If you have ever driven through the western part of the state of Tennessee, you may have seen fields white with the growth of cotton, or even watched the harvesting of the plant. Even though we do not see cotton grown in Rhea County today, it was an important crop before and during the War Between the States.
During the mid-1800’s, cotton was the leading export of the United States, and raw cotton was necessary for Europe’s economy. The cotton industry was one of the largest industries in the world, and the bulk of this supply came from the South. In doing research, I found that the financial and political influence of the cotton industry during the nineteenth century has been compared to that of the oil industry in the early twenty-first century. When the southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America in 1861, they used cotton to provide income for its government, weapons for its military and the economic power for the Confederate culture. During the War Between the States, cotton exports in America declined drastically because of a Union blockade on Southern ports, and also because of a decision by the Confederate government to stop exports, in hopes of forcing Britain to recognize the Confederacy or enter the war. This decision forced the main purchasers of cotton to turn to Egyptian cotton; at the end of the war, these same purchasers gave up the Egyptian cotton and came back to cheaper American exports.
Cottonport, on the Tennessee River, was a thriving cotton-producing area during the early days of Rhea County’s history. It was also a cotton shipping port on the river, with cotton warehouses and cotton mills; and, in addition, the Cottonport ferry (also known as Kelly’s or Hoyal’s Ferry), was located on the river southeast of Washington. According to writings of W.G. Allen, the Fifth Tennessee Regiment was with General Joe Wheeler in the raid he made after the battle of Chickamauga, to the rear of the Federal Army at Chattanooga, crossing the Tennessee River at Cottonport, and going across the mountains into Middle Tennessee. In fact, General Wheeler selected W.G. Allen to pilot him and his forces across the river.
It is not known whether or not a cotton press was part of the Cottonport machinery; but this was equipment needed in order to process the cotton crop. It was used to compress the cotton into a wooden form to produce the bale. (I have seen a cotton press up close and personal while visiting in Tarboro, North Carolina a few years ago).
In 1836, Meigs County came into being; it was taken from Rhea County, and each county kept their own “Cottonport.” The first post office in Meigs County was at Cottonport, and remained there until 1904. So, when you drive out Cottonport Road in Rhea County, you will notice that the road makes a continuous loop; however, if you turn at the Maple Springs Church and go toward the river, you will be at the Cottonport landing. Naturally, things have changed since the 1800’s, but you can look at the crossing and just imagine General Wheeler and his men coming across! And if it is quiet at the landing, you can almost hear the noises from the general’s group, and see the cotton warehouse in the background so that you feel as though you are living the history from the 1800s. Remember to study the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.