Author Archives: Craig Swain

Cotton… more cotton… and its importance to historians

While running about on vacation this last week, I passed many cotton fields.


Yes, when I speak of “cotton fields back home” it is not some metaphorical reference.  I grew up with cotton growing out in the fields beyond our back yard.  My family’s story is tied to cotton in many ways.  So when I see those fields in bloom, as they are in mid-summer, a flood of recollections come to the fore.  Some of those good recollections, particularly with those yellowish-white flowers over-exposed in the mid-day sun:


Other recollections are to days working in the fields… hot, dusty, and demanding fields.  The work I can personally relate to was thankfully less so than my forebears.  In my time, most of the “cotton work” was mechanized (though I tried my hand once at “picking” the old way and quickly found it no fun).  But I am but one generation removed from a time when that was not so.  And cotton was not an easy crop to raise and harvest.  The phrase “labor intensive” is not used lightly with respect to cotton.  My kin put in their share of the “labor” to get that cotton to market.

Me being a historian, and dropping my personal and familial remembrances, several aspects of cotton cultivation are, I think, important to understanding the history of the South.  And where the history of the South goes, so goes the history of America, with no small weight into consideration of the Civil War.  I need not belabor the point – cotton made the South.  Cotton production, as it existed in the first half of the 19th century, required slavery.  Cotton production, as it existed after the Civil War, required the ills of sharecropping and tenant farming (both black and white, as I am reminded by the view look back at my personal links to cotton).

Two aspects of cotton cultivation stand out from the historical context.  First off, there is consideration as how the business of cultivating cotton evolved. Many volumes have covered the evolution of cultivation.  I’ll refer you to the US Department of Agriculture’s site for the “short version.”  Something to keep in mind, historically speaking – at the start of the 19th century, cotton required 601 man-hours for a 495 pound bale; while today that same measure requires three.  That story line, which I may take up at a later date, involves mechanization, along with improvements to the methods.  But focus on the numbers.  As cotton’s labor requirements diminished, that caused changes in the south.  Cotton’s impact was thus felt well after someone found a way to reduce the workload.

Second, as with any crop, there is a cycle to the production of cotton which need be taken into account with respect to the historical settings.  Farmers plant the crop sometime after the last frost of spring (in the area I grew up in, that was usually around mid-April). The cotton farmer hopes for a wet spring, but not too much rain.  Just enough to help the cotton through the growing stages (where modern irrigation makes this a less chancy endeavor).


Planting cotton required about the same amount of labor as any other crop.  It is in the spring and early summer where cotton requires more labor.  Cotton is less tolerant of weeds or other plants than corn or wheat.  Beyond that for reasons felt most at harvest time, there is a need to keep the weeds in check.  The best means to fight off  weeds is hoeing or “chopping.”  With a well balanced hoe in hand, one would work down the row of cotton, chewing up the unwanted plants to leave the cotton as the sole occupant of the field.  Cotton fields are, for practical reasons, long.  Hence the expression “long row to hoe.”  “Choppers” were often hired on to work, on a day-by-day basis, depending on the farmer’s needs.  Thus setting up a system of temporary employment cycles.  In measure of hours or days spent, chopping was the most important labor investment in the days before herbicides.  And even today, chopping is required where the chemicals don’t complete the job.


Another “tending” chore during growing season involved fighting off pests. While the boll weevil is most well known, that pest appeared well after the war (in most places not until the 20th century).  Various other insects are, and were, a threat to the cotton crop.  Historically, farmers “dusted” crops using powders applied by rags, adding more labor to the equation.  Now days, that dusting is done by devices carried on or towed by tractors… or by aerial spraying.

About two months after planting, the cotton forms “squares” or buds for flowers.  Then in mid-summer, the cotton blooms.  Nothing that would garnish a floral arrangement, but there are flowers.  Like any flowering plant, the cotton depends on pollination.  While cotton can self-pollinate, studies show that an active bee colony can improve yield by 10% or so.  Now days we see more hives in the field, but historically that has not been a factor.  Within a week, those cotton flowers are gone, leaving behind a boll.  The boll is a green lump housing the seeds and a fibrous protective tissue.  And it is that tissue which becomes the object of the harvest.


Harvest season began, in the region where I grew up, in September. The bolls burst open, but the harvest waits until those are fully open and the cotton fibers are dry.  While hoping for just the right amount of rain during the growing season, the farmer will hope for no rain during the harvest.  Rain weathers the cotton, reducing fiber strength, allowing for fungi or bacteria growth, and loss of some bolls.  Since this will happen at different times for different bolls, the harvest may consist of several passes through the same field over the span of a month or two… or three.  Its not uncommon for the last “pull” to occur in December.

