Slaves were by far the most valuable properties one could own in the southern states. But only a minority of white southerners (about one-fourth) owned human beings in 1860, and among those who did, the size of their property holding varied dramatically.
The typical master owned between four and six slaves. That much human property made him or her many times as prosperous as the average southern farmer but considerably less wealthy than those masters who owned at least twenty slaves, for whom the federal census bureau reserved the title of “planter.” Only one out of eight southern masters belonged to this group—some forty-six thousand in total. But as a group, they controlled more than half of all the South’s slaves and an even larger share of its total agricultural wealth.
Some planters were far richer than others. The true planter aristocracy embraced ten thousand families that owned fifty or more slaves apiece. These were the people who, as the former North Carolina slave William Yancey later recalled, “gave shape to the government and tone to the society. They had the right of way in business and in politics.”
Among these people were Patrick M. Edmondston and his wife, Catherine Ann Devereaux Edmondston, who owned two plantations in northeastern North Carolina. Jefferson Thomas and Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas owned Belmont, a plantation in east-central Georgia that by 1861 boasted ninety slaves. In Virginia, Edmund Ruffin, a well-known agricultural innovator and a tireless exponent of slavery’s merits, also claimed a place in this charmed circle. So did Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis Lee. Both came from old Virginia planter families. Mary’s father, George Washington Parke Custis, was one of the state’s largest planters. He left the Lees one of his three plantations (Arlington) and sixty slaves to work it.
About one in fifteen planter families enjoyed wealth that dwarfed the holdings of even the Ruffins, Lees, Edmondstons, and Thomases. Each of these three thousand or so families owned at least 100 slaves in 1860.
. . . And even richer than these moneyed masters were about three hundred planters who each owned at least 250 people.
. . . At the very apex of the South’s social pyramid stood about fifty southern planters, each of whom owned at least five hundred slaves. Some owned considerably more than that. The richest planter in North Carolina was Thomas P. Devereaux, the father of Catherine Devereaux Edmondston, referred to earlier. He owned more than one thousand people. Georgia’s James Hamilton Couper owned fifteen hundred.
. . . In the words of North Carolina plantation mistress Gertrude Thomas, members of the planter elite enjoyed the “life of luxury and ease.” Many lived in homes that were palatial by the standards of their day. In eastern Virginia, John Armistead Selden presided over the venerable Westover plantation. Its mansion boasted a great hall, a dining room that regularly hosted more than fifty, a grand stairway, multiple fireplaces, a lush garden, and a lawn that carpeted the 150 feet between the mansion and the James River.
– The Fall of the House of Dixie The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South by Bruce Levine.