Destruction and Reconstruction: Remapping and Rebuilding the Physical Environment in the Post–Civil War United States

Solicited by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Civil War and Reconstruction; Social and Cultural


On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address. His stirring peroration implored people to “strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Lincoln’s moving language aside, many of the people he implored to bind up the nation’s wounds probably trembled at the thought of the logistics involved. How exactly would people care for the soldiers who served and their widows and orphans? Private benevolence? Government-funded pensions? Large regions of the South lay in ruins. Where would the money come from to rebuild? How would rebuilding reshape the natural and the built environment? The four papers in this panel tackle these questions by analyzing the work of rebuilding the natural and built environment in the South after the U.S. Civil War as well as the consequences of that rebuilding. Molly Mersmann’s “The Yankees are Coming, Thank God!: The Role of Northern Aid in Rebuilding the Devastated South” excavates a heretofore-obscured set of southern attitudes toward northerners. Rather than deriding northerners as rapacious carpetbaggers or heartless capitalists, Mersmann reveals that southerners courted northern financial aid in rebuilding. Indeed, she contends, aid from communities, organizations, and individuals played a critical, if often unacknowledged, role in the rebuilding of the South. Evan C. Rothera’s “‘A certain Fund for the relief of Southern widows and orphans’: Edward McPherson, John T. Pickett, and the Work of Benevolence” builds on Mersmann’s investigation and broadens the focus of the panel through comparative analysis of two attempts to care for widows and orphans. He juxtaposes the efforts of northerners like Edward McPherson to open the National Homestead at Gettysburg for orphans with John T. Pickett’s attempts to raise money for southern widows and orphans. Both men, in different ways and with different strategies, worked to fulfill Lincoln’s imperative. Shae Smith Cox’s “‘INDIANS WILL ATTEND REUNION’: The Complicated Story of Indigenous Commemoration of Civil War Service and Sacrifice” also broadens the panel’s focus by moving into a region of the U.S.Indian Territorythat is often absent in studies of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction. Cox explores how both Union and Confederate Native Americans rebuilt their shattered communities and commemorated their participation in the war. Erin Stewart Mauldin's “Poisoned by the Promised Land: Black Migration from Rural to Industrial Spaces in the Wake of the U.S. Civil War” ends the panel where Mersmann beginsin the U.S. South. Mauldin discusses how many African Americans migrated from rural areas into urban areas in search of economic opportunity. Black migration spurred another type of rebuilding: industrial expansion. However, Mauldin contends, black migrants soon discovered that rebuilt industries produced the same economic inequality they had tried to leave behind in the countryside. Hilary Green will chair the panel and comment.

Papers Presented

"The Yankees are Coming, Thank God!": The Role of Northern Aid in Rebuilding the Devastated South

During the U.S. Civil War, southerners witnessed destruction and ruin wrought upon their towns, farmlands, and cities by friend and foe alike. Molly C. Mersmann’s research explores those southerners, white and black, men and women, who experienced this destruction and asks how did they rebuild? The answer ranges from military to foreign aid, as well as private, community, and Federal aid. In this paper Mersmann focuses on the ways in which private northern aid facilitated the literal rebuilding of the war-torn South. She examines which southerners asked for northern assistance, why (religious reasons or otherwise), and if they received it. Conversely, she investigates which northerners made the donations, services, or invested capital into the southern economy and their reasonings for doing so. While the carpetbagger still stands as the stereotype of northern men and women looking to profit off of the South’s hard time (thanks in large part to post-war southern newsmen), this image has served to conceal not only northern donations and services rendered after the war, but also the call for northern assistance by southern communities. While many former Confederates rejected northern aid, Mersmann demonstrates that others truly needed it to repair their homes and businesses and specifically sought out northern assistance. Ultimately, this paper examines the significant role northern communities, organizations, and private investors played in rebuilding the South.

