View of the Famous Levee of New Orleans

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View of the Famous Levee of New Orleans
Unknown Artist
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 14, 1860
Wood engraving from a photograph by E. H. Nelson
Chicago History Museum

In this page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a long line of steamboats in the background forms a parallel to the long line of cargo sitting on the levee in the foreground. This detailed picture of the southern port of New Orleans, Louisiana helps illustrate the economic importance of cotton, here seen spilling out from large bales. Planters in the western parts of the South shipped their cotton downriver to New Orleans and then on to textile manufacturers in the North and in England. These factories depended on the South’s cotton shipments, and the slaves that produced the cotton, to manufacture cloth. The price of cotton and the price of slaves were bound together. As the price of cotton rose, so did the price of the enslaved African Americans who produced it. You can see slaves working, dancing, and fighting among the cargo in this image.

The New Orleans levee was considered quite a wonder—just over two million bales of cotton moved through the port in 1860). One visitor to the city noted that “hundreds of ships and other sailing craft, from all quarters of the globe” docked at the levee. “Indeed, nothing can present a more busy . . . scene than exists here in the loading and unloading of vessels and steamers . . .” The magazine illustrator here copies a panoramic photograph to convey the great breadth and depth of commerce occurring in the scene.

1. Take a closer look at what people are doing in the foreground. Compare and contrast their role in this image compared to the cargo and ships. What do you think is more important to the artist?

2. The Civil War did not begin until April 12, 1861; nearly a year after this image was printed. However, the campaign for the presidential election of 1860 was well underway. People were already thinking about what the results of that election would mean for the cotton industry. When you look at this picture, do you think the artist supported slavery or abolition? Do you think that everyone had an opinion?

Further reading:
Goodheart, Adam. 1861: The Civil War Awakening. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Richards, Thomas Addison. Appleton’s Companion Hand-Book of Travel. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1862.

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