Author Interview--Michael S. Frawley (Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

today we feature Michael S. Frawley to talk about his new book Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South: A Reevaluation, which just came out with Louisiana State University Press.

Michael S. Frawley is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University.

To start the interview, Michael, could you give our readers a brief idea of how this book came about and what your argument is?

The book came about from my interest in the Civil War.  I had an interest in the subject since High School, but, I never really understood how the South, if it was so outweighed by the North in both men and material, was able to fight four years of grinding war.  I kept a hold of this question through undergrad, and, when I was in my master’s program, I made it the topic of my master’s thesis.  So, I explored what Confederate industry looked like for my thesis, and, after, I was lucky to find a Ph.D. program with a mentor who was just as interested in my subject as I was, Paul Paskoff.  Working with him, I dove deeper into the topic to try and find connections between slavery and industry.  When doing this research I discovered that what was in the compiled census data did not match the census schedules and other available sources.  Thus, a dissertation was born.  I focused on the antebellum Gulf South for this project, and began to look at all of the sources I could find on industry in these states.  The dissertation then became the center of this book.  I argue that the census records were woefully incomplete, for a variety of reasons, and, by looking at other contemporary sources, we can start to see what the industrial base of the Gulf South really looked like.  Moreover, this larger industrial base forces us to re-evaluate the connections between slavery and industry, the war, and what occurred during Reconstruction.

You are providing a long overdue challenge to the assumption of an agricultural South. You mention that the census data is "woefully incomplete," what sources did you rely most heavily on and in a similar vein, since you include an appendix on the subject, what was your methodology figuring out the undercounting of industry in the census?

I soon discovered that there are many other sources that record industrial firms if you were willing to do the tedious work of combing through them.  Local newspapers discussed new firms opening in their areas, as did city and county directories.  More important were the advertisements in both of those sources.  If a firm was willing to spend the money over a period of time to advertise, we can assume that they should have tripped the threshold of production necessary to be listed in the census, which was $500 of production in a year.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, were the credit reports put together by the R.G Dun Company.  These reports were written by local agents and reported back to the home office in Boston.  Wholesalers then used these records to decide whether or not to extend credit to these firms.  Again, we have to make an assumption, but, a firm with records over years in these reports, most likely, should have been included in the census reports.  I then compared these firms to the census schedules to see what had been left out.  But, unfortunately, while I found missing firms, I had no information on their production, labor, or material costs.  I did have the census though, which gave me some basic numbers that I could use to create estimates of these factors of production by industry.  I took all of the firms from the census schedules, added to them all of the missing firms I could find, and created a database.  Then, using that database, I created low, medium, and high estimates of the various industries across these states to get an idea of what the industrial base of the region looked like.  I then used maps to display this information in my book.  While the book itself only ran about 200 pages, the appendix with all of the data used to create these maps ran 150 pages on its own, which is why it is available online, rather than printed in the book.

I am glad you raise the subject of maps, which I always find extremely helpful to visualize information. You note in the acknowledgment, "GIS is something more historians should take advantage of when studying historical problems." Can you tell us a little more about GIS, what it is, how it works, what is useful for?

GIS has been very important to my work, and I really stumbled on it by luck.  GIS stands for Geographic Information System, and it is a mapping software.  What GIS allows you to do is to enter data into a program, match that data with geographic points, cities, counties, states, etc, and then map the results.  When I was working on my Ph.D. at LSU, my advisor suggested that I do some minor fieldwork in geography.  There is an excellent geography program at LSU which made a lot of use of GIS.  So, I went over to geography and learned the basics, and it changed my work.  Traditionally, when writing a book like this, it would be filled with tables, charts, and graphs, and this book has those, but, what it mostly has, because of GIS, is maps of that information.  These maps allow us to see relationships over space, something that is hard to see in charts and graphs.  For example, I discovered that, much like there was a cotton belt across these states, there was also an industrial belt, which matched much of the cotton growing areas.  This relationship is very interesting, and, without the maps created by GIS, I would not be able to show it in a way readers could quickly grasp.  As you said, I commented in my acknowledgments that I wanted more historians to use GIS, and, to my great joy, more and more are using this technology.

I hope you are right and more historians use GIS. Now to close in the interview, I want to ask a more challenging question. You establish that the South was agricultural and industrial at the same time. How does this alter our understanding of the causation and fighting of the Civil War? I seem to remember that in my Civil War classes it was taught that the addition of the Middle South was essential for the CSA's survival because the region brought much-needed industry. And counter-factually, had the war not happened in 1861 and southern industry gotten another decade to mature, would there have been a war, would the outcome have been different, what are your thoughts?

Excellent questions!  First as to the middle South, yes they were needed to win the war.  This is something I have to be very careful with when discussing my work.  Nothing I have discovered changed the war.  This extra 15-20% of industry that I recovered was always there, and allowed the South to fight for 4 years.  To have any hope against the industrial power of the North, the Confederacy would have needed the Border States, which is why they eventually lost.  Now, the 10 years more of development idea is very interesting.  The North would have continued to increase its development as well.  But, the longer it took, the more the South would have developed and, with the increasing power of the defensive in military matters, the South may have been able to make the war so costly, they could have won.  What we can see most clearly though, is that slavery did not hold back industrial development at all, and that slaves would have transitioned easily into factory work, as they were doing by 1860.  

Michael, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.