Cotton, oil, and the economics of history

Samuel Colman, Jr., Ships Unloading, New York

Samuel Colman, Jr., Ships Unloading, New York, 1868, oil on canvas mounted on board, 105 x 76 cm (The Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1984.4). Speakers: Dr. Peter John Brownlee, Curator, Terra Foundation for American Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Key points

  • 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.

Go deeper

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 a 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’s ideas of what makes something an “ethical” product similar to what they were in the 1860s?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.