Presented By
Molly Claire Mersmann, Purdue University

"A certain Fund for the relief of Southern widows and orphans": Edward McPherson, John T. Pickett, and the Work of Benevolence

Caring for the widows and orphans of fallen soldiers is praiseworthy work. However, as many people discovered in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, it is also expensive work. In general, men like Edward McPherson and John T. Pickett, who wanted to help widows and orphans, found they could not rely on government resources; they had to turn to private benevolence. Evan C. Rothera’s paper offers comparative analysis of how both men attempted to help widows and orphans. McPherson, a Radical Republican and Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives headed up a group of concerned northerners who raised money to open the National Homestead at Gettysburg. Pickett, most famous for his antebellum filibustering activities and his disastrous diplomatic mission to Mexico in the early months of the U.S. Civil War, utilized several different strategies to raise money to help southern widows and orphans. These included selling his copies of the Confederate archives to the federal government and setting aside part of the money in a special fund as well as selling copies of the Confederate seal to raise additional money. Rothera examines the different strategies and approaches both men used to raise money. He also embeds their attempts in a larger world of benevolent efforts that existed before the start of the U.S. Civil War and continued long after the soldiers had stacked their muskets and went home.

Presented By
Evan Christopher Rothera, University of Arkansas‒Fort Smith

"INDIANS WILL ATTEND REUNION": The Complicated Story of Indigenous Commemoration of Civil War Service and Sacrifice

This paper examines the ways in which Native veterans who served in the Civil War, and their communities, chose to commemorate their wartime service and sacrifice using material culture. During the Civil War the Union and the Confederacy courted Indigenous Peoples and used them as soldiers. Many times, because of where they fell in terms of priority for both armies, Indigenous soldiers were insufficiently armed and clothed. However, when they received uniform pieces or flags, the Native soldiers understood them as tokens of sovereignty and loyalty and strove to incorporate those items into their identity. Even after their Reconstruction experience, many Native veterans and their communities used uniforms and flags to commemorate and remember their service in much the same way their white and African-American counterparts did. Shae Smith Cox’s paper complicates the historiography and sheds new light on how Native Peoples on both sides rebuilt their communities and why they continued to commemorate their involvement in the Civil War using material culture.

Presented By
Shae Smith Cox, U.S. Civil War

Poisoned by the Promised Land: Black Migration from Rural to Industrial Spaces in the Wake of the U.S. Civil War

In the decades following the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865, thousands of freed slaves swelled the class of semi-nomadic southerners who bounced from farm to city, seeking opportunities to build a better life out of the ashes of war. This paper serves as connection between the increasing geographic instability among rural black southerners after the Civil War and the rapid increase in the pool of labor available for the industrial enterprises of the postwar South. Environmental conditions in rural spaces—multi-year droughts, intensifying soil erosion, the erasure of resources by armies, and the decline of subsistence practices—undermined freedpeople’s ability to achieve economic independence in a farmer’s field. The resulting economic displacement spurred a wave of inter- and intra-regional migration as these ecological refugees fled older, more fragile agricultural landscapes of the plantation belt. By 1880, urban and industrial areas became the most promising outlets for autonomy, and the subsequent movement and migration of black Americans helped shift the momentum of the South’s economic development toward industrialization. However, the physical “reconstruction” and industrial expansion of cities following widespread damage during the war trapped ex-slaves in specific spatial patterns, with rolling mills and railroad companies ringing their labor forces with the detritus of city-building. Thus, in both rural and urban areas, freedpeople experienced their second-class citizenship through the physical environments in which they lived.

Presented By
Erin Stewart Mauldin, University of South Florida

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel, University of Tulsa

Presenter: Erin Stewart Mauldin, University of South Florida
Dr. Erin Stewart Mauldin is an environmental historian of the 19th-century U.S. South whose work explores the intersection of race, economic inequality, and environment. She received her Ph.D. with distinction from Georgetown University in 2014 and her dissertation, “Unredeemed Land: The U.S. Civil War, Changing Land Use Practices, and the Environmental Limitations of Agriculture in the South, 1840-1800,” won the Harold N. Glassman Award for Best Dissertation in the Humanities. The manuscript version was published by Oxford University Press as Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South in October 2018. Her work borrows heavily from the natural sciences, geography, and sociology to reframe the “big” questions of 19th-century southern history: slavery as capitalism, the impacts of the Civil War and emancipation on southern agriculture, and economic stagnation in the shadow of “King Cotton”. Unredeemed Land was recently awarded the 2019 Wiley-Silver Prize for Civil War History.

