Erin Stewart Mauldin. Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Review by J. Michael Martinez
In Unredeemed Land, Erin Stewart Mauldin, an assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida, analyzes southern land use before, during, and after the Civil War. She suggests that our understanding of nineteenth century America is incomplete unless we consider the environmental issues of the epoch, especially with respect to the way southern farmers scratched out a living. She is correct, for her environmental history of the period adds to our knowledge of that time and place.
Mauldin argues that for generations in the antebellum era, farming practices differed markedly between the North and South, and that those differences had profound consequences, especially beginning mid-century. For the most part, northern farmers crafted a sustainable agricultural system that recognized the necessity of rejuvenating the soil. They engaged in commercial farming through a system of mixed-crop rotation based on grain production, livestock-raising, and dairy farming.
In the South, however, such farming practices could not be replicated. The soil lacked crucial nutrients and eroded quickly. Hot, humid temperatures and heavy rainfall complicated agricultural production. Outside of large plantations, farmers tended to cultivate small plots of land for generations. When the soil no longer produced sufficient yields, these farmers cleared more land and planted crops in the new soil. Moreover, they shifted cultivation and depended on free-range animal husbandry to prevent erosion, at least temporarily. To compensate for poor soil and atrocious farming practices, southern farmers needed to expand into new lands that offered fresh soil. Much of the antebellum debate about the spread of slavery into new territories reflected this unquenchable need for new land with suitable soil for planting.
The Civil War interrupted standard agricultural practices in the South and forever changed farming. Southerners could no longer expand into new areas. Fields were neglected while southern men marched off to fight. Later in the war, when Union troops trudged through the southern landscape, they destroyed crops and livestock, leaving southern farmers and their families destitute. Soil erosion accelerated, woods were cleared but not cultivated, and animal diseases spread.
After the war ended, little capital was available to assist farmers. In the meantime, newly emancipated slaves existed as a new class of landless laborers, and their need to earn a living in agriculture, whether as day laborers or sharecroppers, placed additional burdens on an already over-stressed system of cultivation. Clearly, the old agricultural techniques no longer worked in the South.
During the postbellum years, wise land management required the development of systematic and sustainable farming practices, but no person or entity could enforce such a system. Farmers needed a “paying” crop that could turn a profit quickly. Cotton had long been an important southern crop, but after the war it became king as southerners sought economic redemption. Unfortunately for farmers, cotton was not ecologically sustainable because the soil was already depleted of nutrients. Absent regular crop rotation and sustainable management, the land could not provide a living for a generation of southern farmers accustomed to tilling the soil in a largely inefficient, wasteful manner.
Postwar southern farming entered into a vicious downward spiral. Anxious to earn enough money to survive, farmers continually produced cotton, often relying on fertilizers to ensure sufficient yields. Yet the cost of feed, seed, and fertilizer, coupled with an over-production of cotton that depressed prices, ensured that farmers would never escape their plight. As Mauldin notes, the land “required too many inputs to remain profitable.” Ironically, farmers “had to plant cotton to pay for the fertilizer, seed, implements, and provisions they needed to plant cotton” (p. 6). In the meantime, tenancy and sharecropping affected southern labor relations by ensuring that too many people were attempting to subsist on too little land. The “cotton burden” was the result of a complex array of forces, including land-use changes, ecological shifts, and evolving relations between former slaves and planters. In the face of these changes, much of the southern farmland remained “unredeemed.”
In Unredeemed Land, Mauldin has written a thoughtful and engaging examination of southern environmental history stretching from the antebellum era through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. So many histories of the era focus on political, military, and socioeconomic events, and rightly so. Yet in reading these sweeping histories, there is a tendency to think that ordinary citizens reflected on the monumental issues of the day—e.g., whether Lincoln’s view of constitutionalism was superior to the southern version of state rights—when, in fact, most people worried far more about earning a living and feeding their families. By moving beyond Whig history to examine the factors that affected the day-to-day lives of farmers, Unredeemed Land illuminates a frequently neglected area of study. Mauldin also demonstrates that policies promoting environmental protection need not be limited to affluent nations operating under strong economic conditions. Denizens who ignore sustainable environmental practices do so at their peril.
Harold Platt, Sinking Chicago: Climate Change and the Remaking of a Flood-Prone Environment. Temple University Press, 2018.
Review by James Spiller
As coastal communities around the world face mounting threats from sea level rise and intensifying storms associated with global warming, many inland cities such as Chicago contend with their own daunting risks from climate change. The people who built this metropolis on the shore of Lake Michigan turned expansive prairie wetlands into impermeable urban pavement and suburban sprawl, rendering the flat landscape vulnerable to surface flooding from more frequent and severe rainstorms.
