Antebellum South: What Was the Identity of the Old South?

The Antebellum South had a unique and unified identity built on an agrarian way of life, which was disrupted by its disagreements with the North.

Sep 15, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
cotton plantation mississippi antebellum south
Lithograph of cotton plantation in Mississippi by Currier and Ives, 1884, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Antebellum Era defines the decades leading up to the American Civil War. The identity of the Old South formed alongside a new nation. Disagreements between the North and South began to boil up over tariffs, infrastructure, slavery, and fear of restricted state rights. Southern states felt as if their social, cultural, and economic structure was at stake. The clear divide between these two identities would ultimately lead to the secession of the southern states and the Civil War.


Before the Antebellum Era: Building the Southern Identity

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Illustration of colonists harvesting tobacco in early colonial Virginia, via National Park Service


The identity of the Old South formed within the original southern colonies. This included Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The agrarian way of life in the South was built upon fertile plantations and small farms. Agriculture stood at the center of the South’s economy and way of life for centuries. Smaller towns led to more tight-knit communities. Local markets held for farmers and others in the community to sell crops and homemade goods also contributed to a more unified environment.


Before the Antebellum Era, people in the South focused on providing for themselves and their local community. The first Industrial Revolution, however, was just on the horizon. Once the 13 American colonies gained their independence from Great Britain through the Revolutionary War, it didn’t take long for the northern and southern states to butt heads over the way American life should be led. The North pushed for a more urban and industrialized way of life, while the South wanted to maintain its flourishing agricultural environment. Disagreements about tariffs, infrastructure, and slavery were at the heart of the North versus South quarrels.


The development of tariffs and infrastructure, or internal improvements, became known as the American System. Northern states favored this system, while southern states rejected it. The argument was that tariffs and infrastructure would jeopardize the strength of the South and give more power to the industrial North. The Antebellum Era consisted of these built-up issues and a lack of compromise. The agrarian life ruled in the South, and southerners were determined to keep it that way, even if it led to war.


Life in the Old South

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Pharr Plantation house in Georgia built by enslaved people in 1840 by Dorothea Lange, 1937, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC

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After the War of 1812, the first Industrial Revolution began to expand from Great Britain to the states. This set the stage for a more commercialized and industrial society and economy. Northern states began to industrialize rapidly throughout the 19th century. The Old South benefitted from this industrialization as cash crops, such as cotton, were in high demand for textile factories. However, the South didn’t want industrialization encroaching upon its plantations and farmlands. This led the South to remain mostly rural.


Life in the South revolved around agricultural work and some skilled labor positions, such as blacksmiths. Wealthy southern elites used cheap or free enslaved labor to run their plantations. Although most northerners were anti-slavery, there were still enslaved people in the North in the late 18th century. However, northern states slowly began to abolish slavery, beginning with Pennsylvania in 1780. Slave labor wasn’t seen as such an economic importance in the North as it was in the South.


Many southerners believed that agrarian life was best for the economy, considering the cotton industry was booming. Rice, sugar, and tobacco were staple crops before cotton began to flourish on inner plantations. Large plantations and mansions were passed down for generations from father to son. Boys learned how to manage their father’s plantation from a young age. Women were responsible for cooking, cleaning, sewing, and managing the household, which was taught to young girls. Many southerners believed this way of life benefited everyone in the South, even the poor white man and enslaved person.


Influences of Slavery on the Identity of the South

slaves georgia cotton plantation antebellum south
Illustration of enslaved people picking cotton on a Georgia plantation, 1858, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Enslaved Africans first arrived in Hampton, Virginia, previously named Point Comfort, in August 1619. Approximately 20 to 30 Africans were aboard the ship. The number of enslaved individuals in the South reached millions within the next two centuries. As the institution of slavery expanded, the importance of slavery to the South’s economy grew. In 1860, just a year before the start of the Civil War, there were four million enslaved African Americans. Only 500,000 African Americans in the entire US population were not enslaved. This slave-based economy greatly impacted the identity of the Old South in more ways than one.


Enslaved people and indentured servants worked in households and on plantations. Gender roles were similar among enslaved people as they were with whites. Enslaved women did work out in the fields, but many were tasked with household chores such as cleaning and caring for children. Enslaved men took on harder forms of manual labor and primarily worked in the fields. Some enslaved men became skilled laborers and performed a variety of other tasks.


african americans cotton gin antebellum era
Wood engraving illustration of African Americans operating a cotton gin, 1871, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Farm labor revolved around the rising and setting of the sun. Enslaved people working on cotton plantations typically worked as many as 10 hours on a normal day and an additional five hours during planting or harvesting season. Sun up to sun down labor was very common in the South. Conditions for enslaved people were not much better on other types of plantations, but the structure varied. Rice plantations in South Carolina generally worked under a task system, meaning enslaved persons could do other things after they completed their work for the day. The working conditions were still awful, but cotton plantations worked under a harsh gang system. Enslaved cotton laborers were separated into groups and assigned back-breaking tasks. A “slave driver” closely supervised the gangs.


