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Alanson Haines of the 15th Regiment of New Jersey Volunteers found himself a Union occupier in the southern Piedmont in the late spring of 1865. Haines’s unit was part of the Federal force that garrisoned the market center of Danville, Virginia, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse; he and his fellow soldiers camped a few miles south of the city in northern Caswell County, North Carolina. Haines was glad to see the end of fighting, but he was less enthused about his environs, revealing particular disgust with the agricultural practices of the rural Piedmont. He described the region’s farmland as “miserably cultivated, and only with the view to get the most from it for the present crop, regardless of the future.” Haines went on to connect locals’ abuse of the landscape to their abuse of former slaves. He noted that desperate farmers and Confederate foragers had stripped clean all edible crops from an already slovenly farmscape, and as a result, “Colored men and boys crowded our camps, asking for employment, and saying nothing of wages if they were only fed.”1 Haines was not alone in his critique. other occupying soldiers, as well as prisoners of war who had been incarcerated in Danville during the final stages of the conflict, were equally critical of the region’s agriculture , landscapes, and labor force.2 Haines equated poor stewardship of the land with the past dominion of masters over their slaves, a charge leveled at patterns of land use central to the production of the region’s most lucrative crop: bright leaf tobacco. Haines’s and similar critiques seem typical of comments by northerners regarding an exhausted staple crop South, and would continue throughout Reconstruction and beyond.3 These observations combined northern EiGHT War is Hell, So Have a Chew The Persistence of Agroenvironmental Ideas in the Civil War Piedmont D R EW A. SWAN S o N “Their life is yellow tobacco.” —John ott (1885) 164 Drew A. Swanson farmers’ general aversion to the extensive methods of plantation agriculture —tied to a firm belief in free-soil ideology—with a sort of grim admiration of the destructive power wrought by the Union war effort. Danville ’s gullied and overgrown fields simultaneously symbolized the “right” and the “might” of the northern cause. But Haines and kindred observers had the story wrong. The war did have some harmful effects on regional agriculture, and southern Piedmont tobacco growers were hardly perfect land stewards, but the landscapes that drew critics’ ire were the products of a thriving crop culture that survived the war intact. in fact the very war that observers credited with laying destruction on top of dereliction had actually promoted the expansion and entrenchment of this Piedmont staple, forging a tobacco kingdom that would outlast both Civil War and Reconstruction. To put the central issue concerning tobacco cultivation in the Virginia and North Carolina Piedmont during the Civil War in the form of a question : Why did the war do so little to upset or disrupt tobacco planting? A number of factors seemed to be at work against tobacco’s continued success. The struggle between the Union and Confederacy temporarily eliminated two of the region’s most important antebellum markets, the American Northeast and Europe. The war drew planters, overseers, and some slaves off local farms and into military endeavors. And Confederate and state governments consistently worked to limit tobacco cultivation in favor of food and fodder production. The answer to this question lies not in greed, stupidity, habit, or stubbornness , though all of these essential human qualities were present in Piedmont tobacco fields and warehouses, but rather in the region’s environmental particularities, the biology of bright tobacco plants, and the ways in which many farmers understood the best use of local landscapes. Environmental historians are beginning to find such intersections of nature and agriculture to be fertile ground (pardon the pun), belatedly taking Donald Worster’s advice that the field should pay more attention to farms as environments—or agroecology.4 While environmental historians as a group have been relatively slow to adopt agriculture as central to environmental history, historians interested in southern environments have taken Worster’s call much more to heart. indeed, southern environmental history has been an especially fruitful place to explore the intersections of agriculture, nature, and labor in new ways.5 Civil War environmental history, as the other articles in this collection repeatedly note, has lagged behind southern environmental history in War Is...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780820347752
Related ISBN
9780820347141
MARC Record
OCLC
898770323
Pages
256
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-23
Language
English
Open Access
No
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