History of Cotton
What is Cotton?
Cotton, belonging to a family that includes hibiscus and okra, produces a natural vegetable fiber used in the manufacture of cloth. Cotton produces a sweet nectar that attracts a variety of destructive insect pests, including the boll weevil, bollworm, armyworm, and the red spider. In addition to insect pests, there is also a very destructive fungus, called the wilt, that attacks the root system of the cotton plant.
A few species are grown commercially; these range from a small tree of Asia, to the common American Upland cotton, a low, multibranched shrub that is grown as an annual. Another species includes the long-fiber Egyptian and Sea Island cottons botanically derived from the Egyptian species brought to the United States about 1900. Sea Island cotton thrives in the unique climate of the Sea Islands, located off the southeastern coast of the United States, and on the islands of the West Indies such as Barbados. As with Egyptian cotton, the fiber is white and lustrous but its fiber length is longer than that of any other type of cotton, which permits the spinning of extremely fine yarns. Pima, originally called American-Egyptian cotton, is a hybrid type. It is the only variety of long-fiber cotton now grown in commercially significant quantities in the United States, where it is cultivated under irrigation in the Southwest.
It is almost impossible to determine the original habitats of the various species of cotton. Scientists have determined fiber and boll fragments from the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico to be about 7000 years old. The plant has certainly been grown and used in India for at least 5000 years and probably for much longer. Cotton was used also by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and North and South Americans. It was one of the earliest crops grown by European settlers, having been planted at the Jamestown colony in 1607.
Cotton was the most important crop in South before the American Civil War (1861-1865). Slaves usually worked all day picking cotton for their masters while overseers watched from their horses.
England was one of the South’s largest cotton customers, many therefore Southerners believed England would enter the war on their behalf to preserve England’s supply of cotton. The South was confident this would assure a swift Confederate victory.
Cotton was king and Louisiana was queen! New Orleans was the major l9th-century port for cotton export, and Louisiana’s fertile valleys were the South’s major cotton producers. The Confederate government realized cotton was as good as if not better than gold. Cotton’s value gave Louisiana a major financial role during the war. Not only did the Confederacy use the foreign exchange paid to the South for the exported 1860 cotton crop, the Confederate government purchased cotton to use both as security for European loans and for export.
This plan worked until 1862 when the Union army occupied New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Federal forces raided from Morgan City up to Alexandria. Vicksburg and Port Hudson fell, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River.
As Confederate troops retreated, they destroyed as much of the cotton crop as possible, to prevent this “gold” from falling into enemy hands.