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Scars on the Land

An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South

David Silkenat

Publication Date - 12 April 2022

ISBN: 9780197564226

272 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


They worked Virginia's tobacco fields, South Carolina's rice marshes, and the Black Belt's cotton plantations. Wherever they lived, enslaved people found their lives indelibly shaped by the Southern environment. By day, they plucked worms and insects from the crops, trod barefoot in the mud as they hoed rice fields, and endured the sun and humidity as they planted and harvested the fields. By night, they clandestinely took to the woods and swamps to trap opossums and turtles, to visit relatives living on adjacent plantations, and at times to escape slave patrols and escape to freedom.

Scars on the Land is the first comprehensive history of American slavery to examine how the environment fundamentally formed enslaved people's lives and how slavery remade the Southern landscape. Over two centuries, from the establishment of slavery in the Chesapeake to the Civil War, one simple calculation had profound consequences: rather than measuring productivity based on outputs per acre, Southern planters sought to maximize how much labor they could extract from their enslaved workforce. They saw the landscape as disposable, relocating to more fertile prospects once they had leached the soils and cut down the forests. On the leading edge of the frontier, slavery laid waste to fragile ecosystems, draining swamps, clearing forests to plant crops and fuel steamships, and introducing devastating invasive species. On its trailing edge, slavery left eroded hillsides, rivers clogged with sterile soil, and the extinction of native species. While environmental destruction fueled slavery's expansion, no environment could long survive intensive slave labor. The scars manifested themselves in different ways, but the land too fell victim to the slave owner's lash.

Although typically treated separately, slavery and the environment naturally intersect in complex and powerful ways, leaving lasting effects from the period of emancipation through modern-day reckonings with racial justice.


  • First environmental history of slavery in the American South
  • Covers the colonial period through the Civil War
  • Discusses the environmental destruction of slave labor in landscapes ranging from forests to swamps to agricultural fields

About the Author(s)

David Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of several books, including Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War, a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize.


"David Silkenat has written an astoundingly original history of southern slavery. To the crimes against humanity committed by enslavers, one can add environmental destruction. It is the enslaved, whose interactions with the flora, fauna, and landscape allow them to create alternative geographies of freedom, who emerge as stewards of the south. Scars on the Land reveals perceptively the long afterlives of slavery all around us." -- Manisha Sinha, author of The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

"This beautifully crafted book provides a striking new context for understanding southern slavery. Silkenat takes us deep into the South's fields, forests, and swamps, showing how the natural world shaped the daily lives of enslaved and enslavers alike. At the same time, we see how slavery remade the southern landscape and how African American knowledge of the environment eventually helped facilitate emancipation. Readers will never think of the South's 'peculiar institution' in the same way again." -- Timothy Silver, co-author of An Environmental History of the Civil War

"Here we see the outline of a three-dimensional history of slavery: one in which 'power' and 'resistance' and 'work' and 'agency' are to be understood as dynamic material processes. The system's ecological and spatial aspects are understood by David Silkenat as both the determining parameters and agonistic products of its economic and racial aspects." -- Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States

"Synthesizing decades of scholarship in slavery and environmental studies, and offering a new interpretative framework, Scars on the Land expands our understanding of the environmental and human disaster that was built into the business model of racial slavery in the US South and integral to its power. In this timely and illuminating book, Silkenat refuses to let us forget that the devastation of black life was of a piece with the deep entanglement of the expansionary visions and policies of slaveholders that laid waste to the land with a force peculiar to slavery. He makes clear how, in the production of cash crops, the mining of coal, or the tapping of pine trees for tar, slavery and environmental devastation went hand in hand and at tremendous cost to black life and in the years before the Civil War, a narrowing of the possibilities of black freedom." -- Thavolia Glymph, author of The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation

"This volume resolves a notable historiographic absence in the literature of slavery as well as in American environmental history....Silkenat...demonstrates that the environmental history of slavery is not a simple matter of evaluating the impersonal forces of the South's ecology on enslaved men and women. One of the book's strengths is demonstrating how much of the environment itself was subject to the very human actions of enslavement and enslaved labor...The thematic chapters provide readers with a depth of analysis that richly incorporates African American primary source...and offers readers a tightly focused examination of the role that soil, rivers, forests, animals, and swamps played in the lives of slaves...This volume will be of enormous value in bringing these topics to the attention of students, laypersons, or environmental historians." -- Nicholas Cox, H-CivWar

"Scars Upon the Land's lively pace, vivid examples, and sensitive construction clearly demonstrate both how the landscape affected enslaved people and how they interacted with and shaped their environment. The book brings to bear a mountainous bibliography of primary accounts and secondary interpretations to explore this tension. Scars Upon the Land manages all this material elegantly...The book sweeps the reader across the South from eastern turpentine forests to Mississippi River levees, presenting familiar narratives in new ways and making connections that many students of slavery may not otherwise think to probe, like the links between the weather and white fears of slave revolt...informative yet readable and could easily be assigned to undergraduate student...in southern, African American, and nineteenth-century history." -- Kelly Houston Jones, American Nineteenth Century History

"With compelling prose, a convincing re-reading of primary and secondary sources, and an effective organization, this book offers an excellent overview of the complicated cause-and-effect relationships between human enslavement and environmental change in disparate spaces over a long period of time...The book's most important accomplishment is that within each setting, readers encounter the natural world through the eyes, hands, and labour of enslaved people." -- James C. Giesen, Slavery & Abolition

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1 An Exhausted Soil
    Chapter 2 An Animal Without Hope
    Chapter 3 Dragged Out by the Roots
    Chapter 4 Breeches in the Levee
    Chapter 5 A Southern Cyclone
    Chapter 6 An Inhospitable Refuge
    Chapter 7 Landscape of Freedom

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