Part 04: The Ante-Bellum South (1800–1860)

Part Four: The Ante-Bellum South (1800–1860)

The ante-bellum south was primarily an agrarian way of life. Slavery had long since taken root and anti-slavery sentiments were being heard in the North from the abolitionists.

The southern people were constantly being harassed by the Indians, and fear of slave insurrections combined to make them uneasy. With sparsely populated territories and the plantation being primarily the population centers, the task of protection fell upon the people or plantations themselves. The consequent arming of themselves led to a self-defense, take-the-law-into-your-own-hands type of atmosphere, reminiscent of sparsely settled frontier towns and ranches, where each plantation was as a town within itself.

The South was caught unprepared militarily for the war of independence. The North viewed slavery and Indian harassment as southern liabilities during the war and asserted that it was the assistance of the North that was responsible for the successes in the South. Whereas, the South considered and cited the heroic sacrifices of its people as the reasons. All in all, the inadequacy of the South's defenses at the war's outbreak, and the lack of sufficient support from the North caused the South to strive to be ever ready for military confrontation.

In this environment, political institutions matured slowly and personal danger was frequently imminent. The government proved ineffective for protection, hence, the southerner grew to be self-sufficient in this respect. With only his personal resources to rely on for protection he became edgy and quick to react to potential dangers, often acting too hastily. He acquired a reputation for being hot-headed and trigger-happy, even in his personal relationships. Fights often broke out (often over trivial matters), many of a most gory nature (gouging out eyes, biting off noses, ears, fingers, and pieces of flesh, etc.). People became obsessed with defending their honor (in fact, one had to be careful not to offend anyone's honor, if he wanted to avoid a confrontation. Hence, the genesis of southern manners and chivalry. In the upper classes, dueling became commonplace. All of these activities enjoyed popular support: A wife told her husband as he left for the dueling grounds that she would rather be "the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward."

Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton (who was born in the West Indies and had African ancestry) to a duel. Hamilton shot in the air, not wanting to harm Burr, but was mortally wounded in return. It was unfortunate incidences by dueling such as these, involving important figures, that ultimately brought about the downfall of this dastardly activity.

The lack of densely populated areas, the southern inclination not to sponsor the local government's tax program, and the arrogant and often rebellious nature of the "southern genteel" led to serious educational deficiencies. In order for any formal institution to survive and/or thrive it would become necessary for that institution to conform to the moral and ethical dictates of the people. Now, since the people had developed great skills of the nature of out-doorsmen (hunting, horsemanship, shooting, etc.) a logical evolvement of this undisciplined, martial attitude would be a school with these attributes. Hence—military schools. For these type schools could both discipline the students as well as prepare them for military endeavors (often including, Indian fighting and squelching slave insurrections).

The news of Gabrial Prosser's plot for a slave revolt in 1800 and the success of the Toussaint L'Overture led Haitian slave revolt, caused great concern for militarization of the southern countryside which resulted in more repression on the slaves. All in all, the South grew more arrogant and confident of its military capacities and felt itself quite capable of rising to any type of military occasion. Military academies sprung up throughout the South; the former students were often called upon to set up schools, teach, and head up state militias. On the local levels, patrols were set up to watch for run-away slaves, often employing poor whites.

At any rate the proximity of the Indians caused much concern among the southerners. The Indians' constant harassment and their receiving of slaves, together with the land greed of the southerners produced a desire for the removal of the Indians. (The transportation of the Indians from the southeast to the Midwest, due to the wretched conditions and suffering wrought among the Indians, including starvation and death, became known as "The Trail of Tears.") Numerous volunteer militia groups from all over the South rallied to the cause of removing the Indians. (The Seminoles of Florida were one of the tribes the southerners contested, who registered stout resistance, beating the southerners on many occasions. In fact, some of them are still there.)

The southerners continued to raise their volunteer militia groups right up to the Civil War. As a matter of fact, the military grew to hold the key to respect and success. The prestige of military leadership became an obsession. As a result, high sounding titles began to appear almost everywhere. The South had for more officers than were needed. (North Carolina, for example, had one officer for every sixteen men!) Frankly, it wasn't even necessary to be in the military to have a title. As a rule, most "better class" men were at least colonels and judges; tavern keepers, majors; captains were among the stage drivers.

When France's legions were finally defeated in Haiti, Napoleon decided to abandon his plans for America and concentrate on Europe. Consequently, he sold the Louisiana Territory for fifteen million dollars (i.e. a song and a dance) in 1803 to the United States giving the United States a common border with Mexico, which contained Texas, and doubled its size. The southerners soon began making expansionist designs on Texas.

In 1810 the Mexican Revolution against Spain began, and shortly afterward the southern interest in Texas accelerated. The economic and political interest of the slave states created a desire for expansion. Southerners confidently expected to make important territorial acquisitions as a result from the War of 1812 (with England) and southerners engaged in expansionist activities which had little or nothing to do with war.

Mexico won her independence in 1821, but the southern interest in Texas never waned, even though the acquisition of Florida in 1819 diverted it for a while. Any and every attempt at a slave insurrection would serve to give impetus to the militarization of the South as well as its martial spirit, especially Denmark Vesey's conspiracy in 1822 and Nat Turner's revolt in 1831.

Attempts to conquer land were made during the War of 1812 as well as the Mexican Revolution, but in neither case were they wholly successful.

Again, the political, economic and social considerations for new lands strengthened the planters' determination to expand, even against strong opposition. The anti-slavery forces, astonished at the South's extension of slavery at the close of the War of 1812, sought to evolve a policy of containment that the slave owners feared might lead to the extinction of slavery. When the Tallmadge Amendment to Missouri's application to the Union was proposed (which would prohibit further extension of slavery into the Louisiana Territory and free at the age of 25 all slave children born in Missouri after the admission), the South considered it an attempt to eradicate slavery. Peace was not restored even with the Missouri Compromise in 1820 (which prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of Missouri's southern border and admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state).

When Mexico abolished slavery, in 1829, the South made it known that slavery was an important factor in their desire for Texas. The United States' support of the Texas Revolution came largely from the slave states (moved partly by desire to support the independence movement of Texas and a strong desire by the planters for more slave territory).

In 1836, Santa Anna led the Mexican victory at the battle of the Alamo at San Antonio. (Among the Texas casualties were Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and Jim Travis.) Later that same year Sam Houston led the decisive Texan victory at the battle of San Jacinto. After which Texas set up an independent republic and Houston became its president.

Texas joined the Union in 1845 and Mexico broke off diplomatic relationship with the United States. The following year they were at war and the Wilmot Proviso was submitted which prohibited slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico. The South considered this a drastic move by the anti-slavery movement to contain and destroy slavery. (The proviso failed to pass.)

Consequently, the southerners became more aggressive in their expansionist activities. Slogans of "manifest destiny" became the order of the day. They had their sights on Mexico, Cuba, Central America, the northern portion of South America, and the Caribbean area. Simultaneously, the gap between the North and the South began widening. Southerners began to think in terms of secession. It was ultimately these forces which led to the Civil War; thus ending the southern expansionist schemes as they began to concentrate their attention on the North.

Principle Reference: The Militant South by John Hope Franklin

Other References:

Korngold, Ralph — Citizen Toussaint
Rogers, J. A. — 100 Amazing Facts
World Almanac, 1968