Unredeemed Land: The U.S. Civil War, Changing Land Use Practices, and the Environmental Limitations of Agriculture in the South, 1840-1880
Mauldin, Erin Stewart
McNeill, John R
During the antebellum period, white farmers in the U.S. South utilized a set of extensive land use practices carefully adapted to the climate and soil conditions of the region. As long as the South and its slave-based system were able to expand onto fresh soil, this extensive agricultural regime both masked the environmental limitations on agriculture in the South and mitigated the consequences of soil erosion, soil nutrient deficiencies, and woodland clearance. But the Civil War tore off that mask. This dissertation argues that by accelerating pre-existing environmental processes while simultaneously cutting off the ability of southern agricultural methods to expand into new territory, the Civil War altered the landscape of the South in ways that went beyond the physical scars of battle.Using shifts in farming practices and debates over the best way to use land as a way to illuminate the ecological legacies of the Civil War, this project shows that the postwar replacement of extensive land use practices with more intensive, continuous cultivation went hand-in-hand with the hallmarks of the postwar agricultural system such as the decline in self-sufficiency among sharecroppers and tenants, the closing of the open range, and expanded cotton production. Environmental constraints unmasked by the war forced both black and white farmers to rely on the market for the inputs required to make increasingly intensive cultivation methods work. At the same time, the pressure to maximize space for the cultivation of staple crops and the increasing impracticality of free-range animal husbandry and shifting cultivation weakened the economic logic of maintaining common lands. By 1880, the cracks in the extensive land use regime that supported southern agriculture before the war had widened considerably, shattering the foundational practices southerners had once used to adapt their agricultural system to regional environmental conditions.By combining a wide range of archival sources such as farm and plantation books, soldier's letters, and government reports with current scientific and agronomic literature, this dissertation revisits questions historians have long asked regarding the importance of the Civil War, the impoverishing nature of postwar cotton production, and the periodization of nineteenth-century southern history.
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