Gone with the Land: Environmental History in Civil War and Reconstruction Classes

Gone with the Land: Environmental History in Civil War and Reconstruction Classes

“Confederate Fortifications in Atlanta, Georgia,” 1864. The Civil War was a profoundly environmental event. Troop movements, fortification-building, and other aspects of war reshaped both the physical landscape and Americans’ interactions with it. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Whenever I introduce myself in conversation as an “environmental historian,” many non-academics assume I write about environmentalism as a political movement or the history of environmental policy. It almost never helps to use the full title of my field of study by saying, “I’m an environmental historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S. South,” because inevitably the follow-up is: “Was there an environmental movement during the Civil War?” Brief explanations of the ecological impacts of the Civil War and its relation to the agricultural context of Reconstruction are usually met with nods and smiles, and then always, “But how do you do that?”

I have a lot of practice answering these questions, since this is a discussion I have with my own mother at least once a month.

While environmental history is too well established for these sorts of conversations to happen at conferences, there is still a sense of confusion about the mechanics of that field, its sources, and most importantly, its usefulness to what historians do in the classroom. Just as debates about class, race, and gender infuse our pedagogical approaches to teaching material, so too should “environment.” Whether frogs or fluorocarbons, climate or cholera, soils or sows—considering the larger context of the human experience provides fuller, more nuanced depictions of well-known events in U.S. history.

Environment is particularly salient in Civil War and Reconstruction classes, for by reminding students of the omnipresence of the natural world, we reinforce the intimacy soldiers had with the non-human environment; the effects of disease, terrain, and weather on battle outcomes and questions of military logistics; enslaved people’s necessity for the war effort on both homefront and battlefield; and of course, that issues about labor after emancipation and much of Reconstruction legislation were about labor on the land.

My own work uses an environmental lens to re-examine changes in southern agriculture during the Civil War era. Ecological shifts precipitated by the Civil War shaped the economic and agricultural choices of postwar southerners, and I think greater attention to environmental forces is needed in studies of sharecropping, the closing of the open range in the South, and the expansion of continuous cotton production, particularly as it relates to black southerners. In the September 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era, I published a piece that examined the evolution of agricultural labor arrangements in the cotton-growing areas of the South after the Civil War. Looking at a range of wage labor, tenancy, and sharecropping contracts between landowners and ex-slaves, I conclude that the efforts of freedpeople to achieve a modicum of autonomy in day-to-day agricultural operations transformed land use practices in ways that ironically undermined their long-term economic security.[1]

“Plowing in South Carolina,” by James E. Taylor, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1866. Ex-slaves experienced many of the circumstances of their freedom through interaction with the land. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

My article relies on a new reading of very traditional sources—Freedmen’s Bureau records, planters’ letters, and agricultural contracts—drawing on the insights of crop science, geomorphology, ecology, and botany to reframe our understanding. Applying such an interdisciplinary research methodology to the classroom can be tricky. Few things cure students’ insomnia quicker than readings on nutritional science or epidemiology, and the scientific jargon of such papers causes students to struggle with language rather than focusing on content. But when an instructor can explain that soldiers on the march burned thousands more calories than they consumed, and often quenched their thirst with fecal-flavored water that caused them to sicken at such high rates as to jeopardize the outcomes of major battles, students awaken.[2] They see the role of the environment in the Civil War era in surprising new ways.

Instead of forcing students to learn the precipitation requirements of a pine tree or the sediment loads of rivers, then, I encourage undergraduates to consider the broader environmental context of the war and Reconstruction through targeted class readings and primary source assignments. Since 2010, scholars working on the Civil War have worked to elevate the conflict’s environmental context and implications, so there are a number of excellent monographs, edited collections, and articles available to generate class discussion.[3]

Carefully selected primary sources can encourage students to consider environmental change over time, and how war, emancipation, and reconciliation proved to be a watershed moment for the way Americans used land. I assign a series of primary sources—each typical to historians’ discussions of the Civil War era—but I ask students to read them in new ways and write brief responses:

Slave narratives: In the opening weeks, while surveying the sectional crisis and secession, I provide them with a selection of first-person slave narratives, and part of the response prompt asks students to consider the labor of slaves on the land, and the types of farming practices they performed. This gets at questions of the southern need for land to the West, the centrality of slaves to the profitability of many farms in the region, and begins to contextualize later rejections of certain types of labor by freedpeople.

