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

Erin Stewart Mauldin
Matthew M. Stith

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 Matthew M. Stith (University of Texas at Tyler) Published on H-CivWar (July, 2019) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

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The best ideas often refocus our attention on what was there all along. Erin Stewart Mauldin’s Unredeemed Land is no exception. At its heart, Mauldin’s work is a story of the tumultuous evolution of the cotton South from 1840 to 1880 through a carefully focused environmental, primarily agricultural, lens. Along with R. Douglas Hurt’s Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South (2015), Mauldin’s contribution is among the first to fully examine southern agriculture and landscapes and how they shaped the war—and how they were shaped by it. While Hurt focuses primarily on the Civil War years, Mauldin places the cotton South in wider chronological perspective. Few works on the Civil War South do not, at least in the periphery, invoke landscapes, agriculture, or the environment in general. To be sure, the South’s natural and built environment underscored the military, political, cultural, and economic course of the conflict. But, to date, surprisingly little attention has been allotted to the environment as a key, perhaps the key, player in influencing the war and its aftermath. To this end, Mauldin injects fresh and valuable insight into our understanding of the interplay between southern agriculture and the Civil War.

The Civil War era marked a significant shift in the natural and economic contours of southern landscapes. Mauldin makes clear that the war highlighted inherent weaknesses in the southern agricultural system—problems that had been masked and “delayed by territorial expansion and the use of slave labor to create and maintain agricultural landscapes” (p. 9). In sum, she explains, the southern system needed to grow to live. Built squarely on agriculture-based slavery, the prewar South relied on continuous expansion and land exploitation to survive. The war exacerbated and accelerated the built environment’s devolution, leaving in its wake a shattered land and broken economy. For Mauldin, the conflict “drastically altered the rhythms of southern agricultural life and livelihood by accelerating prewar environmental change, removing necessary resources and labor, and preventing expansion” (p. 160).

Environmental historians of the Civil War have made clear the environment’s ubiquitous role in the conflict. Mauldin appropriately engages this historiographical discussion, and she contends that wartime southern agriculture served at once to help Union soldiers and to hurt their Confederate counterparts. Free range livestock, food crops, fence rails, and a variety of other agricultural products helped supply occupying federal armies. By mid-war, the slave-based labor system that had sustained southern agriculture began to dissolve. And the South’s dogged reliance on a primarily agricultural, slave-based economy meant that other necessities for war might only come from a great distance. The Union blockade and protruding military movements deep into the South effectively rendered such supply chains problematic. For Mauldin, all this “made the region particularly vulnerable to standard military practices” and “helps to explain why the South was affected so dramatically by the Civil War” (p. 160). She is right. A society and culture based so intensely on the built environment will invariably fall much harder when war is focused as much on the home front as on the battlefront.   

Although the land’s war wounds quickly healed, they were reopened by intensive, exploitive, and expansive agricultural practices in the decades following the war. This era of “King Cotton” flooded the market with far more cotton than ever before. It reoriented the political, social, and racial systems nearer prewar levels with a new energy toward white southern redemption. But it also brought the southern agricultural system (and the southern environment) to its knees. Indeed, as Mauldin argues, “because of the ecological legacies of the Civil War and emancipation, the southern environment remained unredeemed” (p. 7). Such analysis of the New South’s direct and problematic ties to prewar southern agricultural practices and destructive wartime changes serves as a useful addition to our understanding of postwar southern politics and culture.

Historians too often lose sight of the environment for what happened because of it. Unredeemed Land helps correct this. Agriculture, and nature generally, formed the nucleus of the nineteenth-century South and the Civil War. Politics, economics, warfare, and all other factors revolved around, atop, and because of the environment. Mauldin’s greatest contribution is the clarity with which she conveys an unbroken narrative about a broken slave-based agricultural system—and the southern environment in general—that served as the cornerstone for the causes, course, and consequences of the Civil War.

Citation: Matthew M. Stith. Review of Mauldin, Erin Stewart, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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