Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South – MAULDIN (THT)

MAULDIN, Erin Stewart. Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 256p. Resenha de: SCHIEFFLER, G. David. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.720-722, ago., 2019.

Erin Stewart Mauldin’s Unredeemed Land is the latest addition to the vast body of literature that explains how the Civil War and emancipation transformed the rural South. Whereas previous scholars have highlighted the war’s physical destruction, economic consequences, and sociocultural effects, Mauldin, an environmental historian, examines the profound ecological transformation of the Old South to the New. Using an interdisciplinary methodological approach, she argues that the Civil War exacerbated southern agriculture’s environmental constraints and forced farmers—“sooner rather than later”—to abandon their generally effective extensive farming practices in favor of intensive cotton monoculture, which devastated the South both economically and ecologically (p. 10).

Mauldin contends that most antebellum southerners practiced an extensive form of agriculture characterized by “shifting cultivation, free-range animal husbandry, slavery, and continuous territorial expansion” (p. 6). Although the South’s soils and climates were not suitable for long-term crop production, most farmers circumvented their environmental disadvantages by adhering to these “four cornerstones” (p. 6). Ironically, however, these very practices made the South especially vulnerable to war. When the Civil War came, Union and Confederate soldiers demolished the fences that protected southern crops, slaughtered and impressed roaming livestock, razed the forests on which shifting cultivation and free-range husbandry hinged, and, most significantly, destroyed the institution of slavery on which southern agriculture was built. Mauldin’s description of the Civil War’s environmental consequences echoes those of Lisa M. Brady’s War Upon the Land (2012) and Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation (2012), but with an important caveat: in Mauldin’s view, the war did not destroy southern agriculture so much as it accelerated and exacerbated the “preexisting vulnerabilities of southern land use” (p. 69).

After the war, southern reformers and northern officials urged southern farmers, white and black, to rebuild the South by adopting the intensive agricultural practices of northerners—namely, livestock fencing, continuous cultivation, and the use of commercial fertilizers as a substitute for crop and field rotation. Most complied, not because they admired “Yankee” agriculture, but because the “environmental consequences of the war—including soldiers’ removal of woodland, farmers’ abandonment of fields because of occupation or labor shortages, and armies’ impressment or foraging of livestock—encouraged intensification” (p. 73). Interestingly, many southerners initially benefited from this change. Mauldin contends that the cotton harvests of 1866-1868 were probably more successful than they should have been, thanks to the Confederacy’s wartime campaign to grow food and to the fact that so much of the South’s farmland had lain fallow during the conflict. In the long run, however, this temporary boon created false hopes, as intensive monoculture “tightened ecological constraints and actively undermined farmers’ chances of economic recovery” (p. 73). Mauldin argues that most of the southern land put into cotton after the war could not sustain continuous cash-crop cultivation without the use of expensive commercial fertilizers, which became a major source of debt for farmers. At the same time, livestock fencing exacerbated the spread of diseases like hog cholera, which killed off animals that debt-ridden farmers could not afford to replace. Finally, basic land maintenance—a pillar of extensive agriculture in the Old South—declined after the war, as former slaves understandably refused to work in gangs to clear landowners’ fields and dig the ditches essential to sustainable farming. Tragically, many of those same freedpeople suffered from planters’ restrictions of common lands for free-range husbandry and from the division of plantations into tenant and sharecropper plots, which made shifting cultivation more difficult. And, as other scholars have shown, many black tenants and sharecroppers got caught up in the crippling cycle of debt that plagued white cotton farmers in the late nineteenth century, too.

Mauldin’s story of the post-war cotton crisis is a familiar one, but unlike previous scholars, she shows that the crisis was about more than market forces, greedy creditors, and racial and class conflict. It was also about the land. Despite diminishing returns, southerners continued to grow cotton in the 1870s, not only because it was the crop that “paid,” but also because ecological constraints, which had been intensified by the war, encouraged it. Instructors interested in teaching students how the natural environment has shaped human history would be wise to consider this argument. They should also consider adding “ecological disruptions” to the long list of problems that afflicted the New South, as Mauldin persuasively argues that the era’s racial conflict, sharecropping arrangements, and capital shortages cannot be understood apart from the environmental challenges that compounded them (p. 9).

In the 2005 Environmental History article, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?”, Linda Nash urged historians to “strive not merely to put nature into history, but to put the human mind back in the world.” With Unredeemed Land, Erin Stewart Mauldin has done just that and, in the process, has offered one way in which history teachers might put the Civil War era back in its natural habitat in their classrooms.

David Schieffler – Crowder College.

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