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Unredeemed Land

An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South

Erin Stewart Mauldin

Publication Date - 01 January 2021

ISBN: 9780197563441

258 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock


How did the Civil War and the emancipation of four million slaves reconfigure the natural landscape in the South and the farming economy dependent upon it?

An innovative reconsideration of the Civil War's profound impact on southern history, Unredeemed Land traces the environmental constraints that shaped the rural South's transition to capitalism during the late nineteenth century. Dixie's "King Cotton" required extensive land use techniques across large swaths of acreage, fresh soil, and slave-based agriculture in order to remain profitable. But wartime destruction and the rise of the contract labor system closed off those possibilities and necessitated increasingly intensive methods of cultivation that worked against the environment. The resulting disconnect between farmers' use of the land and what the natural environment could support intensified the economic dislocation of freed people, poor farmers, and sharecroppers. Erin Stewart Mauldin demonstrates how the Civil War and emancipation accelerated ongoing ecological change in ways that hastened the postbellum collapse of the region's subsistence economy, encouraged the expansion of cotton production, and ultimately kept cotton farmers trapped in a cycle of debt and tenancy.

The first environmental history to bridge the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction periods, Unredeemed Land powerfully examines the ways military conflict and emancipation left enduring ecological legacies.


  • Argues that ecological shifts precipitated by the Civil War shaped the economic and agricultural choices of postwar southerners.
  • Draws on primary source material from large slave-owning planters and landlords, small farmers, soldiers, and ex-slaves.
  • Reinterprets the political relationship of black Southerners, particularly postwar sharecroppers, with the landscape they farmed.

About the Author(s)

Erin Stewart Mauldin is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Florida. She is the co-editor of A Companion to Global Environmental History and book review editor of Agricultural History.


"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. â 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." -- J. Michael Martinez, The American Historian

"Erin Stewart Mauldin has written a succinct and insightful analysis of southern agriculture that explodes old myths and offers new explanations by taking an environmentally holistic view of the subject...This brief but incisive book will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand how the Old South attempted to become the New South, with all the attendant challenges and setbacks of such a fundamental adjustment. It adroitly explains why such a transition was wrought with failures and limitations." -- Daniel McCool, Journal of American History

"Unredeemed Land is a welcome intervention in Civil War and Reconstruction historiography, demonstrating the critical role of environmental fragility in rural Southern life ... an impressive piece of scholarship" -- Samuel Watts, Australasian Journal of American History

"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 dayâwhen, in fact, most people worried far more about earning a living and feeding their families. Byâexamin[ing] the factors that affected the day-to-day lives of farmers,ÂUnredeemed LandÂilluminates 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." -- J. Michael Martinez, The American Historian

"Unredeemed Land adds an important new chapter to the expanding historiography of southern environmental history. Mauldin's work goes far in helping to explain why southern farmers and planters would have embraced a postwar system of intensive cotton production that proved to be so detrimental to the land and its people ... [The book] serves as an important introduction to the American Civil War's devastating ecological legacy." -- Justin C. Eaddy, North Carolina Historical Review

"Mauldin should be applauded for the amount of primary research she did. By utilizing a number of letters and journals, she provides a human element to the story of economic and environmental change. Mauldin also deserves credit for writing a highly readable book about a complex subject. Even when dealing with subjects such as ecology and socioeconomic factors of the time period, the writing and sources make for a fascinating read." -- Thomas Robinson, Museum of Florida History, H-Net reviews

"Mauldin cogently argues that the environmental damage of the Civil War, along with poor soils and a limiting climate, prevented the reorganization of southern agriculture. This is a new and provocative study of an old problem, that is, the ecological forces that prevented the emergence of a new agriculture in the New South."--R. Douglas Hurt, author of Agriculture and the Confederacy: Policy, Productivity, and Power in the Civil War South

"Beautifully written and deeply researched, Unredeemed Land is the first book to place the Civil War and emancipation at the center of the history of southern agriculture. Mauldin reveals how landscape destruction and social upheaval intersected with environmental change during these events, ultimately creating the Cotton South. Unredeemed Land is a must-read for anyone interested in southern history and environmental studies."--Megan Kate Nelson, author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War

"Erin Stewart Mauldin has written a wonderful environmental history of the post-Civil War South. With a stunning array of insights into the ecological realties of life on the land, this highly readable book might well change the way we think about southern agriculture in the years after Appomattox."--Timothy Silver, Appalachian State University

"Meticulously researched and impressively argued, Unredeemed Land presents a unique and compelling view into the transformation of the American South during and after the Civil War. Telling the region's history literally from the ground up, Mauldin explores the environmental factors that shaped its agricultural practices, elucidates the role military conflict played in destroying those customs, and cogently explains the long-term ecological and social ramifications the Civil War had for the South, its people, and its land."--Lisa M. Brady, Boise State University

"Environmental history has been slow to recognize that one of the most profound and significant chapters in the environmental history of the United States was primarily an agricultural one: the reorganization of land and labor in the US South during and after the Civil War. In Unredeemed Land, we now have an environmental history of Reconstruction and its aftermath. The emergence of the New South was not simply a matter of a re-configured relationship of labor to land and both to a creditor economy, but a deeply environmental event - one structured as much by the disappearance of Southern forests, hog cholera, and by macadam-like quality of many Southern soils as by the crop lien system, Democratic rule, and a disadvantageous dependence on a larger capitalist economy. This is an important and foundational contribution to our understanding of Reconstruction and the post-Civil War South."--Mart Stewart, Western Washington University

"[Amidst] the sesquicentennial of the Civil War ... Mauldin still found fresh soil to till ... in considering the impact of the war on land usage. ... She does a commendable job humanizing a potentially dry topic; her prose is lively, and she combines personalized accounts and moving journal entries with obligatory census data and government records. ... Essential." -- CHOICE

Table of Contents

    Chapter 1: Deferring Crisis
    Chapter 2: Revealing Vulnerabilities
    Chapter 3: Intensifying Production
    Chapter 4: Accelerating Change
    Chapter 5: Facing Limits

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