In this lively and wide-ranging account of the infrastructural development of America’s most important interior city, the accomplished urban and environmental historian Harold Platt reveals that post-storm flooding is not new to Chicago. Climate change magnifies that threat, but it has wrought property damage and sewage-born disease since the city’s rapid growth in the late nineteenth century. Beginning his compelling narrative in 1885, Platt shows that the decision by city leaders to build a combined sewer system (storm water and sewage) created a continuing legacy that doomed Chicagoans to damaging floods. That fateful decision set a precedent for water management based more on political expediency of short-term savings than on technical expertise and public- and environmental-health criteria. That decision also created a growing hydraulic system entailing combined sewers, a redirected Chicago River (to flow out of Lake Michigan instead of into it), and sanitary canals designed to maintain the city’s economic preeminence by accommodating large transport ships. That system, however, failed to prevent floods and sewage contamination of Lake Michigan drinking water supplies after big storms, and it turned much of the urban watershed into a putrid sink for the city’s offal and industrial effluents.
The core of Platt’s account is a century of public works projects inclined towards large-scale, technology-intensive fixes. His heroes are the sanitary engineers and reformers—City Beautiful, Progressive Era, twentieth-century civil rights and environmental activists—who pushed for alternatives to these fixes. They believed that effective sewage treatment systems and landscape design (e.g. wetland preservation and construction of parklike retention ponds and lagoons) would allay damaging floods and keep infectious agents out of regional water supplies. These alternatives gained ground in recent years and point the way, in Platt’s mind, towards the environmental sustainability and social equity that Chicago, indeed all the world, requires in an age of climate change. However, city politicians pursued more politically expedient measures such as the combined sewers that dumped their untreated effluents into surrounding canals and streams until the early twentieth century. By reversing the course of the Chicago River, these effluents generally moved away from city drinking water supplies. Supplemented by Lake Michigan water flowing out through canals and the river, this system bolstered industry and shipping along those waterways but also damaged river ecosystems, polluted drinking water of downstream communities, and triggered interstate and international legal challenges to Chicago’s withdrawals of Great Lakes water. In addition, intense rain events resulted in sewage backwash into Lake Michigan, prompting chemical treatment and then sewage plant construction (especially when New Deal federal funding became available during the Great Depression) that reduced contamination but never sufficiently protected drinking water or eliminated the mounting threat of storm flooding. As that threat grew after World War II, due to regional development (especially suburbanization) and increasing precipitation rates, city leaders remained “path dependent” on legacy technologies by expanding (rather than replacing) combined sewers and water management systems. The most dramatic accretion to that system has been the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), a network of concrete tunnels designed to catch storm water and release it over time, that city leaders began building in the late 1980s. They championed TARP, with a whopping price tag of $1 billion, as the means to end regional flooding once-and-for-all. Even as costs skyrocketed, they doubled down and expanded TARP in the past quarter century as continuing sprawl and intensifying rain events overwhelmed that system’s ability to sequester enough storm water to prevent floods and lake water contamination.
City politicians failed to protect water supplies and manage flooding not only because they committed to inadequate technological systems but also because their corrupt systems of contracting, patronage, and kickbacks bloated the cost and minimized the effectiveness of sanitation systems. Platt’s accessible narrative is particularly intriguing as he describes this political corruption and explains how these water and sanitation systems were founding pillars of Chicago’s infamous and enduring political machinery. The longstanding feedback between these forces of political expediency and corruption and inadequate storm water and sewage systems frayed over the past quarter century. They did so, according to Platt, as property owners demanded more effective flood control and as Chicagoans responded to progressive improvements in their regional environment by demanding further protection of their lake and river systems. Their growing demands for aesthetically pleasing and environmentally vibrant waterways, protected from raw sewage and industrial effluents as well as from new invasive species, appears to have created a new political possibility for eco-friendly, alternative water management systems. Platt deems these systems critical to keep the once prairie wetlands of greater Chicago from sinking under storm waters made more frequent and intense by climate change.
While urban infrastructure is at the heart of this book, its sweeping and well-sourced account of Chicago is well suited to scholars, students, and lay readers alike—especially those interested not only in this world-renowned city but also in the historical development of their own communities. Harold Platt’s work illustrates how the interplay of economics, politics, engineering and environmentalism (add to the list social justice advocacy) influenced the way that people built Chicago and the national landscape, and it points towards the forces that need to be mobilized to make it more resilient and sustainable in an era of climate change.