The slavery controversy and the Civil War

By the mid-19th century, most white Georgians, like most Southerners, had come to view slavery as economically indispensable to their society. When the Civil War came, most white Southerners, slave owner or not, joined in the defense of their common heritage and culture. Georgia, with the greatest number of true plantations, had in many respects come to epitomize this culture.

The war involved Georgians at every level. Coastal attacks and sporadic raids into the state were a prelude to the attack on Atlanta in the late summer of 1864, when General William T. Sherman launched his March to the Sea. In mid-November Sherman initiated a plan to cut a 50-mile-wide swath across Georgia. Starting from Atlanta, the left wing moved along the route of the Georgia Railroad to Madison and Milledgeville, while the right wing went overland to the southeast, leaving a broad belt of almost total destruction.

The aftermath of the Civil War has been seen as a return to essentially frontier conditions in Georgia. Georgians no longer enjoyed mastery over their environment, and new modes of social and economic organization emerged in efforts to regain such mastery. Agriculture still appeared to hold Georgia's most promising future, but the relationship between land and labor was changed dramatically.

After some experimentation with various contractual arrangements for farm labor following emancipation, the system of sharecropping, or paying the owner for use of the land with some portion of the crop, became a generally accepted institution in Georgia and throughout the South. The system encouraged both the landowner and the sharecropper to strive for large harvests and thus often led to the land being "mined" of its fertility. Almost invariably, land and capital remained in white hands, while labor remained largely, though not entirely, black. This entrenched pattern was not broken until the scourge of the boll weevil in the early 1920s ended the long reign of cotton.