- Freedom, Economic Autonomy, and Ecological Change in the Cotton South, 1865–1880
Within the vast scholarship on post–Civil War southern agriculture, there is a common narrative. The region emerged from the conflict defeated, physically scarred, and economically handicapped. Its 4 million slaves were free but faced significant obstacles to acquiring capital, land, or agricultural resources. A series of constraints—such as a lack of capital, the war's alterations to credit and debt structures, reduced access to livestock and farm machinery, changing labor arrangements in the wake of emancipation, and a series of droughts—complicated farmers' efforts to resurrect crop production. Still, cotton prices were high, and many planters hoped for a quick return to prosperity. Between 1865 and 1875, the economic allure of King Cotton enticed landowners, yeoman farmers, and recently freed slaves in all areas of the South to eschew a "safety first" approach in favor of heavy investments in staple production.1 Within fifteen years of the Confederate surrender, the region's cotton output surpassed prewar benchmarks. Yet, rates of bankruptcy and levels of indebtedness soared, and postwar forms of agricultural tenure, such as sharecropping and tenancy, proved exploitative of landless whites and blacks alike. As Reconstruction ended and the "New South" dawned, the ever-expanding Cotton Kingdom and the coercive crop arrangements it engendered formed the basis of a stagnating regional agricultural system that existed well into the twentieth century.
While historians generally agree on these broad contours of postwar southern agricultural history, considerable controversy exists over the reasons for its trajectory. Summarizing a decades-long debate, economic historian Gavin Wright famously asked, "Where did this New South come from, and what became of the Old?"2 In seeking to explain the origins and outcomes of postbellum agriculture, scholars have looked to a variety of factors: the war's physical destruction, changing market structures, tumultuous labor relations following emancipation, and the persistence (or escalation) of class and racial conflict. Roger Ransom, Richard Sutch, Joseph [End Page 401] Reid Jr., Gavin Wright, and other economic historians show how predatory lending practices, reduced labor inputs, falling cotton prices, and the inaccessibility of credit help to explain both the attractiveness of cotton farming in the postbellum period and the poverty associated with it.3 Social and cultural scholars such as Jonathan Weiner and Michael Wayne emphasize the persistence of the antebellum planter elite and their continued monopoly of land and resources as shapers of the postwar period, while Mark Wetherington and Steven Hahn show that cotton capitalism's liquidation of the yeoman class was a hallmark of the transformation from Old to New South.4 More recently, scholars have followed the example of Eric Foner and turned to the experiences of ex-slaves. This rich and dynamic literature illuminates freedpeople's role in shaping postwar events: their efforts to navigate legal and political changes, their transformation of plantation operations, and the collective black struggle for land ownership and autonomy under the constant threat of violence.5
All of these works treat the relationship of land and labor during Reconstruction in either social or economic terms. But what happens if we start the analysis of southern agriculture with the land itself? After all, the widely recognized themes of the postbellum South—expanded cotton production, the rise of sharecropping, and evolving labor relations—took place within an environmental context that shaped individual actions as well as broader structural forces. Environmental historians have largely ignored the natural dynamics of land use during Reconstruction, despite considerable scholarly interest in both the Civil War and the 1890s and beyond.6 However, applying an environmental lens to the crucial decades between 1860 and 1880 reveals that war and emancipation changed how farmers thought about, manipulated, and organized their land in ways that fundamentally altered the southern economic landscape. Gradual revolutions in land use practices initiated a series of ecological shifts such as increased erosion, soil nutrient loss, and animal diseases that went hand in hand with the economic dislocation of sharecroppers and tenants, poor whites and poor blacks. While shortages of capital, racial prejudice, legislative changes, and other elements are essential to historians' understanding of Reconstruction-era developments and, ultimately...