The Impact of the Civil War on Southern Wealth Holders. Brandon Dupont, Joshua Rosenbloom. NBER Working Paper No. 22184. Issued in April 2016. http://www.nber.org/papers/w22184
The U.S. Civil War and emancipation wiped out a substantial fraction of southern wealth. The prevailing view of most economic historians, however, is that the southern planter elite was able to retain its relative status despite these shocks. Previous studies have been hampered, however, by limits on the ability to link individuals between census years, and have been forced to focus on persistence within one or a few counties. Recent advances in electronic access to the Federal Census manuscripts now make it possible to link individuals without these constraints. We exploit the ability to search the full manuscript census to construct a sample that links top wealth holders in 1870 to their 1860 census records. Although there was an entrenched southern planter elite that retained their economic status, we find evidence that the turmoil of 1860s opened greater opportunities for mobility in the South than was the case in the North, resulting in much greater turnover among wealthy southerners than among comparably wealthy northerners. [. . .]
Comparing the two regions, it is apparent that there was considerably more turnover among the ranks of top southern wealth holders than among northern wealth holders. While more than half of the those in the top 5 percent of northern wealth holders had been in the same group in 1860 just one-third of top southern wealth holders in 1870 had enjoyed a similar status in 1860. Roughly the same proportion of the top 5 percent in each region was drawn from the next stratum of wealth holders in 1860 (90th to 95th percentile). On the other hand, our data suggest that the turmoil of the Civil War decade created much greater opportunities for those with moderate wealth in 1860 – between the 55th and 90th percentiles – to move up to the top of the wealth distribution. Nearly 40 percent of the wealthiest southerners in 1870 had been in this group in 1860, compared to less than one quarter of the richest northerners.