Burned fields. Cut down trees. Obliterated fencing. Thousands upon thousands of muddy tracks from foot traffic. A small-scale drought.
Those were just some of the changes that affected the rural South’s landscape post-Civil War. The environmental changes after the conflict had lasting economic impact, and yet, those changes have been largely unexplored until now.
In her new book, “Unredeemed Land: an Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South," USF St. Petersburg Assistant Professor Erin Stewart Mauldin explores how the war’s drastic changes to the environment affected not only the agricultural economy of the rural South, but also the lives of the people who lived there.
History, Mauldin believes, is recorded in the land. Environmental change is ongoing and ever-changing, which is why one must look at the history before, during and after the Civil War to truly understand the impacts of such an important event.
“What I do is ask the ‘well what happened next’ question,” explained Mauldin. “Because surely environmental change didn’t stop in 1865, but in order to sort of see how the Civil War and the emancipation (movement) fit in the larger trajectory of the development of the southern agricultural economy, you have to look at the big picture.”
For this reason, Mauldin started researching as far back as 1845. She spent a few years scouring libraries and archives across 10 southern states.
Within those archives, she found a wealth of records and receipts. Uncovered diaries held first-hand accounts of lived experience. Through her investigative process, Mauldin pieced together how people's lives had changed.
“History is detective work. It’s making big arguments from sometimes very small, individual stories and lives.”
The lives Mauldin delved into painted a fuller picture of the rural South post-war. Once prosperous farms had been reduced to nearly nothing.
Thanks to emancipation, freed enslaved people now had the opportunity to leave the plantations on which they worked, but had to find a way to make a living.
In the introduction of the book, Mauldin pulls readers in by exploring how individual people were affected:
And then the war came. Soldiers in both blue and gray camped on Porter’s land during the latter half of the Civil War. They impressed his slaves, often without his knowledge or permission, and removed tens of thousands of dollars in timber to build tents, make fires, and construct defenses. On January 13, 1863, Porter complained that Confederate troops from General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s brigade had uprooted his fences and left his wood lot “vary much destroyed.” He felt distressed to see it, but decided that “it must be borne.”
The Confederate commissary prowled for horses, mules, and cattle to send to camps in nearby Giles County, and men with alleged “government contracts” pilfered corn and bacon. After Federal forces chased the Confederates from the area, the farmer suffered the same depredations under the Union Army’s presence: soldiers required slaves to work, firewood to burn, and animals to eat.
Exploring the rural South in the 1800s would be futile without discussing the area’s main crop: cotton. Mauldin found that the changes drastically affected how cotton was farmed, which in turn caused irreparable changes to the agricultural economy.
You can learn more about Mauldin's new book, “Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South” here.