Cotton Field. Photo by Carol Von Canon.

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South Writ Large interviewed Erin Stewart Mauldin in April of 2020 about her book, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South.


Tell us about how your research interests led you to write your recently published book, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South. 

My research interests lie at the intersection of environment, race, and economic inequality in the South, and I’m particularly passionate about using the insights of the natural sciences to inform our reading of history. I studied environmental history under J. R. McNeill at Georgetown University, but during my Ph.D. coursework, I also completed graduate work in biology, soil science, and environmental science.

However, the idea for Unredeemed Land came in one of my political history classes, when we were studying Reconstruction. I had an epiphany in discussion one day, realizing that while historians have extensively documented the transformation of farming in the former Confederacy after 1865 and the rise of extractive industries, 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. Because 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 better help explain the longer history of the economic changes coming out of the war: sharecropping, the closing of the open range, and the expansion of cotton production.


What is the central argument of Unredeemed Land? 

The argument, very simply, is that the Civil 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. 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.


What kinds of sources did you use to tell this fascinating environmental history of the Civil War?

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 or 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 not to 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.


How does your book reshape the ways in which we understand the history of the Civil War? 

It is my hope that people come away thinking about how the Civil War and Reconstruction can’t be understood outside of their larger ecological contexts. Most Americans—and particularly southerners—made their living off the land, and these large-scale events, like emancipation or sharecropping or food shortages during the war, directly related to what was happening to that resource. In particular, I hope my research shows how there were environmental constraints on African American economic independence after the Civil War. The story of southern agriculture in the late nineteenth century—the reason the South went all in on cotton after the war, and why so many farmers continued to grow it after it became very unprofitable—has largely been dominated by economic historians. The “cotton burden” and the loss of self-sufficiency among farmers, and particularly black farmers, so often characterized as the result of market forces or landholder and merchant greed, was a complex interplay between ecological shifts, land use changes, and broader socioeconomic structures. In short, I hope people come away thinking that environment matters in history.


Are there other histories that you think should be reexamined through the lens of the environment?

I covered only a very narrow slice of Reconstruction in this work, and I think that period deserves greater attention from environmental historians who specialize in not only agriculture but also urban studies, migration, and public health. The Populist movement, too, is one that historians dissect through lenses of class or race, but never environment—even though Populism emerged from discontented farmers. I feel there are ecological aspects to the rise of Populism that have been ignored. Finally, I think there are some of the South’s iconic products—especially bourbon—that need an environmental treatment. Bart Elmore did this well with Coca-Cola, but what about Buffalo Trace?


What will your next project be? 

The book project I’m working on now begins in the late nineteenth century 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.


What do you see as the primary environmental issues affecting the U.S. South today? 

First, the reluctance of southern states to tackle big polluters. The argument is (and has been since the beginning of the twentieth century) that you can’t crack down on industry because they provide jobs. As residents of Birmingham, Alabama, used to say, “Smoke [in the air] equals progress.” The greater the regulation, the greater the risk the industry in question will move out of your state. But industries usually place their sites or plants in poor areas, and the subsequent poisoning of our land, water, air, and people is a vicious cycle. Those environmental burdens faced by our poor or minority populations just add to the high cost of health care in those areas, the rates of chronic illnesses, and even disorders in children. The second issue is climate change. Many places in the South are exceptionally vulnerable to increased drought, increased flooding, increased severity of weather, and sea level rise, but drastic measures seem like they’ll only come as a reaction to disaster, rather than a prevention of it.