s preeminent paper, young Grady had already established himself as a voice that needed to be heard. So when he began preaching ideas of a New South, folks listened.
In speeches and editorials, in his own paper as well as papers across the country, Grady described the imminent rebirth of the South as a new industrial hub. The North had grown expansively and prospered following the War, brought on by the Second Industrial Revolution and the technological advancements that came with it. By embracing a similar culture and economy of industrial development, Grady argued, the South could find similar success.
Though the South was the true progenitor of American industries, the birthplace of the raw materials, those materials were traditionally sent North to be made into functional goods. Even before the War, some Southerners had berated the region’s lack of industry, promising that the region’s dependence on the wares of the North would have dire consequences.
In 1886 Grady stood before the New England Society, an influential gathering of businessmen and politicians, and asserted the advantages of the support of a New South. By supporting the unification of the regions into a single Union and bolstering such industries below the Mason-Dixon, Grady argued, these Northern investors would reap rewards both monetary and moral. By the same token, the Southerners would regain their financial and economical independence following the rough-fingered hold of the Reconstruction.
It was this sentiment that Grady continued to express until his death at the end of the decade, and those Northern industrialists heeded his advice. In some ways it was a success for the South, but it was an unquestionable success for the Northern investors.
Grady’s own Atlanta was perhaps most benefited by his advocacy for a New South (some historians argue this was actually his intention). In 1887, at the behest of Grady, the government moved to establish the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, bringing his esteemed technological advancements to his own town. And three times over the course of the remainder of the century, cotton expositions and industrial fairs sank their pylons into the Georgia mud, bringing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to Atlanta. Grady’s work unequivocally established Atlanta as a modern hub.
Elsewhere in the South, cities rose from the fertilizer of Grady’s words. Birmingham, for example, was no more than a map dot before Grady encouraged iron and steel manufacturing in the South. The city rose with the industry; the same process occurred in other small towns across the South with iron ores or coal mines. Though these communities grew exponentially with the support of such industries, it was the Northern benefactors who reaped the monetary benefits.
Textile mills also flourished in the New South across the Appalachian foothills of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. In 1880 some 160 mills turned cotton into goods in the South; by 1890, over 400 cotton mills existed in the region. These mills were almost entirely supported by Northern investments, and again, it was those investors who most benefited. The construction of such Southern mills was inspired in large part by the fact that the mills could pay Southern millhands half of what they would owe their Northern counterparts. So although the mills technically brought jobs to this New South, it was primarily the pockets of the North they filled.
The tobacco industry, spurred by the invention of cigarette-rolling machines, took a similar trajectory. Tobacco had always been a part of local agriculture, but now it was also part of local industry and processed on Southern soil, though the profits again went North. These industries built communities but continued to impede poor white and black communities, whose members were employed for pennies.
The greatest detractors of Grady and his New South at the time were agrarians. Southern farmers argued Grady was crushing the agricultural prospects of the future and simultaneously supporting Northern interests. Although it’s questionable as to whether or not Grady realized it, their second point rings true. Though his own city undoubtedly benefited from his persuasive words, whether or not the rest of the region did is not so concrete.
The economic independence Grady advertised to his Southern peers was a false reality in the New South. The reliance on Northern investments in these new industries sabotaged that independence from the beginning. Rather than establish the South as a new hub of technology and industry, it may have simply reinterpreted the jurisdiction of the Reconstruction.
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