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Mobile as a Cotton City

Mobile, the state's only seaport, ranked as the nation's second largest cotton exporter by 1860. Virtually all local commercial activities, from marketing cotton to obtaining goods for planters in the interior, served the cotton trade that undergirded Mobile's economy. The city's hinterland encompassed rich cotton-producing areas in Alabama and Mississippi. Planters in both states with access to the Alabama-Tombigbee River system that flowed into the Mobile River used Mobile as their cotton market. By 1860 Mobile had surpassed all other southern ports except New Orleans as a cotton exporter. Cotton usually made up 99 percent of the total value of exports from antebellum Mobile. Lumber and lumber products accounted for only 1 percent of the total value of exports.

With cotton as the basis for its economy, Mobile, as much as any other southern port, remained essentially undiversified. Many people provided services directly related to the marketing of cotton or entertaining of planters who visited the city, while few entered other economic pursuits. A substantial portion of profits from transactions in cotton left Mobile for northeastern American cities as well as for Liverpool and Le Havre, where international firms handled many of the transport, insurance, and market arrangements for Alabama cotton.

In the 1850s, to encourage the commercial independence and diversification of the local economy, civic boosters promoted railroads, direct trade, and manufacturing. All their efforts achieved limited success. For its major lines of commerce the port still depended on its river system and Mobile Bay, which flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.

A culturally diverse work force supplied the labor for the city. Most skilled workers were white, while slaves supplied much of the semiskilled and skilled labor. They worked as domestics, draymen, mechanics, and press hands. In 1850 half of Alabama's free blacks lived in Mobile where they constituted about 3 percent of the free labor force. Stiff labor competition developed in Mobile in the late antebellum years when increasing numbers of white immigrants sought jobs formerly held by slaves and free blacks. By 1860 the free male labor force of Mobile consisted of 50 percent foreign-born, 34 percent southern-born, and 16 percent northern-born. Irish and German workers predominated among the foreign-born. Free women, white and black, comprised about one-tenth of the total free work force in Mobile.

In the 1860 presidential election, because of their commercial concerns, Mobile's voters registered preferences for moderate candidates, with seventy-one percent choosing Constitutional Unionist John Bell or National Democrat Stephen Douglas. Of major southern ports, only New Orleans exceeded Mobile's support for moderates.