When you think about the large and prosperous cities in the historical Southern United States, you think of cities like Charleston, Richmond, Savannah, and New Orleans. However, when you look at the large cities in the South today, they are cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, and Houston.

Contrasting this to the North, where the historical large cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc. are today still the large cities in the North.

What happened in the American South that caused the historical large cities to stagnate while new cities took their place vs. in the North where the same cities continued developing?

EDIT: I want to be more specific. When I say large, I'm talking more about the economic sense, not necessarily population or geographic area (though of course these are well correlated with economics). For example, taking a look at this list, the first historical Southern city on the list is Richmond at 44, but cities like NYC, Philly, and Boston are all near the top.

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    Welcome to History:SE. What has your research shown you so far? Where have you already searched? What did you find? Please help us to help you. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 22:56
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    Note that Miami and Houston are both located outside of the territory of the original Southern colonies. Houston in the "South" is more analogous to Chicago. Also, populations just wax and wane for local reasons. For instance, San Francisco used to be the largest city in California. Now it's number four.
    – user15620
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 23:11
  • @GorttheRobot you're correct that Houston and Miami were not part of the original colonies. But that's precisely my question. Why the large cities in the Northern colonies maintained their status, while the ones in the South did not and were replaced by others. Also, I use "large" in more of an economic sense than population. SF, despite 4th in population, is at least 2nd in terms of economics. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 23:19
  • This is a very interesting question i had never thought of before. I would imagine though that the causes for each city may differ and some may just be luck. I think Houston is as large as it is because of the Galveston Hurricane and then the oil industry and the fact it just so happens to be a city with a port near oil.
    – ed.hank
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 23:26
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    Apart from New Orleans the cities of the Old South weren't cities at all by Northern standards. So when real industry did come, they didn't have enough scale for that to be a competitive advantage. The growth then happened in two waves. First in cities like Atlanta and Birmingham where the weather is bearable and later in cities like Houston which are well nigh uninhabitable without air-conditioning.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 2:57

3 Answers 3


Question: Why are the historical large cities in the southern US not the large cities in the South today?

Antebellum South: Charleston, Richmond, Savannah, and New Orleans
Post-bellum South: Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, and Houston

Short Answer:
What really changed in the post-bellum south was the price of cotton The result was the post-bellum economy of the south was forced to diversify and the new population centers would reflect this now diversified economy.

Detailed Answer

It was the economy which changed.

The antibellum population centers were all Port Cities.

  • Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans are all Port Cities
  • Richmond's Shockoe Bottom sector bordering the James River was a primary slave market for the entire south.

In the Antibellum South the primary industries were agriculture and slavery. Both were forever altered after the Civil War. The Slaves were freed, the plantations were broken up; and cotton as a cash crop was less lucrative as the alternative sources for cotton; (Egypt, India, Australia), had developed their own cotton crops, made inroads into the market, and thus cotton values were suppressed when the war was over.


How the American Civil War Built Egypt’s Vaunted Cotton Industry and Changed the Country Forever
It took just a couple of weeks after the outbreak of hostilities in South Carolina for farmers the world over to realize the scope of the bounty that had landed in their lap. Agricultural laborers from Australia and India to the West Indies ditched wheat and other food staples and hastily planted up their fields with cotton. Prices had risen by up to 150 percent. As soon as it became clear that England wouldn’t enter the war as allies of the Confederacy, many farmers doubled down and gave over every scrap of their acreage to this enriching crop.


The Post-Bellum Recovery of the South and the Cost of the Civil War
The value of southern cotton production in 1859 was $197.6 million or $23.15 per capita, and it grew from 1839 to 1859, at a per capita rate of 3.56 percent per year.6 Had that growth rate continued after 1859, the value of cotton output in 1879 would have been $46.64 per capita or $596.9 million for the entire South. Gavin Wright's research indicates, however, that the actual level of demand did not increase at its prewar rate and was only 46 percent of what would have been achieved in 1879 had demand continued to increase at that rate

After the war the South's primary economy was still based around agriculture. Slaves were replaced by share croppers. What really changed was the price of cotton dropped an no longer was the reliable cash crop it was prior to the war. Exports became less lucrative due t competition and eventually new industries would fill the vacuum and dictate new centers of commerce.

  • Atlanta: Trade, Transportation(air, rail), Manufacturing, Finance
  • Charlotte: Banking and Finance
  • Miami: tourism, services, trade, manufacturing, real estate, and construction.
  • Houston: Oil

The question is still a little bit fuzzy, but I think its due to not understanding what drove trade in the pre-industrial era, so I'm just going to get into that.

The basic consideration here is transport. Prior to the invention of the railroad, shipping over water was vastly more efficient than doing it any other way. So back then it was almost more sensible to look at a country's map as its coasts and navigable rivers. Transport and communications any other way was usually so uncompetitive that it barely happened by comparison.

