I had a question about the fate of the Southern planter class following the American civil war. The question was sparked by W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America.

Du Bois argues that they disappeared as a class. I highlighted the major point below:

With the Civil War, the planters died as a class. We still talk as though the dominant social class in the South persisted after the war. But it did not. It disappeared. Just how quickly and in what manner the transformation was made, we do not know. No scientific study of the submergence of the remainder of the planter class into the ranks of the poor whites, and the corresponding rise of a portion of the poor whites into the dominant portion of landholders and capitalists, has been made. Of the names of prominent Southern families in Congress in i860, only two appear in 1870, five in 1880. Of 90 prominent names in 1870, only four survived in 1880. Men talk today as though the upper class in the white South is descended from the slaveholders; yet we know by plain mathematics that the ancestors of most of the present Southerners never owned a slave nor had any real economic part in slavery. The disaster of war decimated the planters; the bitter disappointment and frustration led to a tremendous mortality after the war, and from 1870 on the planter class merged their blood so completely with the rising poor whites that they disappeared as a separate aristocracy. It is this that explains so many characteristics of the post-war South: its lynching and mob law, its murders and cruelty, its insensibility to the finer things of civilization.

Is it really accurate that the planters were decimated as a class? It's common to read that Johnson restored the planters to their plantation by offering a pardon to wealthy planters who were willing to at least say they were loyal to the Union. One would expect, then, that major parts of the planter class would survive into Reconstruction. What is the evidence for and against Du Bois's claim that the planter class was decimated?

  • 1
    "Merged their blood" what? Sounds painful.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jun 29, 2020 at 5:48

1 Answer 1


It seems that a number of later historians have questioned that interpretation.

In 1982 Eric Foner published an article called "Reconstruction Revisted" where he reviews relevant new developments in the historiography of the 1960s and 1970s. He writes:

Challenging the contention that the Civil War signaled the eclipse of the old planter class and the rise to power of a new entrepreneurial elite, social histories of localities scattered across the South demonstrated that planters survived the war with their landholdings and social prestige more or less in tact. (The areas investigated, it should be noted, were ones which largely escaped wartime military action.)

The footnote on this statement refers to studies based on Southwest Georgia and certain counties in Virginia. On the other side it also mentions that "James Roark's Masters without Slaves (New York: Norton, 1977) argues that the planter class declined in power and prestige after the Civil War."

Here is another article from 1975 which focuses on Alabama, "Planter-Merchant Conflict in Reconstruction Alabama" by Jonathan M. Wiener. It shows that in the case of at least one Alabama county, the planter class did largely survive the war with most of their land holdings, even though they did need to morph into a new "planter-merchant" class in order to survive post-bellum. Overall, this would seem contradict DeBois' interpretation. Wiener argues:

The evidence suggests that the planter elite which emerged from the war and Reconstruction was not "stripped of its economic foundations", nor had a "revolution in land titles" occurred; by 1870, after a decade of war and Reconstruction, the planter elite was relatively wealthier, and controlled more of the land, than it had before the war. At the same time, the persistence rate of the old elite families was unchanged from the pre-war period.

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