She has published articles in The Journal of the Civil War Era and The Alabama Review, is the co-editor of the Companion to Global Environmental History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), and serves as the Book Review Editor for Agricultural History. She has several peer-reviewed book chapters coming out in 2020, including a study of the environmental history of Reconstruction for the Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction and a digital resource for historians by Bloomsbury Group called “Environmental History: Theory, Method, and Historiography.” She is also the co-editor for the leading book series in southern environmental history, “Environmental History and the American South,” at the University of Georgia Press. Mauldin is currently working on her second monograph, which connects the narrative of the rural South in the long Civil War era to that of the urbanizing, industrializing South. Tentatively titled, The First White Flight: Industrial Pollution and Racial Segregation in New South Cities, this project examines the iterative process of environmental racism over the course of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and investigates the role played by pollution in racializing urban spaces, reinforcing disenfranchisement, creating racially-segmented economies, and furthering environmental degradation. Within the University of South Florida system, Dr. Mauldin teaches a range of courses in both U.S. and environmental history at both graduate and undergraduate levels.

Presenter: Molly Claire Mersmann, Purdue University
Molly C. Mersmann is a Ph.D. Candidate at Purdue University working under the mentorship of Dr. Caroline E. Janney (now at the University of Virginia). Her research, situated in the post-Civil War era, seeks to understand how southerners, poor and wealthy, white and black, men and women, in the immediate aftermath of the war went about the task of reconstructing their built and natural environments. To conduct her research Mersmann has received the John L. Nau III Center’s Library Fellowship at the University of Virginia, the Hargrett Research Stipend at the University of Georgia, the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies Fellowship at Virginia Tech, and the Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellowship at the Virginia Historical Society, among others. She has been awarded the Miletus L. Flaningam Paper Award from Purdue University as well as the Walter Nugent Graduate Student Paper Award, both for best submitted Graduate Paper. Mersmann has presented her research at the annual Popular Culture Association Meeting in 2018, the bi-annual meeting for the Society of Civil War Historians in May 2018, and the Indiana Association of Historians conference also in 2018.

Presenter: Evan Christopher Rothera, University of Arkansas‒Fort Smith
Dr. Evan C. Rothera is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of History at The Pennsylvania State University in 2017. His research focuses on the transnational dimensions of the U.S. Civil War Era and his current book manuscript, which is under advance contract with Louisiana State University Press, analyzes civil wars and reconstructions in the United States, Mexico, and Argentina. He has published articles in Nebraska History, The Journal of Mississippi History, and the Journal of Supreme Court History, several book chapters, and many book reviews and encyclopedia entries. He has presented his research at numerous conferences, including the American Historical Association Annual Meeting (2017, 2020), the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting (2018), the Gulf South History and Humanities Conference (2016); the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Conference (2015); the Southern Historical Association Annual Meeting (2012, 2019); and the Society of Civil War Historians Biennial Meeting (2012, 2018). He received the Outstanding Paper by a Graduate Student Award from the Society of Civil War Historians, the William F. Coker Award from the Gulf South Historical Association, and the Northern Great Plains History Conference Graduate Student Paper Prize. He has also received fellowships and grants to support his research from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations; the Louisiana Historical Association; the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South; the Texas State Historical Association; the Virginia Historical Society; The Pennsylvania State University; and the Institute for Political History, among others.

Presenter: Shae Smith Cox, U.S. Civil War
Currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the University of Nevada, Las Vegas History Department, Shae Smith Cox earned her M.A. in American History from Oklahoma State University in 2013. She studies nineteenth century race and gender with an emphasis on material culture and memory of the Civil War and is minoring in Public History. Shae interned with the Mob Museum’s content department during the summer of 2016 and worked as the project manager for the Fall 2016 exhibit Ready to Roar. She returned to the Mob Museum to work as an interim curator during the Summer of 2017. Shae has a forthcoming publication entitled “Manufactured Identity: The Recreation of Memory, Identity, and Southern Sectionalism through Civil War Uniforms, 1865-1920s,” in the edited volume Buying and Selling the Civil War. She is a member of the Society of Civil War Historians Graduate Connection Committee. Cox is currently the Instructor of Record for a Southern Women’s History class at UNLV and holds the position of Assistant to the Director for the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.