Steamboats and the Rise of the Cotton Kingdom by Robert Gudmestad

We tend to think of technology as something that only applies to our modern gadgets but gamechanging technology isn’t a recent invention. The steamboat was an invention that ended up changing the fundamental structure of the United States, from the creation of cities to the birth of industries. It could be argued that the adaptation of steam power to transport cargo up and down the mighty Mississippi altered the course of the nation. Robert Gudmestad, a history professor at Colorado State University, specializes in Southern History and has a keen understanding of the mores of the antebellum South which he uses to great effect as he traces the rise and fall of the steamboat industry in this well-researched book.

The practice of slavery heavily influenced the ways that the Southern States do business and steamboats enabled them to ship their wares much more efficiently. Faster shipping led to the need for more production which led to an increased need for slave labor. Like today’s Internet boom, the steamboat revolution led to the rise of many entrepreneurs spawning both rapid successes and sudden failures. Steamboats provided an easy way to transport both goods and people, accelerating commerce and exacerbating existing strains between the Northern and Southern ways of life. Tensions would have come to a head eventually anyway but the steamboat put that process into high gear with every fast trip up and down the Mississippi.

Gudmestad uses primary sources to give the reader a feel for what life was like on the steamboats for both passengers and crew. The steamboats were both a microcosm of the prevailing society and also a different world where some of the normal rules did not apply. Steamboats were fast and sometimes the speed could be deadly. There were crashes and explosions including the 1865 Sultana disaster in which over 1,700 people, most of them Union soldiers recently released from prison, died. They were also an environmental menace, destroying riverbank ecosystems and contributing to both air and water pollution. Nature was seen as a thing to be tamed rather than protected by most, an issue still wrestled with in modern times.

As the railroad became the preferred mode of transport, steamboats became primarily used for transporting cotton bales but that business faded out as well. Eventually the Mississippi, once bustling with steamboat traffic, was home to just a few steaming up and down the river. Today steamboats evoke nostalgia and a sweet, sanitized view of the antebellum South. This book shows that the reality was far less charming.

Gudmestad’s historian chops are on full display. He doesn’t just paint the picture of the economic and sociological climate he also provides hard data and uses his analytical skills to explain why certain choices were made. This book is a scholarly look at a particularly active time in American history through a financial and technological lens.

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