by Daniel Decatur Emmett
"Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton"
In the original minstrel song, the slave narrator begins by pining to be back home in the South, the “land of cotton.” Today it seems a bit strange that a slave would yearn to be anywhere near a cotton plantation again.Deep Thought
On the surface, the story told within “Dixie” seems as thought it is not all that important. The slave narrator recounts a series of memories from his plantation home. For 19th-century audiences, the song’s entertainment value lay in the comical way in which the lines were spoken and the clownish behavior of the minstrel singers. Yet on a deeper level, these lines were loaded with meaning, as they suggested that slaves enjoyed their lives and were not interested in trading bondage for freedom.
The message is especially troublesome and ironic in this first line. During the 19th century, the South was indeed the land of cotton. And as the demand for cotton increased, the profitability of owning slaves increased as well. During the 18th century, other crops—rice and tobacco, in particular—were more critical to the Southern economy. After tobacco prices fell late in the century, many East Coast tobacco growers began selling off their slaves. But after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney, new farming opportunities emerged, and investment in slaves became more attractive again.
Prior to the invention of Whitney’s gin, cotton production was limited to the Atlantic Coast. The long-stem cotton that grew there had few seeds and could be processed efficiently, but it did not fare well in the hotter, more rugged interior. Short-stem cotton could grow almost anywhere, but as it was loaded with seeds, it could not be processed efficiently. Eli Whitney’s gin turned short-stem cotton into a profitable crop. Now that the pesky seeds could be removed mechanically, there was little reason not to farm cotton.
As a result, cotton production increased dramatically. In 1790, Americans produced 3,135 bales of cotton. In 1800, they grew 73,145 bales. By 1869, Americans were producing close to four million bales annually. The South had officially become the land of cotton, and as it did, slavery expanded. Most Americans would be aware of the importance of cotton production to the South’s economy and understand the reference. Sadly, many Americans at that time also wouldn’t think twice if they heard a minstrel in blackface professing that he wished he could go back to the plantation. Some critics believe that the narrator of “Dixie”—and the story he tells—is being ironic by claiming that he wishes he was back in the “land of cotton,” but pro-slavery Southerners who took up the song as their anthem would never have interpreted it that way.
"In Dixie Land, where I was born in / Early on one frosty mornin'"
“Frosty mornin’”? How frosty does it get in the South?Deep Thought
First of all, it does get really cold in the South during the winter sometimes , but that’s not what makes this line interesting. Historians have used this line in support of their claim that Daniel Emmett borrowed “Dixie” from a family of African American singers who lived near his family’s farm in Ohio. Many Southern slaves had no way of knowing exactly what date their birthday fell on, but a mother would certainly remember if she had given birth to a child on a “frosty mornin’,” lending a bit of authenticity to the narrative that some historians feel is evidence of the songs true origin.
"In Dixie Land I'll take my stand / To live and die in Dixie"
At least 600,000 Americans died during the Civil War, most of them in “Dixie.”Deep Thought
There were many different versions of “Dixie” floating around during the 1860s, but almost all of them kept these two lines intact. Southern soldiers who marched to the song felt that these two lines summed up their entire reason for fighting. They were taking a stand; they were going to live or die fighting for the South.
Aside from a few key battles, almost all of the fighting during the Civil War was done in the South. And that makes sense, as they were the ones who seceded from the Union. At the onset of the war, however, few people realized how long and bloody of an affair it would be. Over 600,000 Americans died in the war, and close to half of those died for Dixie.
"He smiled fierce as a forty pounder"
This is one fierce smile—a “forty-pounder” is a big gun that shoots a forty pound projectile.Deep Thought
Within the slave narrator’s recollections of home, he includes a story about the heavy-handed husband of his “Ol’ Missus.” She fell for Will the Weaver (“Will de weaber”), but he was neither honest nor kind. He deceived his wife and had a ferocious demeanor. The narrator illustrates the ferocity of the man’s smile by comparing it to a large gun. Artillery is still often identified by the size of the projectile that they fire, and a 40-pounder is a gun—a big gun—that fires a 40-pound projectile. When the song was written in 1859, a “forty pounder” was actually larger than most of the artillery typically used in American warfare. During America’s war with Mexico between 1846 and 1848, for example, 32-pound howitzers were the largest artillery to see extensive action.
The British began to produce a 40-pound Armstrong gun in 1859, but it does not seem to have seen service in the Civil War. 32-pound shells remained far more common during this war.
"There's buckwheat cakes and Injun batter"
According to this line, a slave’s life was filled with good times and good food. For some reason, we kinda doubt that.Deep Thought
This line is used to illustrate what a grand old time slaves had in the land of Dixie, and historians use it as a further argument for why they believe the song was meant to be taken ironically. Far from hardship and neglect, the song seems to say, slaves enjoyed good food like buckwheat cakes and “injun” batter. For those raised on Bisquick, these may sound like exotic foreign foods. And, in fact, to a certain extent they are.
