Writing home from Alabama in November 1863, an Ohio cavalryman celebrated the overthrow of the Southern aristocracy: “The mud sills of the North roam at will over the plantations, burn rails, forage on the country, and the negroes flock into our camps, leaving their lordly masters helpless and dependent,” he rejoiced. “Alas! for the pride and boasting of the chivalrous subjects of King cotton!”[1] He described not one, but two intertwined revolutions unleashed as slavery collapsed and elite pretensions crumbled. Especially illuminating was his triumphant reference to “mud sills,” a loaded term which connected wartime upheaval to antebellum politics.

“Mudsill” became a political catchword in 1858 thanks to an infamous speech by Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina. A separate southern nation, he proclaimed, would thrive, thanks to its control over cotton production and its stable social order. According to Hammond, every civilization needed a class of manual workers: “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” he proclaimed. “It constitutes the very mud-sill of society.” Northerners consigned whites to this degraded status, but the South had “found a race adapted to that purpose” and built a society on the bedrock of black labor. “We use them for our purpose, and call them slaves….I will not characterize that class at the North by that term; but you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal.[2]

Northerners, convinced that proslavery ideologues threatened the dignity and liberty of all working people, were outraged. Workers appropriated the mudsill label, transforming an insulting epithet into a badge of pride. Across the North, “high-spirited mechanics and laborers” organized “Mud-Sill Clubs” and urged workingmen to vote Republican in the 1858 midterm elections. A banner hoisted at one of Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas read: “Small-Fisted Farmers, Mud Sills of Society, Greasy Mechanics, for A. Lincoln.”[3] As Massachusetts Republican Henry Wilson recalled, Hammond “opened the eyes of [northern] men to the spirit, aims, and purposes of the Slave Power as perhaps no previous demonstration had been able to effect.”[4]

The entire article can be viewed on The Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

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