Robinson on Mauldin, 'Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South'

Erin Stewart Mauldin
Thomas Robinson

Erin Stewart Mauldin. Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 256 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-086517-7.

Reviewed by Thomas Robinson (Museum of Florida History) Published on H-Florida (April, 2019) Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer (Northern Illinois University)

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Focusing on the land to ask how the Civil War and emancipation transformed southern agriculture, Erin Stewart Mauldin has produced an agricultural and environmental history that expands our understanding of the social and economic dynamics of Reconstruction. As Mauldin cogently argues, one cannot understand the postwar economy of the South without understanding the effect that accelerated soil erosion, woodland clearance, and land abandonment had on the region.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first two discuss the antebellum and Civil War years, respectively. These are the two weakest chapters of the entire work, seemingly extended prefaces to the chapters on the postwar years. That said, Mauldin does provide a good overview of the diversified agricultural system that sustained the cotton growing South in the prewar years, only to see the devastation of war and the freefall of the wartime economy lead to the abandonment of that system by small farmers. With wartime pressures, small farmers shifted their practices away from sustainable strategies, often out of necessity.

Mauldin argues that the constant pressure to find new and potentially more productive farmland was a significant factor in the southern push to expand slavery westward. King Cotton and other cash crops exhausted the soil, and new lands were needed to expand the agricultural system of the South. Although Mauldin approaches this through an environmental history lens, her discussion of westward expansion does not seem different than any other treatments of the topic. And her discussion of the destruction that Union and Confederate armies wrought on the landscapes of the South feels rushed and lacks the detail of Lisa Brady’s War Upon the Land (2012) or Brian Drake’s The Blue, the Gray, and the Green (2015).

All those criticisms are washed aside in Mauldin’s final three chapters, which focus on the postwar years, up to 1880. In these chapters, Mauldin persuasively argues that distressed farmers, both white and black, looked toward cotton for economic redemption, but the intense cultivation required was largely impossible due to already depleted soils and the environmental destruction of the war. Mauldin’s discussion of the use of fertilizers is especially fascinating and a definite contribution to the literature on Reconstruction. 

To make cotton worthwhile, farmers began to use fertilizer in ever greater numbers and this was a vital component of the cycle of debt in which many southern farmers became trapped. In order to get out of debt, farmers believed they had to plant cotton. In order to make such mono-cropping successful, farmers needed to purchase fertilizer to help the soil, which was ravaged by the crop, thrive. The reliance on chemicals was costly and ultimately ineffective. In Mauldin’s estimation, the use of fertilizer should be part of the discussion of the postwar cycle of debt and she makes a tremendous case indeed.

As the title of the book suggests, this work also focuses on the role emancipation played in the overall agricultural picture of the time period. The discussion of the attempt to reconstruct the agricultural labor force without slavery adds a layer to our understanding of the legacy of African American farmers. In the antebellum years, enslaved people were used to clear land, dig ditches, and spread manure during times when crops did not need tending. Once emancipation occurred, Mauldin argues, those jobs largely went undone, as freedpeople balked at those jobs. Freedpeople used their freedom to exert their autonomy, but this also had an effect on the economic stability of the agricultural system. As both blacks and whites bound themselves to cotton, the intensive cultivation techniques continued to ravage the land. Mauldin argues that the migration of black southerners to cities was due to the intensification of cotton cultivation.

Mauldin should be applauded for the amount of primary research she did. By utilizing a number of letters and journals, she provides a human element to the story of economic and environmental change. Mauldin also deserves credit for writing a highly readable book about a complex subject. Even when dealing with subjects such as ecology and socioeconomic factors of the time period, the writing and sources make for a fascinating read.

This book does not turn the story of the Civil War or Reconstruction upside down, but it does provide a new look at old topics. By utilizing the lens of agriculture and the environment, Mauldin shows that the land is just as important to the story as anything humans did because the natural world affected the decisions people made before, during, and after the war. 

Citation: Thomas Robinson. Review of Mauldin, Erin Stewart, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL:

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