Industrial workers in the North would soon begin to revolve their workdays around a clock rather than the sun. Working conditions and hours during the Industrial Revolution were still deplorable for factory workers. The differences in the working day and structure of labor created a different economic, political, and social system between the North and South. The wealthy elite was at the top of the Old South hierarchy. Small-scale farmers, known as yeomen, were considered the “middle class” at the time. Below yeomen were the poor white men. Slavery allowed for even the poorest of free white men to not be at the bottom of the social hierarchy.


Industrialization jeopardized the complex social and economic system created by the southern slave-based labor system. Northern abolitionists were pressuring southern states to end slavery, compromising the success of the cotton business. Cotton had become the most valuable export in the southern US by 1815. In the next 25 years, cotton was responsible for more export revenue than any other crop exports combined.


Religion in the Antebellum South

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Dunker Church located on the Civil War battlefield of Antietam in Maryland by James Gardner, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Religious traditions and customs were a big part of the Antebellum South and continue to be today. Methodist and Baptist were the two main Protestant denominations present in the Old South. Religion became instilled into southern culture between 1790 and 1830 during the Second Great Awakening. Christian traditions were passed down to the next generation and had an influence on enslaved people as well.


Some enslaved people who worked in and around the home formed closer working relationships with the slave owner and other household members. This caused southern white culture and enslaved African American culture to intermix at times. However, most enslaved people were viewed as nothing more than property, and the type of treatment they received was dependent upon the type of slave owner they had. Despite the inhumane treatment, enslaved people still found hope and a new perspective on life beyond slavery in religion.


Some African Americans managed to hold on to some of the African religious beliefs that had been passed down from those who arrived in America from Africa. Some beliefs and customs got lost through generations, but those maintained began to mix in with Protestant beliefs. Enslaved people would sing spirituals while out in the fields or at church as a way of expression, freedom, and story-telling. Spiritual lyrics have been preserved in southern gospel songs.


The Secession of the States

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Map of free (green), border (yellow), and confederate (red) states after secession from the Union, 1862, via Digital Commonwealth, Boston Public Library


Reasons for the secession of the southern states are a controversial topic. Slavery is seen as the main antagonist by most, but many also argue that states’ rights are equally to blame. However, the two go somewhat hand-in-hand. The first state to secede from the Union was South Carolina in December 1860, shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Concerns over Lincoln’s plans to abolish slavery and strip the South of its states’ rights ultimately led to secession. More southern states began to follow South Carolina’s lead to secede in the following months.


In February 1861, the southern states that seceded created the Confederate Constitution and established the Confederate States of America. The Confederate Constitution was tailored specifically to states’ rights and maintaining slavery. Fort Sumter was attacked and seized by Confederate forces two months later in April, beginning the American Civil War. Tennessee was the last state to secede in June 1861. On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln announced the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It was set to take effect on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation allowed enslaved African Americans in rebelling states to be freed.


The formation of the Confederacy largely stemmed from the South’s feeling of diminishment and lack of power. Southern states believed they were being overpowered by the northern states within the federal government. The continuous push for commercialism, industrialization, and abolishment of slavery was enough to break the South and start a war. Worry about what the South would do if slavery were abolished was a core issue for southerners who depended on enslaved people for cheap or free labor.


The End of the Antebellum South: Civil War & Reconstruction

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Union Navy Lieutenant Commander Edward Barret and Lieutenant Cornelius N. Schoonmaker on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, 1865, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Confederacy waged war on the Union by firing the first shots on federal troops at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861. War continued for the next four years until Confederate troops began to surrender. The land and economy of the South were in shambles as most of the war was fought on southern grounds. The North was able to manufacture goods and weapons for Union soldiers and its citizens throughout the war thanks to industrialization. The South struggled to keep up with production due to its lack of manufacturing abilities.


Rejoining the Union was difficult for southern states. Initial concerns over states’ rights had come true for the South as a result of the war. The passing and ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865 abolished slavery. Some Confederate military officials’ political rights were restricted. Other limitations, such as congressional representation, were also put in place according to certain demands that southern states were required to meet.


The aftermath of the war and the abolishment of slavery had the greatest impact on the Old South’s identity. It could no longer depend on slavery as an economic or social crutch. The rights of the seceded states were limited for some time during the Reconstruction period until governmental affairs were settled. Pressure to industrialize the South began to build as southerners needed to look for a new way to make ends meet. The identity of the Antebellum South began to fall to a new era, known as the New South.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.