Civil War's dirty secret about slavery

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This week marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, a war that redefined national and regional identities and became an enduring tale of noble resistance in the South and, for the rest of the country, a mighty moral struggle to erase the stain of slavery.

On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces opened fire on the beleaguered Union garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. By April 14, the fort had fallen and the war had begun in earnest.

To see this, start by considering the response of New York City to secession. On January 7, 1861, after the secession of South Carolina but before any other state joined in rebellion, Mayor Fernando Wood delivered his annual message to the New York City Council. Would the mayor of the largest and wealthiest northern city denounce the southern cause? Rally his fellow citizens around the Union and its president-elect, Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps lament the necessity of a bloody moral struggle to abolish slavery?

Wood did none of these things. Instead, he announced that New York offered "friendly relations and a common sympathy" with the "aggrieved brethren of the slave states." He then offered the bold proposal that New York City secede, as well, forming an independent city-state. This move, he argued, "would have the whole and united support of the southern states" and would allow the city to avoid breaking off its existing relationships with the slave states.

Of course, New York did not secede from the Union. But why did this northern mayor, along with many of his fellow citizens, so dramatically embrace the southern cause?

The first answer is cotton. Cotton -- southern, slave-picked cotton -- was the mainstay of New York City's antebellum economy, and indeed, of the North's. In 1860, the South produced 2.3 billion pounds of cotton, accounting for two-thirds of world production and more than half the value of all U.S. exports. Most of this wealth, however, flowed north and west, as these regions provided the financing, insurance, marketing, transportation, foodstuffs and manufactured goods for southern slave plantations. Even the growing industrialization of the North took the form of cotton textile mills, which were dependent on southern cotton production.

The critical linkage of northern industrialization and southern slavery, while generally ignored or downplayed in the past, has been drawing increasing attention from historians, as brought out at a conference on slavery and the U.S. economy this past week, organized by Seth Rockman of Brown University and Sven Beckert of Harvard University....

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