Plantation Life

Contrary to popular belief, which has been fueled by movies such as Gone with the Wind, the South was not one huge collection of large plantations. There were far more small and midsize farms — most of which were tended without slaves. However, the easy lifestyle of the landed gentry has become firmly embedded in the public consciousness.

The Deep South was home to the majority of plantations — large, almost palatial homes overseeing hundreds and often thousands of acres of prime farmland tended by slaves. Louisiana and Virginia both contained a large number of plantations, most of which grew cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice, but plantations could be found in almost all of the Confederate states. Indeed, the plantation embodied the Southern sensibility and lifestyle in the eyes of most Northerners, even if they had never seen one.

What is a plantation?

A functioning plantation usually consisted of a large family home, slave quarters, smokehouses, gardens, a stockyard, and the farmland itself, which could be quite expansive. Many large plantations contained everything necessary for daily maintenance and were virtually self-sufficient. The slaves worked the fields, occasionally assisted by paid white laborers, and in a good year each field slave produced a profit of $250.

Plantation owners were, for the most part, wealthy individuals with a taste for the finer things in life. They typically left the daily maintenance of their estates and farms to their staff, which allowed them time to indulge their particular hobbies. Hunting was a favorite pastime among wealthy plantation owners, and most Southern men — rich and poor — learned to ride and shoot at a very young age. Horse racing was another popular activity, and one that usually resulted in sizable bets between local plantation owners; many brought surplus slaves to the races to back large wagers.

Wealthy Southern planters, like the Northern rich, also enjoyed entertaining. Large, lavish house parties, balls, and banquets were held quite frequently. Attire was often formal, and the women reveled in showing off their best dresses, including the hoop skirts that have come to typify the classic Southern belle. Anyone who has viewed the scene in Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O'Hara is stuffed into a corset and then a hoop skirt will understand the pains to which Southern women went in order to be fashionable.

Slaves on the Plantation

Most planters were doted on by a house staff that included butlers, maids, and cooks, as well as nannies for the planter's children. Like the farmhands and plantation overseers, the majority of plantation house staff were slaves. The nannies, commonly referred to as mammies, played an especially important role in the daily running of the household, and the children of a plantation often grew up with a closer bond to their nannies than to their own mothers.

It was the responsibility of the nanny to care for the children — to see that they were fed, went to school, and behaved themselves. When they misbehaved, it was usually the nanny who punished them as well; it was one of the few instances in which a slave was allowed to lay a hand on a white person.

“Arlington House … has one of the most beautiful situations imaginable…. It was evidently in its day a grand affair; and its arrangement, furniture, pictures, &c., at once carry one back to the good old ‘first family’ days of Virginia.” — John Nicolay, visiting Robert E. Lee's Arlington plantation home after it was seized by Federal troops, 1861

The treatment of slaves varied greatly among plantation owners. Some were strict to the point of brutality, administering severe punishment for the slightest infraction and running the home more by fear than respect. But for the most part, planters took relatively good care of their slaves, who were viewed as an expensive investment (a capable farmhand could cost more than $1,000 at auction). Punishment was doled out where appropriate, but minor infractions were often ignored.

Many plantation owners also gave their slaves a small piece of land to farm for themselves and sometimes even paid them a small wage or allowance with which they could buy personal items. Of course, that's not to infer that the life of a slave was pleasant. Even under the best circumstances, slaves were still considered nothing more than property, and even the best-treated slave still dreamed of freedom.

Worse as the End Drew Near

As with small and midsize farms, many large plantations were hard hit as the Civil War went on. Even the wealthiest land baron had little purchasing power when all he had in the bank were worthless Confederate notes, and many planters found themselves scrimping to survive toward the end of the war. Plantation owners also faced the wrath of invading Union forces, many of whom saw the Southern plantation as the embodiment of Southern evil. It wasn't uncommon for Union forces to vandalize and even destroy plantation homes, steal personal belongings, set free the slaves, and harass or attack the owners if they were home.

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