Soldiers’ letters: The second primary response comes as I begin lecturing on the war itself. Published letter collections and memoirs of soldiers are replete with references to the environment. Troops cut down trees, foraged livestock, suffered disease, and constructed defensive works across farms and fields. I prompt students to reflect on the lived experience of war, and consider some of its longer-term consequences for the land.

Newspaper accounts: Toward the end of the war, the Confederacy faced food shortages, difficulties marshaling supplies, and a dearth of draft animals. So, the third primary source tackles newspaper reports of the war on the homefront. How do changes in agricultural policies affect the battlefield? What does a short corn harvest, or an epidemic of glanders or hog cholera mean for Confederate logistics?

Freedmen’s Bureau contracts: The transition to contract labor was an enormous part of emancipation, and the Freedmen’s Bureau oversaw contracts between farmers and ex-slaves.[4] These documents sometimes hewed very closely to the types of responsibilities seen in the slave narratives, but at other times, readers can see how farming began to change post-emancipation. This response draws on that implicit pre-war comparison, and asks students to think about the ecological implications of freedom.

Reconstruction-era legislation: Black codes, vagrancy laws, and, later on, increased penalties for larceny and carrying firearms all sought to regulate African Americans’ relationship with the land (among other things). Many secondary works discuss this legislation, although sometimes I use selected testimonies from the Joint Committee on Reconstruction rather than the laws themselves.[5] This last response has students think about ways that white planters used legal restrictions to keep black laborers dependent on the plantation both for work and for food.

Final reflection: Depending on the time frame of the class, I like to return to the idea of change over time, asking students to pull all of the narrative threads together in an essay on their final exam. Does a focus on the environmental aspects of these events change the way we view them? What are the limitations or strengths of such an approach?

Ultimately, using readings of traditional sources to see beyond first impressions exemplifies the craft of the historian. I like to think of it as the academic equivalent of the 3-D optical illusions that were popular in the 1990s. Students assume they see one image, or one “truth,” until forced to look deeper. Then they cannot help but see something else. Those “eureka” moments help students understand how history is not the regurgitation of facts, but rather the consideration or interpretation of the past from multiple perspectives.


[1] Erin Stewart Mauldin, “Freedom, Economic Autonomy, and Ecological Change in the Cotton South, 1865-1880,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7, no. 3 (September 2017): 401-424.

[2] A good example of this type of lecture is Judkin Browning, “Civil War Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days’ Battles,” aired as part of Lectures in History, CSPAN-3, February 28, 2017, https://www.c-span.org/video/?423972-1/civil-wars-peninsula-campaign-seven-days-battles. See minutes 21:36 through 33:14 for the section that incorporates environmental history.

[3] A brief review of the available literature includes Adam Wesley Dean, An Agrarian Republic: Farming, Antislavery Politics, and Nature Parks in the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015); Brian Allen Drake, ed., The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015); Lisa Brady, War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Jack Temple Kirby, “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History, The National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/ nattrans/ nattrans.htm (accessed June 1, 2017); Mark Fiege, “Gettysburg and the Organic Nature of the American Civil War,” in Edmund Russell and Richard Tucker, eds., Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of Warfare (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004), 93-109; Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), Chapter 5; Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), Chapter 6; Megan Kate Nelson, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); Kathryn Shively Meier, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Andrew McIlwaine Bell, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

[4] An excellent resource is the Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, Land and Labor, edited by Steven Hahn, Steven Miller, Susan O’Donovan, John Rodrigue, and Leslie Rowland (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013-2016). Two volumes have appeared—1865 and 1866-7.

[5] Steven Hahn, “Hunting, Fishing, and Foraging: Common Rights and Class Relations in the Postbellum South,” Radical History Review 26 (1982): 37-64; U.S. Congress, Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1866).

Erin Stewart Mauldin

Erin Stewart Mauldin is an Assistant Professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, and Book Review Editor for Agricultural History. She co-edited the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Global Environmental History, and her book, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South, is forthcoming with Oxford University Press.

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