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Notes from the Field

Could Technology Have Prevented the Civil War?

Winter 2020 | Volume 26 |  Issue 1

The American Civil War, causing more than 600,000 combatant deaths and many times that number of wounded, crippled plus those with PTSD, need not have happened. The framers of the U.S. Constitution knew well that the representatives from the Southern states would not sign unless language on slavery was omitted. The looming issue of slavery was very apparent.  A more visionary Federal government could have fostered a technology to free the slaves.

Rather, it supported a long-standing, large financial effort of weapons making at the Springfield and Harpers Ferry arsenals. The Springfield arsenal developed the repeating rifle and the greatly improved cannon and projectile technologies behind much of the Civil War death rate.

Beginning in the 1600s, the Southern states found that cotton growing supported by low cost labor was its most profitable industry. Low-cost hand-labor was essential for picking the cotton from the plant. These states found that slaves were the most economically suitable solution for this difficult job.

The first commercially successful cotton picking machine did not appear until the late 1840s. The cotton gin, the machine that processed picked cotton existed long before the Civil War. Even though Lincoln freed the slaves in the 1860s, the cotton crop sharing process maintained a slavery-like culture well into the next century. The agricultural depression of the 1920s, the 1930s Depression and WWII led to a large northward migration of these African-Americans in yet another massive, traumatic cultural change.

Suppose that the federal government had chosen in the early 1800s to purposely support the development of a low cost, effective cotton picking machine. The arsenal model could have guided this process and a small part of the arsenal funds could have supported this purpose. The government could have assembled creative engineers and inventors and focused them on the development of a cotton-picking machine.  At first, the machine would need testing and improvement until the reliability and cost were within reach of the cotton farmers. The machines could have been heavily subsidized and marketed to these farmers, gradually displacing the need for field slaves.  A second phase of such a federal program would have included the establishment of training centers moving these former slaves into the economic mainstream.

The house slaves would surely have followed their relatives into private life. This is a slow but sure transition from slavehood, unlike the rapid return of former slaves to the indentured nature of crop-sharing almost immediately after the Civil War.

In short, we could have beaten our cannons into cotton-picking machines, avoiding a vastly more costly war, one that still rages in too many minds.

Bruce Hannon, Jubilee Professor emeritus, University of Illinois, Urbana 

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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