How a slaveholder felt 150 years ago

civil war dead by Rennett Stowe

Disunion: A Slaveholder’s Diary
[Via NYT > Opinion]

In 1860, a widowed plantation mistress records her reaction to Lincoln’s election in her diary.


This is a fascinating look into the schizophrenic and paranoid worldview of someone who was anticipating the glorious struggle about to occur so that she could keep her slaves.

And an interesting view of Lincoln, who she wishes had died because his election forced South Carolina to secede. The fact that Lincoln worked at least until at least 1863 to accomplish exactly what she wanted from her diary – free the slaves but send them overseas – does not seem to have entered her consciousness.

And, of course, all her slaves were very happy with their master, even though she knew they hated her. She knew everyone of them would try for freedom if given the opportunity. She wrote that down in her diary also. A nice person, who knew that her slaves were not animals and who would seek freedom if they could. Simply hard for us today to understand that sort of mindset.

I’d guess she would say that was due to the abolitionists from the North who were really the cause for all the problems.

In actuality, it appears most of it had to do with her economic situation – owning slaves was for the wealthy.

Most Southern whites did not own slaves. Perhaps 25-35% did, depending on the Southern state.

And of those, like today, the capital wealth of the slaves was concentrated in the hands of a few. In some states, there were more slaves than non-slaves. But over half owned less than 5. Brevard, the diarist, was one of the larger slave holders, with more than 200. Less than 1% of the slaveholders held 20-30% of the slaves. Sixteen slaveholders total held 1 in 346 of the slaves. One man, Joshua Ward, had over 1000 slaves.

Owning slaves was very lucrative. On a plantation with more than 20 slaves, the slaves were worth more than the land. The per capita income in the South was about $4,000 a year. Brevard owned slaves with a value of $150,000. Almost 40 times the annual income of others in the South. Ward owned slaves worth over $750,000 – almost 200 times the average income. The wealthiest people in America were found in the South. In fact, the cost of Southern slaves was so great that the idea of the Federal government ‘buying out’ all the Southern owners was ludicrous – the cost was too high. It was greater than the GDF of the North. It may have seemed cheaper to fight the most terrible war we have had than to find a peaceful, economic solution. Of course, in hindsight it would have been much, much more fiscally responsible for the North to have bought out the South, as the capital costs were almost 3 times higher for fighting the war.

But hard numbers have a difficult time with many worldviews, particularly the one espoused by Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard. The slaves made her wealthy. Secession would maintain that wealth. How wrong she was.

The coming war was to be fought over an economic lifestyle that only a minority of those in the South actually lived. And, while complete records are not available, it looks like close to 25% of those fighting for the South died during the conflict.

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