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When the earliest of settlers arrived at what is now Charleston, South Carolina, and when General James Oglethorpe laid out his famous plan for the fair city of Savannah, Georgia, the success of these new colonies was predicated on one thing above all else: the ability of these ports to ship back to Europe the goods planters produced in the New World.
The premise was simple in theory: the vast, verdant lands of this new continent could produce in great abundance commodities not easily grown, or at least at such scale, in England and elsewhere in Europe. Slave labor would make the size of plantations enormous and would produce economics greatly in the favor of both the planters who grew the crops as well as the agents responsible for their sale and shipment abroad. But this whole plan hinged on the effectiveness of the ports and the ability to maintain maritime trade without serious interruption from hostile competitors’ navies or from pirates.
As things turned out, these were not the only challenges—disease, logistical concerns, plus natural disasters all plagued the new colonies—but military intrigues and pirates alike did cause numerous headaches for colonial officials and the planters who looked to them for their safety and surety. What the men of this age may not have known, however, was that they laid the foundation for the success of the coastal states of the South even today, and we are greatly indebted to those early ports still.
Would a colonial seafarer even recognize Savannah, Charleston, or New Orleans today? Perhaps. Despite the great changes, the lay of the rivers and harbors remains much the same, and many of the same shoreline areas are still used in some capacity for ports. However, where break-bulk or loose cargo once took up the lion’s share of the docks, now there are far more intermodal container facilities and terminals for things like liquified natural gas (LNG) and chemicals, all of which would certainly puzzle the sailor of yesteryear since they had no equivalents in his day. And of course, the ships are much, much larger now, and the ports they service have grown markedly.
In Savannah, for instance, the port in colonial times was where today’s historic riverwalk is now located with its restaurants and bars, and the buildings just south of the river are known as Factors’ Walk and were the warehousing and office facilities for the businessmen who brokered cotton, turpentine, and other goods for export. By the time of the Civil War, this business had grown to encompass more real estate but still remained pretty centralized, whereas today the container and specialty terminals extend far upriver towards the community of Port Wentworth.
Maritime trade was supposed to be—by the thinking of Southern politicians at least—the savior of the South in the Civil War. The belief was that England and other trading partners would come to the rescue of the Confederacy, or at least help keep shipping lanes open (necessary for supplying troops), since these European nations would be in dire need of Southern agricultural products.
For a variety of reasons, things did not quite work out this way, but the naval aspects of the Civil War are fascinating nonetheless. The South constructed against all odds the ironside CSS Virginia which participated in the Battle of Hampton Roads against the Union ship the USS Monitor. The Confederacy also built the attack submarine the H.L. Hunley, which successfully sank a Union surface vessel, the USS Housatonic, prior to being lost with its crew due to mechanical failures. (This was actually the third time the sub had sunk resulting in the demise of the men crewing her, but on the previous two incidents the Hunley had been salvaged.) The sinking of the Housatonic was the first successful aggressive military action by a submarine in naval history, so a very important first for the Confederacy. Though the Hunley was lost, the US Navy was unable to be sure how many such newfangled submarines the Confederates might have, and the concept of a sub lurking below the water’s surface was a powerful psychological deterrent to Union blockades.
The removal of the Housatonic was in and of itself a great success for the Confederates and a welcome relief to Charleston: the Union ship had become a feared and reviled scourge of the harbor, stopping blockade-runners such as the Neptune and seizing their cargos, such as cotton, turpentine, and other typical produce of South Carolina. Turpentine, cotton, rice, indigo, and tobacco all played key roles as important export crops for the Carolinas and Georgia, and these crops basically wrote the early history of these colonies/states. The slave labor which allowed for these crops to be produced in quantities lucrative enough to further the Southern economy also were the roots of longstanding racial issues in the South and the basal source of the Civil War, which of course for all intents and purposes began in Charleston’s harbor at Fort Sumter. Even after the War’s conclusion, cotton, turpentine, and tobacco especially remained key crops, and ports retained their importance.
New Orleans was much the same: its river port catered to the mighty Mississippi’s river trade as well as to the ships coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. The nexus it created brought forth legacies which continue to this day. For example, Tulane University’s law school is one of only a very few to offer a master’s degree program specifically in admiralty—or maritime—law. That and similar programs, such as one in the study of tropical diseases in their medical school, came about due to the port’s prominence.
Charleston’s own port brought about a long line of military installations protecting it and providing easy sea access for our naval forces to be dispatched elsewhere when needed. Today that port boasts the USS Yorktown—a retired aircraft carrier with a distinguished battle career—now open as a museum.
Ports of the South remain powerfully influential to regional and national economies, with Savannah, Charleston, New Orleans, and others handling massive amounts of break bulk, container, petrochemical, and other forms of cargo every day. And not all of that cargo is foreign products coming in to satisfy the demands of American consumers, but also American materials and products outbound—such as native Georgia kaolin clay, exported all around the world.
The wealth of these ports continues to sustain their cities, just as the tremendous wealth Savannah found in trade allowed for the splendid homes designed by architect John Norris in Charleston, once the wealthiest city in the original thirteen colonies, as well as those of merchant families such as the Manigaults. Maritime fortunes may be more associated with the seafaring towns of New England in the popular memory, but make no mistake about it, such trade built the South as well.
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