Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Having successfully launched my book Connecticut's Civil War: A Guide for Travelers and having completed nearly a dozen speaking engagements I'm enjoying a little mid-winter downtime, with no more appearances scheduled until March. So it's time to get going on this blog which I hope turns into a dialog on my favorite subject.

Here's one to start: how much responsibility should we give Massachusetts-born and Connecticut-educated Eli Whitney for the Civil War? His story in a nutshell: as a young Yale graduate he accepted a post as a tutor on a Georgia plantation where he observed the difficulty in harvesting the easily-grown short staple cotton. The hard-to-clean variety was the only kind that could be grown through much of the south and that fact limited the spreaed of cotton culture and concurrently the spread of slavery. Whitney's cleaning engine, the cotton gin, helped insure that both cotton and slavery would expand. And expand it did: at the time of his invention, early in the 1790's, there were about 800,000 slaves in North America. Seventy years later, there were nearly 4 million.

On the not responsible side: what became cotton land might have been have been used for something else that needed slaves; other people had already designed gins (although none quite as effective as Eli's); an effective gin would almost certainly been invented later.

On the responsible side: the earlier inventions didn't work well; we don't know if slaves would have been so important in the deep south without cotton; and a good gin might not have come before slavery was too far along towards extinction to make a difference. Slavery became so important to the economy of the southern states that war was inevitable.

I tend towards the responsible side, or at least partially responsible.