Entrepreneurs in the Southern Upcountry: Commercial Culture in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1845–1880 (review)
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Entrepreneurs in the Southern Upcountry: Commercial Culture in Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1845–1880. By Bruce W. Eelman. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. Pp. xii+313. $42.95.

The Civil War is a convenient starting or stopping place for historians of the nineteenth-century United States. Political and moral arguments which grew ever more heated in the 1850s finally found expression in war, and the results were momentous: the end of slavery. In this book, however, Bruce Eelman takes a more unusual tactic and investigates the history of a single county in South Carolina—Spartanburg—from 1845 to 1880. Doing so allows him to measure the impact of a variety of antebellum factors (including slavery and planter ideology) on postbellum life. His technique is effective, although, for readers of this journal, it is worth noting that his insights have far more to do with culture than with technology. Even though technological advancements took place in Spartanburg in the antebellum era and form a component of Eelman’s narrative, technology per se is not his predominant concern. Those seeking detailed information about mills and railroads will have to look elsewhere. But for those with a broader interest in the economy and culture of the nineteenth-century South, Entrepreneurs in the Southern Upcountry will pay dividends.

Eelman lays out the development in the 1840s and 1850s of a town-based merchant culture that began to take hold in Spartanburg. Merchants accepted the importance of cotton and slavery but also began to push for industrial and transportation improvements that would enhance Spartanburg’s economic position. To be sure, such improvements never fully matched those of northern states, and Eelman responsibly points out the important links that Spartanburg businessmen made with their northern counterparts. Some of the entrepreneurs pushing development came from New England, just as Spartanburgers relied on northern assistance for the [End Page 929] development of schools. Although South Carolina did not support a system of common schools, Spartanburg did have a system of private schools to fill the gap, and this system relied “at least in part, on northern-trained instructors” (p. 82). In addition to educational change, Spartanburg reformers demanded a shift from extralegal violence to a more rigorous and formal law enforcement as well as a penitentiary that would reform criminals as well as deter crime.

Spartanburg also developed an iron industry. Even though it could not withstand competition from Pennsylvania, the existence of this industry did lead to a change in local ideology: Spartanburgers began to “dignify manual labor” and determine how slave labor and white labor could coexist for the greater prosperity of society (p. 49).

In the second half of his book Eelman continues to trace developments after the Civil War. Railroads grew out of a combination of “northern money” and “native interest and involvement” (p. 184). The new status of freedmen complicated reform efforts for whites: common schools still struggled for state funding, with the added hurdle of threatened “race mixing” if they were open to all. Local leaders who had supported extralegal violence against blacks following the Civil War found it difficult to then “rid their society of illegal activity” by whites (p. 236). Eelman demonstrates the links of Old and New South through the goals of those who led entrepreneurial and moral reform.

Those who believe that the New South owed little to antebellum precedents will probably want to see Eelman’s argument applied to more than a single county in order to be fully convinced. Yet his study deserves to be read with an open mind by all with an interest in the economy and culture of the nineteenth-century South. Our understanding of the antebellum southerners’ view of the economy is changing, and Eelman’s important work contributes much to that understanding by joining antebellum and postbellum worlds in a single analysis.

Aaron W. Marrs

Dr. Marrs, a historian in the Office of the Historian at the U.S. Department of State, is the author of Railroads in the Old South: Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society (2009).

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