The Economy of Antebellum America: Industry and Slavery

Moving further into the 19th century, “Civil War” students took a look at the economy of a burgeoning new nation during Week 2 of the Pre-Collegiate Program.  Centered around industry in the North and slavery in the South, America grew into a divided nation.  As a border state, Virginia’s economy relied on both industry and slavery, evidence of which can still be studied and exhibited today.

Canal Walk

All of the largest cities in the world are centered around major waterways, and Richmond is no exception.  Located at the falls of the James River, Richmond became a major shipping port and bustling city in the new nation.  Early in the second week, “Civil War” students were guided through a tour of the canals at Richmond and a lesson on the importance of water ways in connecting people, cities, and ideas.  Seeing the significance of such waterways helped our students see why Richmond became such a crucial southern city before and during the Civil War.

Henry “Box” Brown

The canals were crucial for the import and export of goods to/from Richmond, and among those imports were the South’s most valuable commodity: slaves.  In a desperate attempt to escape a life of slavery, Henry Brown, an enslaved man who worked in a tobacco warehouse, boxed himself up and shipped himself north to find freedom.  The act earned him the nickname Henry “Box” Brown, and today there is a statue along the Richmond canal to commemorate his efforts and remind us of just how horrible the institution of slavery was and is that a man would trap himself inside a small wooden crate for 27 hours with no guarantee that he would survive the journey.

American Civil War Center at Tredegar Ironworks

Founded in 1836, Tedegar Ironworks became a key component of Richmond’s economy and helped solidify its importance in the larger context of America.  The plant manufactured key components needed for a growing nation, such as locomotives, train wheels, spikes, cables, ships, boilers, and any number of other iron items needed for transportation and warfare.  As the United States moved closer and closer toward division Tredegar became the greatest industrial complex in Civil War-era South.  Today, the site is home to the American Civil War Center and provides an interactive introduction to the conflict that our students will spend so much  time studying in days to come.

Somerset Place

Regardless of the necessity for industry and manufactures, the South continued to thrive on an economy based on slave labor.  During the second half of Week 2, “Civil War” students drove south to Somerset Place in Creswell, NC.  Somerset was the third largest plantation in North Carolina with as much as 100,000 acres and a slave population that reached over 800 during its 80-year history.  Though the trip down is quite long, what makes Somerset such a worthy site for students to visit is the fact that the plantation owners kept meticulous records of their property holdings, especially with regard to their slaves.  On site, students could tour the interior of the main house and outbuildings, including reconstructed slave quarters, and were told many stories about the individual slaves who lived and worked on the plantation and set us up for Week 3’s focus on the Civil War.

Published in: on August 4, 2015 at 10:56 am Comments (0)