Author Interview--Erin Mauldin (Unredeemed Land)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

today we feature Erin Stewart Mauldin to talk about her book Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South, which came out in 2018 with Oxford University Press.

Erin Mauldin is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. She received her Ph.D. from the Georgetown University, is the co-editor of the Companion to Global Environmental History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and Book Review Editor for Agricultural History.

To start the interview, Erin, could you give our readers a brief idea of how this book came about and what your argument is?

ESM: Like most first monographs, this book began as a dissertation. I studied environmental history under J.R. McNeill at Georgetown University, and during my coursework, was alerted to the relative lack of environmental history on the Reconstruction period. Historians have extensively documented the transformation of farming in the former Confederacy after 1865, the rise of extractive industries, and the complex issues of labor and race relations in the wake of emancipation. But while all these subjects are intimately tied to the use of the land, the rich scholarship on the Civil War era (and particularly Reconstruction) rarely deals with the land itself.
Luckily, I began my dissertation at a time when the environmental history of the Civil War was taking off as a field. As a result of the pioneering work done by those scholars, I could take their findings and ask, "what came next?" The result is a book that considers the transformation of southern farming practices from roughly 1840 to 1880 as a way to help better explain the longer history of the large-scale economic changes coming out of the war: sharecropping, the closing of the open range, and the expansion of cotton production. The argument, very simply, is that the war and the subsequent rise of contract labor altered traditional land use practices and accelerated environmental change in ways that had serious consequences for poorer southerners and the long-term trajectory of agriculture in the South.
It will come as a surprise to no one that for four years, soldiers cut down trees and scarred the land with defenses and stole pigs and burned down barns. This proved devastating to some, and changed the calculus of farming for many. But the key here is emancipation. Emancipation not only created a new class of landless farmers the physical environment could not support, but also tightened the entanglement of land use and subsistence with racial control.  It’s an ecological feedback loop that so far, no one has talked about, but one we’re coming to recognize in our own time. Watching the realities of climate change unfold, it’s clear that environmental changes act as a “threat multiplier,” accelerating violence, political divisions, and economic hardship, particularly for peoples of color. Here, then, I argue that altered methods of land use and rapidly shifting natural processes amplified the well-known dislocations of the postbellum era for freedpeople: shortages of capital, violence, racial prejudice, and repressive crop legislation.

Indeed, you are benefitting from the new interest in Environmental History among Civil War historians. You already mentioned the cutting of trees, abandoned fields, and in the book, you go into much greater detail about the rotation of plants restoring the land's ability to grow cotton for example. What methodologies did you use for this project? What sources were helpful? And obviously, how much did you have to step out of history and into science for this project?

ESM: Environmental history is an explicitly interdisciplinary sub-field of History, and its practitioners commonly cross boundaries into epidemiology, archeology, geography, climate science, etc. My graduate education was not confined to History alone, for I also completed graduate work in evolutionary biology, soil science, and environmental science. This helped ground me early on in the methodologies and cultures of thought in what we call the “hard sciences.”
This book is about farming, a process by which humans simplify natural ecosystems for food or profit. To better get at the relationship between farmers and the thing they were most concerned about—their land—I combined traditional manuscript sources, such as farmers’ letters and journals, soldiers’ remembrances and records, census data, and an extensive range of agricultural periodicals and government records, with literature from crop science, soil science, dendrochronology, and even a little hydrology to try and get at what ecological processes lie beneath the descriptions of the land and farming found in those archival sources.
A farmer might complain that his soils are baked or that his cotton stalks are weaker this year; another might write that the creek next to the top field is running muddy with sediment. A sharecropper might show up in a ledger as going into debt buying fertilizer, and then write a letter to the merchant begging for more time because his land isn’t producing. A Freedmen’s Bureau agent might note the presence of a new pest in corn fields. Using scientific literature, soil maps, and other data, you can tentatively diagnose the various processes that might lead to those outcomes, and make a judgment as to whether or not it might be symptomatic of a larger issue, like erosion or soil nutrient deficiencies or a lack of crop rotation. I try to not hit the reader over the head with scientific jargon, but if you look in the notes, the science is there, helping me read between the lines and reconstruct the interaction between humans and the land in the past. 

I admire your willingness to do graduate work in biology and science. You mentioned already the focus on Reconstruction, the Freedmen's Bureau, and sharecroppers. Your book is heavily geared toward Reconstruction, why is it so important to understand the war's impact on Reconstruction agriculture? What changed, but also what changed that historians have not paid enough attention too?