Prior to the 1930s, there was no reliable mechanical method for harvesting cotton.  And even after reliable means were at hand, for several reasons – some practical, some political – prevented wide-scale adoption of mechanical pickers until the 1950s.  Before then, the primary means of harvesting cotton was picking it by hand.

Cotton picking was yet another arduous activity.  Pickers pulled large sacks down the rows, pulling off one side, then the other.  Here again, the nature of the work setup cycles of day-to-day employment.  The farmer would often “go to town” and locate a group of pickers.  The pickers were paid based on the pounds of cotton harvested.  Since the taller sections of cotton tended to produce the most cotton bolls, thus more cotton to be harvested on a “per footstep” basis, a picker wanted to work through the “high cotton.”

Cotton, being dry to the touch, tends to pull away the moisture of the picker’s hands.  And working against the rough exterior hull of the boll caused cuts, scrapes, and callouses.  So a picker’s hands were left rough and cracked.  That’s the origin of “cotton-picking hands” as a derogatory expression.  (Though I would point out that “cotton-picking” has other applications.  And some will no doubt say “cotton-picking hands” is decidedly racist.  My grandmother, with her hands showing the wear of a lifetime of work in the cotton fields, might disagree.)

Once out of the field, the fibers must be removed from the seeds.  This is known as “ginning.”  This is also where we mention Eli Whitney and his contraptions.  Regardless of technological advances, the bottom line is the use of some form of combs to pull the seeds out of the fiber.

After ginning, the cotton is packaged into bales. Aside from being a practical means of moving the product, the bale became a standard unit of measure.  While the exact specifications have varied a bit, now days a bale is 55 inches long, 21 inches wide, and 28 inches tall.  Average weight is 495 pounds.  Throughout Civil War correspondence, we read of cotton bales as a measure – be that the measure of cotton a blockade runner might get to England or the measure of cotton captured by Federal advances.

This cycle from planting to market is important beyond just “general knowledge” and can be applied to the study of the Civil War.  Project the seasonal time lines into what you know of the war’s time line.  For example, the Overland and Atlanta Campaigns kicked off just after “planting time” for cotton.  While the bolls opened, Petersburg and Atlanta were under siege.  At the time of picking, Atlanta had fallen.  When the bales were ready, the number of ports open for shipping cotton could be counted on one hand.  Thus Sherman could report the destruction of millions of dollars in cotton that winter.   And that’s just the surface measure of cotton’s importance to the field of study.

Refreshing furlough… Now a return to work

No posts for the last week of July.  Instead of “on the road” posts as offered during vacations in the past, I opted to just let the grass grow here on the blog.  During our trip, we added a number of Civil War related sites into our itinerary.

Several stops in Tennessee, including a lengthy tour at Johnsonville, Tennessee… or rather what was Johnsonville.


During the second half of the Civil War, the site was a major Federal depot supporting operations through middle Tennessee and deeper into Georgia.  Students of the western campaigns know this site for the action on November 3-4, 1864, in which Major-General Nathan Bedford Forrest used his “navy” to capture and destroy the depot. Today the site is partly submerged by Kentucky Lake.  Though substantial earthworks remain on the high ground.


The Johnsonville State Park includes an excellent museum, which covers many aspects of the depot’s and town’s history.


And the trail system is well interpreted.


The Johnsonville State Park on the east side of the river/lake matches up with the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park (which… who knows… might get renamed in the future) on the west side.  I’ll have more on Johnsonville in future posts.

After some time spent at my old family “homestead” in Missouri, we headed through St. Louis.  There are many Civil War related sites in and around the city, and most are familiar to me.  But our short stay precluded a full tour.  Besides, the Aide-de-Camp had some other objectives in mind!  On our way to the Arch, we took in the Old St. Louis Courthouse.  The St. Louis Circuit Court met in that courthouse through the mid 19th century right up into the 20th century.  Perhaps the most famous case heard in the courthouse was that of Dread Scott v. Sandford.  The National Park Service has arranged the courtrooms to the appearance of that time period.


It was in one of these courtrooms that Dread Scott eventually received his freedom, in May 1857, as result of manumission.

Before leaving St. Louis, we toured Jefferson Barracks.   This base, which has supported military operations from 1826 right up to the present (as a National Guard base), saw significant activity in several wars.  During the Civil War it was a garrison, depot, and hospital.  Today, the Missouri Civil War Museum occupies one of the early 20-th century buildings of the old post.  I will have more on this museum in a trip report post. Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery contains the remains of over 8,500 Federal and 1,000 Confederate soldiers.  Those include many remains originally buried at other places across Missouri, indicative of the widespread wartime activity in the state.

Jefferson Barracks 2015 107

And as you can see from this photo, a number of those graves are simply “unknown.”

