- Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South by Erin Stewart Mauldin
About three years ago, I began writing a small piece for a book honoring my doctoral adviser Donald Worster. In "The Watershed of War," I argued for what I called an environmental history of the "big Civil War." The conflict's environmental scholarship was too focused on the battlefield, I wrote, and needed to take a much wider and longer view of the war's impact, particularly when it came to Reconstruction and after.1 I didn't know it at the time, but Erin Stewart Mauldin was hard at work on a book that would do exactly that. Unredeemed Land is a fine example of the insights to be gained by incorporating the environment into analyses of that complex and consequential period. Mauldin argues that the Civil War was an ecologically transformative event in the history of southern agriculture, one with profound implications for the region's environment and people alike. Why did it take so long, she asks, for the South to recover [End Page 136] agriculturally from the war? And when it did recover, why was cotton so dominant, even more than in prewar years? And what was the relationship between the ecology of postbellum cotton and the fate of the impoverished freedpeople supplying the labor to grow it? The answers begin "with the land itself," and what the war did to antebellum ways of living on it (7).
Before the war, southern farming was a chaotic affair. In contrast with farming in the North, southern subsistence and plantation agriculture alike eschewed a curatorial approach for slash and burn, constantly carving fields out of forests and abandoning them for new plots as their fertility waned. Meanwhile, livestock roamed free in the remaining woodlands rather than in pastures, their manure lost instead of turned back into the soil. It was neither a beautiful nor a sustainable system over the long term, yet it was also a rational response to local ecological conditions, for the region's nutrient-poor and erosion-prone soils precluded northern-style settled husbandry. Instead, shifting agriculture patterns—augmented significantly by slave labor for the region's wealthier planters—allowed the circumvention of environmental limits. Untapped soils to the west also offered escape when those methods eventually failed back east. Ecologically as well as politically, slavery had to expand or die.
This shifting system also proved uniquely vulnerable to the fortunes of war. As troops roamed the region, their voracious need for resources came as a body blow to an agricultural system already edging toward environmental failure. Requisitioning and plundering by Confederates and Federals alike consumed immense swaths of timber and legions of livestock, severely damaging the ecological base of the antebellum system and destroying what sustainability and balance it retained from prewar days. Meanwhile, the slave labor that was so critical to overcoming natural limits was increasingly unavailable. By the spring of 1865 there was no going back; the war had created a new ecological South.
Ecological changes in turn produced agricultural and economic transformations, few of them for the better. Cotton, and more and more of it, became the only economic avenue for sharecroppers and landowners alike. In essence, the "tightening natural constraints" born of new environmental circumstances eliminated the option of resuming old ways and forced the region's farmers to adopt the intensive, settled northern agricultural model to cotton production despite its inappropriateness (162). With common lands devastated and freedpeople unwilling to perform the myriad ecological tasks required by antebellum-style plantations, deeply problematic alternatives emerged, including sharecropping and the subdivision of plantation land for tenancy, importation of food and the decline of subsistence farming, and continuous cultivation via massive applications of [End Page 137] fertilizers. Indeed, in the face of the system's exploitation and volatility, many freedpeople made their way into other extractive industries like timber, turpentine, and mining, and into the cities. The costs of...