What was life like during Reconstruction for poor white southerners?

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Murl Larson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Poor white Southerners did not have an easy life in the South after the Civil War.  A lot of men either did not come back from the war, or they came back maimed.  Many horses and cattle were lost due to armies collecting them or "bummers" (deserters from both sides) confiscating them.  Many areas of the South immediately after the war were quite lawless. The Union army raided farms around battlefields and a large part of Georgia and the Carolinas were rendered barren by Sherman's March to the Sea.  Many poor Southerners left and went North and West, looking for work and opportunity.  There was also the relationship they had with the former slaves.  These former slaves competed with the poor Southerners for agricultural work, thus creating a racist system in which the former slave was demonized by both his former owners and by whites who were close to him in terms of income.  Many poor whites turned to sharecropping, in which the farmer worked the land and paid his rent in the form of part of the crop. Of course the farmer went into debt to buy the feed, seed, and supplies, and often crops were wiped out by drought or insects--in the 1870s a boll weevil problem destroyed millions of acres of cotton in Georgia.  This system perpetuated poverty for working-class white Southerners and sharecropping would be common in the South until WWII when many of these poor whites left for factory jobs in the North or to fight the Axis in WWII.  

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Life for poor whites was not a whole lot better than life for the freed slaves.  They did, of course, have more in the way of rights and were more respected by society as a whole.  However, this only meant that they were not the very bottom of the social pyramid. Many, many poor whites ended up caught in the same sharecropping and crop-lien systems that kept freed slaves in poverty.  They essentially were stuck in a system that ensured that they would be permanently indebted to the land owners.

Poor white Southerners were better off than poor black Southerners during Reconstruction, but their lives were almost as bad in terms of material wealth and indebtedness.


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