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Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom by Robert Gudmestad (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 535-537 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0078

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It is an oft-repeated truism of the nineteenth-century Market Revolution that advances in transportation were one of its pillars. However, “transportation” all too often becomes shorthand for railroads, which became increasingly prominent after 1840 or so. In Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom, Robert Gudmestad refocuses our attention on steamboats in the antebellum era. Specifically, he argues that “steamboats exerted a powerful but sometimes hidden influence on the course of southern history” (173). They were the backbone of the commercial trade in cotton and provided employment and prosperity for whites as well as a limited degree of freedom and mobility for free blacks and slaves. Steamboats were central to Indian removal and were at the heart of the white and black migration that necessitated that policy in the minds of contemporaries. The dangerous technology of steam propulsion led to the first federal regulation of the transportation industry and compelled southerners to face progress’s dangers, as well as its advantages. Steamboats literally changed the face of the environment as the rivers were improved to facilitate safe and speedy passage. The importance of the steamboat trade made the Cotton Kingdom and at the same time made the “interior South” of the river valleys as much western as it was southern. Eventually though, as railroads came to supplant steamboats in the cotton-carrying trade and as the denizens of the interior South stopped looking to the federal government for economic assistance, “they shed their commonality with the Midwest. Steamboats helped make, and then undo, the Cotton Kingdom” (6).

In addition to centering steam technology in the historical narrative of the early nineteenth century, Gudmestad makes two important and interrelated points about the nature of regional identity formation and the rise of the Cotton Kingdom. The rise of riverboats and their central role in the emergence of a thriving cotton trade, along with the consequences of those developments—most importantly “the improvements program for the western rivers”—“strengthened the sense of a regional identity for the interior South and set it in opposition to the coastal slave states” (139). As Gudmestad notes, at the same time in the early 1830s that coastal southerners like John C. Calhoun were bemoaning federal interference in their affairs, interior southerners were actively encouraging the same federal government to improve the western waters. This cemented many interior southerners’ sense that they possessed an emerging “identity centered around their river system that marked them out as western and southern” (125).

Once entrenched, however, the internal logic of the Cotton Kingdom meant that the riverboat era would soon be supplanted. A common interest in slave labor as the foundation of economic production bound the coastal and interior South together politically, more than their respective maritime and riverine modes of transportation divided them. At the same time, once the western rivers were satisfactorily improved, interior southerners’ enthusiasm for federal aid faded. Railroads, which had initially existed to support the river system, began to supersede it in the 1850s, reconnecting the interior and coastal South via east–west train tracks. At the very end of his book, Gudmestad suggests that the South’s reliance on water transportation was actually a “Faustian bargain” that worked in the short term, but delayed the development of an expanded rail system, which ultimately worked to keep the South economically behind the North (172). Gudmestad only really gets to the Cotton Kingdom of his title in the penultimate chapter, but his arguments about regional identity and economic development are worthy of serious consideration.

The book is a fascinating, engaging, and well-written inquiry into an aspect of antebellum southern life that is often taken for granted. This is a work that has important things to say about a host of topics pertinent to scholars of the period. One criticism, however, is that the author is perhaps too subtle in marking those important contributions for his reader. An expert in the field will notice the nuances, but an interested reader in the general public or an undergraduate student might very well not. For example, the eagerness with which southerners adopted, invested in, and innovated around steamboat technology in the 1810s and 1820s made steamboats...

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