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"An Abiding Faith in Cotton": The Merchant Capitalist Community of New Orleans, 1860–1862

From: Civil War History
Volume 54, Number 3, September 2008
pp. 247-276 | 10.1353/cwh.0.0017

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Although Louisiana was one of the Old South's chief producers of agricultural commodities, its most crucial economic contribution to the region was the commercial traffic steered through the port of New Orleans, a city whose business and financial district constituted one of the most intensely concentrated sites of capital in the mid-nineteenth-century Atlantic World. As plantation development had shifted steadily westward over the antebellum decades, the South's only metropolis had become its premier banking and mercantile center, and by the 1850s half of the region's total cotton production routinely passed through New Orleans. In addition, the city was important for its slave markets, as a source of imported manufactured goods, and as a prominent bulk-break point for Midwestern foodstuffs. Presiding over all of this wide-ranging commerce was New Orleans's large community of merchant capitalists: its banks, factorage houses, commission firms, brokers, wholesalers, and retailers.1

At the onset of secession winter in 1860, New Orleans's privileged position at the nexus of slave-based plantation agriculture and transatlantic trade networks seemed to herald a leadership role for Louisiana in any new southern nation. But although it would eventually provide the Confederacy with several important statesmen, Louisiana generally suffered from the deep suspicion with which its mercantile and banking elites were widely regarded throughout the South. Its merchants' connections to northern and foreign capital caused contemporaries and historians alike to underestimate the depth of their support for slavery, secession, and the Confederacy. Their commitment to southern goals, born of their long-standing relationship to plantation slavery, has been partly obscured by the independent streak they sometimes displayed toward the Confederate government before the Union occupation of New Orleans in May 1862. Most notably, the New Orleans banks initially resisted aligning their currency policies with those of the Confederate Treasury, and the city's merchants organized a cotton embargo against the Davis administration's wishes during summer 1861. However, such reactions to government policies by the state's commercial and financial community should be understood within the context of the rapid and largely unique economic deterioration that Louisiana experienced as a result of the unprecedented pressures of secession and war. Understanding their reactions will help illuminate the global ramifications of the American Civil War during what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "Age of Capital." The proud Crescent City business community's failed efforts to assert the primacy of "King Cotton" forced them to confront the dependent nature of southern merchant capitalism in an era of ascendant industrialization elsewhere, and the war's outcome would rapidly seal New Orleans's fate as perhaps the last major urban outpost of an increasingly anachronistic, trade-based Atlantic World economy.2

In summer 1860, Dr. Joseph Slemmons Copes, a New Orleans commission merchant, took a hiatus from the city's notorious fever season to attend to his firm's interests in the Old Northwest. Referring to the escalating national political crisis in a letter to his business partner, Copes reported that he had found "scarcely any persons who are not sympathizers with the South" in Ohio business circles. Like many merchants, Copes clearly expected that the ties of commerce would provide a restraining influence on disruptive intersectional tensions. The year before, the New Orleans Delta, in an article titled "Commerce as a Peace-Maker," had asserted that the powerful New York City merchant community was "becoming, through the influence of commercial relations . . . essentially Southern in sympathies," and as the crucial elections of 1860 approached, New Orleans merchants appealed to their northern brethren for their help in averting a constitutional crisis. At the same time, some Louisiana businessmen also hoped that interregional ties based on the Mississippi River grain trade would promote similar political cooperation between southern and western states.3

Events had acquired a terrible momentum of their own, however, and uncertainty over the future began to be adversely reflected in the marketplace. In October, Walter Cox, another Crescent City factor, advised an Arkansas planter-client about the "growing distrust in the commercial mind at the unsettled condition of domestic politics": "In the event of Mr. Lincoln's election, trouble may ensue. Large depreciation in the value of...

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