Stained glass window
Reconstruction of Greenville
Greenville Cotton Fields (undated). Courtesy of Richard Sawyer (Huff)

Greenville, South Carolina, like many other areas of the recently defeated South, endured a great many changes in the years following the close of war in 1865. Greenville, which to that point had not been heavily dependant on slave labor, relied more upon small farming and the corn crop than it did the export of cotton, which saw a great decline after the emancipation of the slaves. While not suffering directly from the great loss of labor, like so many other areas in the South, Greenville did begin to undergo economic dislocations which lead to a suffering of people in all classes (Huff, 151).

Most of what is known about upcountry South Carolina at the time of Reconstruction comes from the pen of John William Deforest, head of Freedman’s Bureau in Greenville in the immediately after the war. He noted that Greenville was being thrust into poverty in the post war years because of “the leanness of the soil, the imperfection of agriculture, the loss of hundreds of young men in battle, the exhaustion of stock and capital during the war, the lack of intelligent and zealous labor, and the thriftless habits incident on slavery” (Huff, 151). Adding strain to the situation at hand was a severe drought in 1866 leading to a hefty increase in prices on corn leading to what Deforest notes as “widespread want.” Land prices began to fall quickly too in the post war years. Many farms came under foreclosure and many men were hiring themselves out for far below a good wage, if they were able to find work. Greenville was, in a word, “bankrupt.” Between the years of 1860 and 1870 Greenville’s population grew only 1.7% (from 21,892 to 22,262). Many began to leave the area in search of better economic situations (Huff, 152).

Meanwhile in the nation’s capital, Congress had become increasingly displeased with President Andrew Johnson’s plans for reconstructing the South. In 1867 Congress passed its own Reconstruction plan and the states were divided into military districts with their state governments suspended in favor of a governing army. The politics in Greenville became hotly divided between the Republican and Democratic camps. In the election of 1870 the Democrats made substantial gains within the state government (Huff, 161). The new Republican movement still tried to establish itself within the state of South Carolina. “Rifle Clubs,” formed in Greenville, were organized to disrupt Republican meetings and forced their leaders to divide time with Democratic speakers. White Democrats would not allow blacks to vote in elections leading to the drawing of knives and pistols at the polling places. Former Confederate General Wade Hampton III was elected governor in 1876 due in large part to the lack of turnout by the frightened black voters. A large constituency of white Democrats turned out to celebrate their victory and listen to “stirring speeches,” the first of which was given by James C. Furman (Huff, 169).

Air Line Rail Depot, W. Washington St., 1873. Courtesy of Greenville County Library (Huff)

The economy of Greenville had soon recovered after its initial fall. Cotton, a crop which had never been much of a money maker in the upcountry had declined 44% by 1865, but increased from 1,864 bales sold to 28,482 bales over the next 25 years. Greenville had become part of the Southern Cotton boom which subsequently lead to a new agricultural revolution (Huff, 178). Another boost to the economy came by the way of railroads. In 1866 the Greenville/Columbia rail line was repaired opening trade towards Charleston. The building of the Atlanta and Charlotte Air Line railway in 1873 went directly through the city of Greenville placing it midway between two important centers of trade. The upcountry soon became connected to Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and consequently the great Northwest via rail (Huff, 181). The textile industry began to take hold and lead to the creation of new mills and an industrialized society thereby leaving behind the constant reliance on agrarian goods. Greenville was becoming a new center of trade and a steadily rising economy.

By April 1877 the Union troops had officially vacated Greenville and left the state and county to its own government. The departure of the army marked the end of Reconstruction in Greenville. The previous years had been tumultuous and difficult, but the poverty of the post war times were progressing towards success and progress as the city steadily drove towards the 20th century.

Works Cited

Huff, Archie Vernon Jr. Greenville, The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. University of South Carolina press: Columbia 1995. pp. 151-180.