Civil War History: How the Cotton Gin Contributed to the Civil War

Though the role of emancipation in President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to fight the Civil War remains debated by many, Civil War history is remarkably clear about the fact that maintaining slavery was the primary motivation for Southern Secession in 1860 and 1861. The agricultural South was dependent on cotton production and the economic and political elite there feared that as more new states entered the union they would choose to be free-states, shift the balance of power in Washington, and ultimately lead to higher tariffs for the South as well as threats to the institution of slavery.

However, many experts trace the deaths of more than 600,000 U.S. citizens on Civil War battlefields to an older cause: the cotton gin. This machine revolutionized the process of separating cotton from its seed, making it dramatically faster and less expensive to turn picked cotton into usable cotton for textiles. Eli Whitney invented the gin in 1794, and by 1850 the tool had changed the face of Southern agriculture.

Before Whitney’s gin entered into widespread use, the United States produced roughly 750,000 bales of cotton, in 1830. By 1850 that amount had exploded to 2.85 million bales. This production was concentrated almost exclusively in the South, because of the weather conditions needed for the plant to grow. Faster processing of cotton with the gin meant it was profitable for landowners to establish previously-unthinkably large cotton plantations across the south. But harvesting cotton remained a very labor-intensive undertaking. Thus, bigger cotton farms meant the need for more slaves. The slave population in the United States increased nearly five-fold in the first half of the 19th Century, and by 1860, the South provided about two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply. Southern wealth had become reliant on this one crop and thus was completely dependent on slave-labor.

In terms of understanding what the cotton gin means for Civil War history, the connection to the growth of slavery and its economic centrality for the South is clear. Between the political conflict of the 1820s to 1850s regarding new states and slavery, the election of Lincoln, whom Southerners perceived to be anti-slavery, and the high tariffs imposed on cotton and cotton goods by laws written in the North, the fact that the cotton states of the Deep South chose to secede seems far less surprising.

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