“The war ruined me”: The aftermath of the Civil War in the South, 1867
A Spotlight on a Primary Source by A. C. Ramsey
In the aftermath of the Civil War, former slaveholders struggled to adjust to the economic conditions resulting from the end of slavery as well as the destruction of plantations and markets and the population loss. Many southern landowners fell into poverty as they faced depreciated land values and mounting debts.
In 1867, farmer and preacher A. C. Ramsey of Alabama wrote to his brother-in-law, Dr. J. J. Wardlaw in South Carolina, describing his family’s economic struggle after the Civil War. He forcefully declares that “the war ruined me” and left his children with “nothing but a piece of land.” Ramsey laments that, even if he were able to sell his property, the payment would not cover all his debts, and reports on what he and his wife and all their children are doing to support themselves.
His bitterness is plain in the conclusion of his letter:
hundreds of men who were in good circumstances before the war are completely ruined . . . I believe they intend to give us a Territorial government, and place the negroe over us in point of privilege. I hope however the good Lord may intervene, and thwart their designs.
White southerners’ anger at the sudden transformation of their social and economic status led to the rise of the Jim Crow era, when laws were enacted to limit the freedom of African Americans and reassert white authority.
Now you will naturally enquire, why did I break up and scatter my family thus? Well I can give you the reasons in a few words. The war ruined me. Before it the children and I were worth $45,000 in negroes and lands We had on the place about 65 negroes, after giving off Janie & Mary their share. The children had 35. and I had 30 of my own, besides eight or ten which my wife had; perfectfully independent as we thought. I was however owing some money which I could easily have paid had the war not come on. But alas! the war came, I bent all my energies to its support, made nothing but provisions, all went to support the soldiers and their families, had no cotton on hand at the surrender, debts accumulating all the time, negroes gone, and here I was left with land and nothing else, and it gratly depreciated in value, and in fact could not sell it at all. My children left with nothing but a piece of land 320 acres and I not able to help them to a dollar; and besides a debt hanging over me now, that my land if it had have been sold, would not pay. So I saw nothing ahead but ruin. I therefore was led to the course I have taken from these Considerations; in order to make a support . . . How are the people in Carolina getting on, under the Calamities that have fallen upon the Country? There will be in this Country great distress and destitution; hundreds of men who were in good circumstances before the war are completely ruined. Suing and being sued is the order of the day; and probably not more than one in ten will be able to survive the crash that awaits us. And what the Radicals will do, can only be judged of by their former acts, and propositions now in their Congress. I believe they intend to give us a Territorial government, and place the negroes over us in point of privilege. I hope however the good Lord may intervene, and thwart their designs
A full transcript is available here.