The Cotton Landscape
Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States, created for the 1856 presidential election, supported the first Republican candidates for president and vice president, John C. Fremont and William L. Dayton. Slavery’s expansion west was a critical election issue, and the Democratic candidate, James Buchanan, claimed that a Republican president would lead the nation to civil war. Fremont carried 11 northern states but lost both the popular and electoral vote to Buchanan. This map’s statistical comparisons between slave and free states were intended to show that slavery was detrimental to the entire nation’s economy.
This stereograph depicts four women picking cotton in Aiken, South Carolina. It vividly depicts the work slaves—women and young children alike—were forced to perform in the antebellum cotton fields. During the Civil War, Northerners would have had access to many similar scenes reproduced in books, prints, and illustrated magazines.
Stereographs consist of two nearly identical photographic prints. When viewed through a stereoscope, the paired images produce the illusion of a three-dimensional image.
This thematic map shows cotton plantations in blue and pink and sugar plantations in yellow and green as well as nearby creeks and bayous, rivers, lakes, canals, and railroads along the ribbon of river stretching from Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans. The map and its scenic vignettes of plantations and towns largely omit any reference to the slaves who harvested, hauled, and processed cotton.
Samuel Colman’s Ships Unloading depicts a busy New York port, where a ship known as the Glad Tidings is docked. The ship’s most important cargo was cotton, the mainstay of the South’s slave economy and New York City’s most important export. But since the early war years, the Glad Tidings had been instrumental in facilitating a free labor model of the cotton trade that aimed to replace slavery with wage work. The crops the Glad Tidings brought to New York had been grown and harvested in the South by wage-earning ex-slaves. Colman’s painting is therefore a reminder of epochal historical change.
In the foreground, a black worker and two white counterparts tend to a cotton bale that has spilled open, while a single white worker wrestles with another bale. On the left edge of the painting a banner reads “London and New York,” reminding viewers that the South supplied the vast majority of raw cotton for the English textile industry through the port of New York. Visible only under considerable magnification are the words “New York Petroleum Co.” painted across the head of the barrel facing the viewer, foreshadowing the presence of the commodity that would fuel the engines of American commerce, and warfare, for generations to come.