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When Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops tore through eastern Georgia in late 1864 on the storied March to the Sea, there was little doubt that the Yankee war machine was a massively disruptive, if not revolutionary, force on Georgia’s cotton belt. Marching from Atlanta to Savannah, sixty thousand Union troops destroyed railroads, torched cotton bales, emptied corncribs and smokehouses, and seized hogs, horses, and mules. Most significantly , the armies freed thousands and thousands of enslaved laborers along their path. Sherman was no champion of racial equality, but whether or not he was comfortable with his own role as emancipator, it was certain that a revolution in social relations was taking place in his wake. What was less apparent, however, was that an ecological revolution would soon be taking place as well.1 As they tramped across Georgia on the Savannah Campaign, Union troops encountered an agricultural landscape that differed from their farms back home in a number of important respects. First, much of the Deep South was parceled off into large plantations worked by enslaved laborers in large gangs, a world apart from the single-household farms common in the North. But beyond the plantation system, southerners practiced extensive agriculture—they tapped the nutrients of fresh soil to feed plants, rather than rotating crops and recycling nutrients like animal manure and home compost into the soil. Thus, their ability to feed their staple crops hinged on the native fertility of the land and the prospect of finding more fresh soil once the land’s endowment had been drawn down after a few seasons of cultivation. Much of the cotton land southeast of the Mississippi Delta was composed of relatively acidic and nutrient-poor NiNE Reconstructing the Soil Emancipation and the Roots of Chemical-Dependent Agriculture in America Ti M oTHY J o H N S o N 192 Timothy Johnson soils, which kept the pace of expansion at a fast clip. For these reasons, many historians suggest that the dual forces of slavery and cotton-fueled land hunger led southerners into the war in the first place, as extensive cotton cultivation created a westward push for new slave states that promised reservoirs of fresh soil. importing fertilizer to maintain agricultural yields in place was not yet a major part of the equation.2 Yet only a few short years after the war, free laborers were cultivating the southern soil with the assistance of new blends of minerals, chemicals, and industrial byproducts marketed by the burgeoning fertilizer industry . on the heels of breakthroughs in agricultural chemistry and discoveries of nutrient-rich minerals, farmers in northern Europe and northeastern states had begun feeding their plants with commercial fertilizers in the antebellum period. Starting during the Reconstruction era, however , the cotton and tobacco belts of Georgia and the Carolinas would lead the United States in fertilizer purchases well into the twentieth century , making the path of Sherman’s last great campaign the nation’s proving ground for a new era of chemical-intensive agriculture that remains the standard today. Rather than turning to California or the Corn Belt to unearth this particular root of the modern fossil-fueled food system, the following pages examine a small area of the Georgia Cotton Belt centered in Hancock County. Events there can help us untangle how and why the aftermath of the Civil War created a dual revolution in social and ecological relationships. But even during Reconstruction, farmers quickly learned that the new fertilizer regime was not without its costs. The pungent products that helped bring postwar cotton production to staggering new heights came with a debt burden that led farmers to mortgage their futures to grow staple crops. indeed, fertilizer was a major new source of debt that emerged during Reconstruction and has been overlooked by historians of the period. By the 1880s fertilizers had become a major—if not the largest—source of farm debt among farmers in the “old” cotton states of Georgia and the Carolinas. Former slaves and poor white farmers were thus the shock troops who ushered in an ecological shift from extensive cultivation to a chemical- and debt-intensive agriculture in the United States. The proliferation of fertilizers illustrates the tight connections between exploitative politics and ecology that took root in the uncertain period after America’s greatest conflict. The emergence of the new fertilizer regime reveals environmental connections between the death of bondage and the birth of a new and persistent form of debt. Reconstructing the Soil...


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