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Mark Fiege’s ambitious new book reinterprets nine major events in U.S. history through an environmental framework. The book has two major goals. First, it speaks to the broad community of U.S. historians, arguing that iconic events in U.S. history have an environmental history they should know. Second, it encourages environmental historians to incorporate their approaches into the standard narrative of U.S. history. The book largely succeeds in both tasks.
Fiege wrote this book at a propitious time. Scholars have begun moving beyond environmental history’s foundational questions of wilderness, environmental movements, and land management. Blossoming literatures have developed on the intersection between labor and nature, public health, and transnational history. Somewhat more slowly, race and gender are becoming more central to the field. Fiege incorporates all of these approaches to varying degrees, thus providing a window into the current state of the field while suggesting future research paths for scholars.
Fiege’s subject matter ranges from examining the Salem witch trials through the prism of Puritan inability to control the nature of New England to the 1970s oil crisis, when many Americans first realized that the consumer economy relied on scarce natural resources. Four chapters on the mid nineteenth century make up the book’s heart. These, the most successful cases in the book, greatly expand the environmental history of the Civil War era. Fiege connects planters’ inability to control cotton to the need to drive slaves to the point of death. Disciplining slaves became the key to disciplining the cotton plant. Yet slaves also used nature to their advantage. Failed cotton harvests became opportunities to work outside the plantation while knowledge of the land and relationships with masters’ dogs gave some slaves advantages in their escape attempts.
Fiege also constructs an environmental biography of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, like many early Republicans, believed that labor led to the improvement of both the land and people. The theft of labor infuriated Lincoln, whether his own father hiring him out as a youth and taking his pay or the enslavement of Africans. Lincoln rooted his geopolitical vision in how free labor would distribute natural resources, and his administration passed wide-ranging legislation to codify these ideas of the American bounty.
This vision was vital in the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Fiege’s [End Page 463] environmental history of Gettysburg shows a Confederacy unable to manipulate its environment enough to provide soldiers basic provisions. Combined with natural disasters and the denuding of the Virginia landscape, Robert E. Lee needed to move the war north to survive. Meanwhile, the North’s industrial might allowed the Union to feed, clothe, and arm its troops, while wasting supplies with little worry. The Union’s manipulation of nature allowed it to both win the war and complete its improvement mission, culminating in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Yet Fiege notes the similarities between the slave labor Republicans despised and the Central Pacific Railroad’s treatment of Chinese labor in its rush to conquer the Sierra Nevada, refusing to feed its workers after they struck to protest their working conditions. Perhaps most important, the railroad brought a new epoch of the world’s distribution of natural resources that exploited fossil fuels, a theme Fiege revisits in his closing chapter on the oil crisis of the 1970s.
Some chapters are less surprising in topic but equally revelatory. Scholars have shown how natural law influenced the Revolutionary generation, but Fiege adds to the historiography, demonstrating how America’s abundant nature made colonists less dependent upon Europe. We know that many of the atomic scientists working at Los Alamos loved the nature of New Mexico, but Fiege may be the first to argue that it directly contributed to their ability to make the bomb, both because it led them to study nature’s sublime beauty and because they believed harnessing that nature could prevent future warfare.
Fiege centers women in several of these narratives. He shows the connections between women’s...