Civil War and Reconstruction
Agriculture Farm Agriculture Sorghum


Many Tennessee farms suffered great losses during the Civil War. Union and Confederate troops took crops, livestock like chickens, cows, and pigs, and animals like horses and mules for their own use. Farm fence rails made handy firewood for cold soldiers. 
Some farmers stopped even planting crops because they were tired of having them taken by soldiers. During the war, many men left their farms to serve as soldiers. Many perished in the fighting or suffered wounds that would affect their ability to work. 
As slavery ended, many African Americans left farms and traveled to cities.
During Reconstruction, a new kind of farm labor system emerged. Many African Americans sought to change their working conditions.  They refused to work in groups in the fields under the supervision of a white farm owners or overseers because this reminded them of slavery. Instead, they preferred to rent small farms from landowners for a certain portion of the crop.    
For example, in 1866, Frenan McLaughlin signed a contract with a landowner to farm for 50 percent of the crops he raised. In exchange, he promised to “work his crop and keep it in good order” in addition to performing other jobs such as gathering firewood and fixing fences for his employer. 
This contract also included the purchase of food for his family. It stated: “his employer agrees to furnish Freman with 500 pounds of pork at 14 cents per lb and as much corn as will take to bread his family and the said Freman agrees to pay his employer out of his part of the crop.”
Notice that according to this contract, it was possible for McLaughlin to work hard all year and still owe his employer money. What if the crops were poor? His half of the profit on his share of the crops could be less than the amount of money he owed his employer for his family’s food. Then, McLaughlin would have a serious problem. Do you think that McLaughlin would have agreed to this contract if he had better opportunities for employment? Probably not.
Sharecropping grew rapidly during Reconstruction among both African American and white farmers. At first, many farm laborers thought sharecropping was a pretty good compromise. However, this system was not very efficient for raising crops, and it was easy for families to fall into a crushing cycle of debt to landowners and storeowners. 
Learn more about sharecropping in Tennessee, click here:    

Picture Credits:
  • Photograph of a farm in Erin, Tennessee. Several buildings, fences, and a person standing in the distance are visible. A rock pile and rock fence can also be seen in the foreground. Writing on the back of the photograph reads, “Mrs. Elois Dillard, R #1, Cumberland Furnace, TN 37051.” Tennessee State Museum Collection, 95.19.386
  • Watercolor painting of a sorghum mill near McMinnville, Tennessee. The painting was made by Jack Knox. Sorghum is usually used to produce grain. Tennessee State Museum Collection, 85.25.2

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