Test your knowledge with a quiz
- Cotton was a valuable cash crop for the American South, but as a labor-intensive crop, plantations depended on enslaved people to work the fields. The economic strength of the cotton market contributed heavily to the secession of the Confederacy and the Civil War.
- During the Civil War, Edward Atkinson proposed that the Union army could seize cotton plantations, freeing their slaves and employing them to continue harvesting cotton crops. Known as contrabands, these freed slaves were paid minimal wages and given certain rights. Their product was known as “free labor cotton” and it was popular in abolitionist countries, like England.
- Samuel Colman’s Ships Unloading, New York includes a new export, petroleum. Following the discovery of oil fields in western Pennsylvania, petroleum was marketed as a replacement for whale oil. After the invention of the combustion engine, oil would become an important commodity of international trade.
This painting at the Terra Foundation for American Art
Read about the Cotton Kingdom at Khan Academy
Learn more about the complicated history of cotton trading during the Civil War
Downloadable Cotton Kingdom map at Cornell University Library
Cheap cotton by free labor booklet at the Library of Congress
Learn more about contraband camps and their contributions to the Union
Explore the lesson plan on contraband camps
Read about the history of slavery in New York
Learn more about the history of petroleum in 19th-century America
Illustrated London News engraving of the Glad Tidings
A short biography of Samuel Colman, Jr. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
More to think about
By seizing cotton plantations and paying workers in contraband camps for their labor, the Union marketed its cotton as a more ethical product. How does this compare to modern marketing of ethical clothing? How are today ideas of what makes something an “ethical” product similar to what they were in the 1860s?