So to be commercially important in the 18th Century, there's one thing a city generally needed to have: access to shipping. Every major city back then was going to either be a coastal port with a good protected harbor, or lacking that at least be sitting near the end of a navigable river. The bigger the navigable watershed drained by that river, the better. New York city for example had a protected harbor on the mouth of the Hudson river, which drains pretty much all of eastern New York state, and with canal building was connected to the entire state, west to the Great Lakes, and north to Montreal.

This was considered so important that early on it was felt that every state required a port. This explains some of the odd little water-seeking panhandles in some of the early states like New Hampshire, Alabama, and Mississippi (and early colonial Pennsylvania). It is also the main reason for the east-west orientation of most Atlantic states, and the north-south orientation of Gulf states.

To go through the southern cities the question called out, Charleston is a natural harbor at the mouth of essentially all the rivers that drain the state of South Carolina (barring the Savannah basin). Richmond is near the mouth of the James, which drains all of central Virginia. Savannah is at the mouth of 2 rivers that drain the NE half of Georgia and the rest of South Carolina. New Orleans is the last (barely) viable place to put a port on the vast Mississippi, draining about a third of the US portion of the continent.

With the advent of the railroads in the 19th century, new cities begun to spring up at interior rail hubs. These include places like Kansas City, Atlanta, and Ft. Worth.

Cities with good ports of course were still important (you can't exactly build a railroad over the Atlantic), but you only need so many of those, so port traffic had a tendency to become consolidated to the larger better-equipped ones like New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Norfolk etc. Cities on rivers (without ports) were still important, but railways were now where the growth was, and those don't require a river. So while Richmond still grew, its growth was nothing like Atlanta's.

  • Thanks for the answer. It explains why places like Richmond stagnated (relatively), but why were coastal cities like Wilmington, Charleston and Savannah not able to retain their importance as coastal ports, while cities like NYC, Boston, Philly, were able to? Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 21:47
  • @C.J.Jackson - That's touched on in the last paragraph as well.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 22:54
  • @C.J. Jackson: Because of the economic suppression of the South during and after the Civil War. A port city does not thrive unless it has a thriving hinterland to and from which to ship goods. WRT railroads, most of the South's railroads had been destroyed, while the North had the newly completed transcontinental railroad running from New York & Philadelphia to the West Coast.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 4:56
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    I would even add that the greatly increased speed due first to railways, and then steamships and personal motor transport, has introduced a significantly greater minimum distance between population centers. Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 18:59

I think it is also necessary to recognize that the southern states 1860 basically was in the same situation as the small states (and not so small states in Latin America) or the states in Africa after the great depression 1930:

  • dependency on cotton, sugar and rice as cash crops but which is heavily exposed to changes in international commerce.
  • the Northern states push for protectionism after 1800 was disadvantageous - less profits from export-focused agriculture
  • the large plantations was owned by a small white minority who invested in industries in the north, railroads and luxury items - not in small scale industry (or growth of the local economy) in its neighborhood.
  • the plantations was also in debt to the banks (be them in New York or London.) This, after the abolition caused a even larger pressure on the profits. This debt was large even before the civil war... ie profit wasn't as good as they could seem to be.

For example: clothing for everyone was imported from the northern states or more probably England, so also the chains necessary in the slave trade and the food for them.

The british settlers from Barbados who (according to "A History of World Societies" Wiesner-Hanks, Ebrey) colonised South and North Carolina had already on Barbados built up a number of sugar plantations. The Carolinas is very well suited to large single-crop plantations exporting rice and later cotton while the nature in the northern states isn't really suited to a system of large-scale slave worked agriculture with a cash crop as output.

One other weakness of slave labour is the capital outlay - the interests on that can pay for a fair amount of labour from free men, men which have a good reason to improve their work.

Harold D. Woodman in the journal of southern history (vol 29 nr 3) "profitability of slavery" mentions a sum of 1.2 billion dollars invested in slaves. The loss in 1865 and emancipation made that sum basically nil. One other problem which is enumerated is this: the southern stagnated and was overtaken by the North between 1800 and 1850. Why ? Was it because european emigrants didn't want to work in the South - which would have meant accepting wages only a bit larger than the planters costs for a slave.

In the same article he refers to Ulrich B Philips views of plantations as a method of organizing work and slavery as a way of exploiting labor. One of Philips points is that slaves simply in the long run costs too much - a planter had to feed and support his slaves their whole life. Slaves is also bound capital which can't be liquidated and then re-invested in some other more profitable endeavour. Because of that, slavery was for the South a one-direction road towards a road-block. Especially as the import (before 1807) and buying of new slaves required loaning capital which in the southern economy became even more scarse.

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