From there, we visited family in the Indianapolis area.  Our stops included the Indiana State Museum, which has a modest Civil War display.  Among the artifacts is the Medal of Honor awarded to Corporal Andrew J. Smith, 55th Massachusetts Infantry, for actions at Honey Hill, November 30, 1864.

Indiana St Muse_4844

And there will be a follow up post on that subject.  Interesting how the Charleston-Savannah theater of war keeps circling back into my line of sight!

The rest of our tour was a detour off the Civil War subjects (with the exception of dinner with a friend, fellow blogger, and Civil War historian of note).  The Aide-de-Camp enjoyed this sort of stuff:

USAF Muse July 2015 601

However, you Civil War-types are perhaps less enthusiastic…. Plenty of blog posts should I start a new blog entitled “To the Sound of Pratt & Whitney”.

While relaxing, the trip also gave me time to consider future blog posts for “To the Sound of the Guns.”  As mentioned above there are several “trip reports” and other topics for posts.  But more importantly, I had the opportunity to consider which threads to follow as I evolve this blog into the post-sesquicentennial.  Not saying there will be changes, but rather the promise that there will continue to be content in the weeks and months (and hopefully years) ahead.

Bull Runnings Research Assignment: Why Were Ricketts and Griffin on Henry Hill?

The other day, Harry Smeltzer and I were bantering back and forth about the Civil War.  And if you know Harry, then you know he’s a “one battle” guy, sorta…. that being First Manassas or First Bull Run, depending on how you button your shirt.  Well that spawned a question to ponder.

The question in mind is exactly what were Captains James Ricketts and Charles Griffin supposed to do with their batteries upon reaching Henry Hill?  As Harry says:

This move has often been criticized over the years, sometimes even described as a turning point of the battle. But, why exactly did McDowell send his artillery there? What was he thinking? How did he want to uses them, as flying artillery, in place of infantry, as what?

Indeed, we often read about how bad the deployment was.  And furthermore how when the Confederates overran the guns, the Federal line just collapsed.  But let us back that up just a bit.  What was McDowell sending those batteries forward to accoplish?  What was their mission?

Mission…  In the modern context, Field Artillery’s mission on the battlefield, as defined in FM3-09.22 is:

The mission of the Field Artillery is to provide responsive lethal and nonlethal fires and to integrate and synchronize the effects of fires to achieve the supported commander’s intent.

I’m not going to say this applied blindly, totally to the Civil War.  But I submit in the sense there are natural rules and practices (what I like to call the “Water flows down hill” rules of military science).  And with that, field artillery’s mission is relatively constant through the ages.  I need to queue up XBradTC here for a proper “military science” comparison of the mission and roles – comparing that of the Civil War to modern employments.

But that is “mission” in the sense of “why does the army have all these cannons in the first place?”  At the tactical level, the derivative of that over-arching mission is an instruction as to what the guns should accomplish with their projectiles.  For instance:  “Drive off the enemy’s guns”; “Drive off the enemy’s infantry”; “Prevent the enemy from attacking the hill”; or “Support the attack of our infantry.”  In short, the commander normally details where he wants the battery commander to stick that shot, shell, and canister.

What we are looking at with regard to Henry Hill is what exactly did McDowell charge Griffin and Ricketts to accomplish with their guns?  Was it simply to occupy the hill?  If so, was that a “mission” that fell within that broader mission sense, cited above?   Or was it in fact an infantry mission, just assigned to the artillery?  Or, was there a traditional artillery mission in mind?

And keep in mind that “employing them as Flying Artillery” is not a mission.  That’s a tactic.  And it is a dubious tactic to apply to the Civil War?  Why do I say that?  Well go back to the manuals of the day…. The Instructions for Field Artillery (1861 edition), John Gibbon’s Artillerist’s Manual, or even across the “pond” to the Royal Army’s Major F.A. Griffinths’ Artillerist’s Manual, for example… none of them mention “flying artillery,” as a tactic, much less define it.

Allow me to over-simplify something that properly requires a full set of posts – The notion of a flying artillery tactic was derived from Napoleonic forms of employment, adapted to American situations… then determined to be simply another way of saying the same thing that already had a name!   You see, the notion of flying artillery was just the use of mounted artillery as mounted artillery was supposed to be used.  The label was simply a way of conveying the jargon of artillery tactics to those smaller minded folks in the infantry.

And even if we allow for “flying artillery” to be a tactic which McDowell might have had on his mind, that is still just a “tactic.”  So if allowing for such usage, it would have been the “how” and not the “what” that we seek here. So let us not get wrapped around this label of flying artillery.

Stick to the target – what was the target – the mission – given to Ricketts and Griffin?  If you have a mind to that question… click over to Harry’s place and drop a comment.