Buckwheat, despite its name, is not a wheat or a grass. It is a broad-leafed plant that is part of the same family as rhubarb. It seems to have originated in Asia before spreading to Europe and then America. It was heavily produced in the United States during the 19th century and used as flour as well as livestock feed. Production decreased in the 20th century, but buckwheat is experiencing a revival among many health-conscious eaters, because it is gluten-free and helps reduce cholesterol.
"Injun batter" was made by mixing cornmeal—made from corn, a grain native to America—with water, salt, and grease. The batter was then fried or baked. Now doesn’t that sound like a meal that would make you just forget your meager life of hard labor and enforced servitude? No? Weird.
"Let the odds make each heart bolder"
This line, from the new lyrics written by Albert Pike in 1861, urged Southerners to find inspiration in their underdog status.Deep Thought
While many Southerners believed that they brought certain advantages to the war—their skill with guns and horses, their superior military leaders—, the numbers suggested that the odds were with the North. There were 22 million people living in the North, while the South contained only nine million people (and 3.5 million of these were slaves). The North was also far more industrial than the South. In fact, more than 90% of all guns, railroad engines, iron, and cloth were produced in the North. This meant that the South would need to import the supplies needed to fight the war. Unfortunately, the Confederacy did not have a navy. Sounds pretty overwhelming to us, but Pike encouraged Southerners to be inspired by the odds against them. “Let the odds make each heart bolder,” he wrote. And many, at least for a while, seemed to follow his advice.
"For faith betrayed and pledges broken, / Wrongs inflicted, insults spoken"
In these lines written by Albert Pike in his wartime version of “Dixie,” he voiced the Southern belief that the North had violated agreements made in 1787.Deep Thought
Supporters of the Confederacy argued that Northern hostility toward slavery violated a basic agreement reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. According to their interpretation of the convention and the Constitution it produced, slavery was to be perpetually respected as an institution vital to the South.
Historians agree that the framers of the Constitution were forced to reach several compromises on slavery for the sake of the Union—the only way to ensure the cooperation of Southern states was to include a clause, for example, that prohibited any Congressional action on the slave trade until 1808. But Northerners and Southerners—and contemporary historians—disagree as to the long-term implications of these compromises. Northerners argued that these were just temporary concessions made to ensure the formation of a government. Southerners argued that they contained an implicit promise that slavery would be tolerated indefinitely. Surprising to absolutely no one, the slaves were not consulted on the matter.
"As our fathers crushed oppression / Deal with those who breathe Secession"
In this pro-Union version of “Dixie,” written by Francis Crosby, Union soldiers are called on to stamp out secession just as their forefathers fought British tyranny during the American Revolution.Deep Thought
Many supporters of the Union likened their cause to that of their Revolutionary forefathers. Northern soldiers were fighting to preserve the Union made possible by the patriots of 1776, they argued, and to ensure that America’s experiment in republican government would continue. Abraham Lincoln made the argument most explicitly in his 1863 Gettysburg Address when he referenced the nation’s founding to 1776 (“four score and seven years ago”) and prayed that the nation would experience a “new birth of freedom.”
Ironically, many Southerners believed that they were the ones defending the “spirit of ’76.” The same Declaration of Independence that was cited by Lincoln spelled out a theory of government that empowered people “to alter or abolish” governments that they believed no longer protected their rights or served their needs. In other words, the “right of secession” was, Confederates argued, established by American Revolutionaries.
"Though Beauregard and Wigfall / Their swords may whet / Just tell them Major Anderson / Has not surrendered yet"
These lines, part of Francis Crosby’s pro-Union version of “Dixie,” commemorate the Battle of Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War took place in April 1861.Deep Thought
By the time Abraham Lincoln was sworn into office in March 1861, seven slave states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—had already seceded from the Union, and the new President was determined to bring them back to the fold. However, he was also determined not to be the first to take violent action. Therefore, he developed a strategy that would force the rebelling states to fire the first shot. He ordered Major Robert Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter, the federal fort smack dab in the middle of Charleston harbor, not to abandon his post and dispatched the supplies Anderson needed to prolong his troops’ stay. Confederate leaders, realizing that these supplies would strengthen the Northern presence in South Carolina, decided to attack Fort Sumter immediately. At dawn the morning of April 12, 1861, they opened canon fire on the fort.
The two sides exchanged fire for the next 30 hours until Col. Louis Wigfall, a former US senator, took it upon himself to try and negotiate Anderson’s surrender. The talks proceeded until Anderson discovered that Wigfall was acting without authorization. Soon, however, the Confederate commander, P.T. Beauregard, sent an official delegation that did convince Anderson to withdraw.
In other words, despite the tough talk of these lyrics, Anderson did eventually surrender. But he held out against a larger force for some time, and he withdrew proudly from the fort, accompanied by a fifty-gun salute. As a result, Anderson was celebrated as a hero, and after the defeat of the Confederacy, he was given the honor of re-raising the American flag at Fort Sumter four years later after the war ended.