ESM: To talk about Reconstruction-era agriculture without discussing the Civil War’s effects is like trying to understand climate change without knowing about fossil fuels. There’s an element of causation missing. What changed between ante- and post-bellum agriculture in all areas of the U.S., in many ways because of the war, was a farther-reaching integration of agricultural producers and distant markets, increased consumption of raw materials, an acceleration of environmental degradation, and the transformation of the way people organized and thought about labor on the land across the South.
I think we need to pay more attention to the environmental legacies of the Civil War, for the changes that scholars are documenting didn’t stop being important in 1865. There's a bigger history here, one that stretches out of the war and across the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. Armies’ foraging not only devastated rural households, but also spread animal diseases that returned to devastate herds again and again, contributing to movements to close common spaces and erect fencing across the South and West. Industrial development often followed the U.S. military’s occupation of the former Confederacy and postwar West, and northern investors often viewed these spaces with a colonial, extractivist mindset. Legislation passed during and immediately after the war facilitated the great giveaway of the Midwestern plains and southern forests to railroad and timber companies, leaving farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, and hunters with fewer options for subsistence and more reason to integrate into local and national markets. 
The legacy most salient to my work is how ecological instability and resource shortages as a result of the war hardened insider-outsider lines and escalated social tensions in the postwar South, undermining the promise of Reconstruction. Amid widespread hunger, hardship, and a refugee crisis compounded by floods and droughts, the need for guaranteed money contributed to the degradation of the very land meant to support ex-slaves’ freedom, and the subsequent displacement of tens of thousands of freedpeople and their children from rural spaces accelerated urbanization and provided a cheap labor pool for the country’s booming industrial enterprises. 

You are pointing to quite a significant impact for the environmental changes brought by the Civil War, reaching well beyond what one might expect. Since Environmental History is something new for Civil War History, what would you like to see historians do more regarding this subfield? What directions should we pursue? How can this influence and improve our understanding of the war?
ESM: I think the environmental history of the Civil War era is going in all the right directions, it just needs time for scholars to continue the conversations that have already begun. Historians have raised interesting questions about the environmental understandings of politicians and military commanders, the physical impact of armies, the role of the environment in determining the shape or outcome of campaigns, the difficulty of obtaining natural resources on the home front, and the spread of disease among freed slaves. This scholarship helps us better capture the lived experience of the war for everyday soldiers and Americans, and, I believe, expands our view of the war’s significance to every region of the U.S.—not just the areas with major battles.
The questions that drove my own project—how wartime damage affected postwar economies—need greater attention, as does the ecology of emancipation. My work dealt with a very specific set of outcomes in one region, but the same approach could be applied elsewhere to the years between 1865 and 1880. As someone who’s passionate about breaking down the boundaries between the sciences and the humanities, I would like to see more scholars of the Civil War era embrace non-traditional sources. Environmental history can be many things to many people, but its strength lies in its interdisciplinarity. So in order to restore the larger biological and physical context of human actions, scholars have to draw on the strength of multiple disciplines outside of history. There’s some great work forthcoming in this vein on the war, and I’m excited to see how that moves the field forward.

To close, how do you see your book advance both Civil War and Reconstruction history or even the history of agriculture in the United States? In ten years, how would you hope your book has impacted the profession? Where are you going from here, another environmental history project?
ESM: It is my hope that in ten years, when professors in U.S. History surveys cover the outcomes of emancipation, sharecropping, and the grip of cotton on the postwar South, these events are characterized as having both environmental causes and outcomes—that making a living on the land during Reconstruction is not just a discussion of labor organization, legislation, or political maneuvering, but a consideration of ecological instability and its effects on social change.
The book project I’m working on now begins in the same period, but focuses on urban spaces rather than rural ones. The poverty and debt of postwar cotton farming I describe in Unredeemed Land spurred tens of thousands of southerners, and particularly freedpeople, to abandon rural spaces in the decades after the Civil War and find employment in recently “reconstructed” cities such as Atlanta, newly established industrial centers such as Birmingham, and mill towns or manufacturing centers across the South. Not only did minority enclaves or company houses exist among higher levels of pollution, disease, and industrial contamination, but the public’s representations of those conditions attached a persistent stigma both to people and place in these neighborhoods. This project, then, investigates the role of industrial pollution in the cementing race- or class-based understandings of urban space, which, over time and into the mid-twentieth century, reinforced disenfranchisement, engendered racially segmented economies, affected zoning laws, and allowed further environmental degradation. 

Erin, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your book with us here on H-CivWar.