War Against Nature, the Backbone of the South

war-upon-land-military-strategy-transformation-southern-landscapes-lisa-m-brady-paperback-cover-artYou’ve heard the phrase “war is hell.”  But you probably haven’t heard the phrase “war is when you attack agroecosystems.”  It’s a lesser known aphorism of General Sherman’s, to be sure, mainly because he didn’t actually say it.  But reading Lisa Brady’s book, War Upon the Land, made me wonder how much Sherman understood about what he was doing as he plundered and burned the South during the American Civil War.

I asked Brady, the current editor of Environmental History, if she would be willing to have me convene an online roundtable on her book. She graciously agreed, and the final product includes a response by her.  I’m including my introduction to the roundtable here. The link below will take you to the full pdf (it’s free).  Here’s my intro:

Two and a half decades ago, historian Donald Worster encouraged scholars to be mindful of agroecological perspectives, and to adopt the agroecosystem as a unit on analysis. The latter term refers to an ecosystem consciously manipulated by human beings for agricultural purposes. When employed, Worster’s approach has the advantage of integrating non-human actors and forcing us to understand how they related to one another and to humans.[1] A second benefit is that it also compels us to see how humans, at the time, imagined their roles in relation to the land and other species. It is commonplace in environmental history classrooms to mention the perils of monoculture, for example, using antebellum Southerners as an example of people whose livelihoods relied largely on a few commodities. But how conscious of these connections were the people living in the mid-nineteenth century? How did they imagine their own control over the landscape, and their own vulnerability?

Lisa M. Brady answers these questions by turning to a time of immense destruction, when Americans had to think deeply about how, or whether, they controlled nature. In War Upon the Land, Brady revisits some of the key episodes of the American Civil War, to show how ideas of nature informed Union strategy as soldiers moved throughout the American South.

Like Worster, Brady sees the agroecosystem as a crucial lens. Rather than focus on environmental destruction as a byproduct of war, she highlights how the strategies of Union officers reflected their beliefs about human relationships to nature. They believed that nature could be manipulated and controlled, that wilderness could be tamed, using the tools provided by science and technology. But they also felt that many of their Southern counterparts had based their power on their fragile construction of the plantation landscape. Key campaigns of the war explicitly attacked the South’s agroecosystems. For Brady, the burning, pillaging, and infamous exploits such as Sherman’s destructive march to the sea should all be seen not merely under the rubric of “war is hell,” but as a strategy designed to reduce a civilized landscape into a ruinous wilderness.

Our first roundtable commentator, Matthew Dennis, has explored the role of natural landscapes in shaping relations between European and Native Americans from the colonial era to the early nineteenth century. His book Seneca Possessed reveals how notions of dominion, spirit, and mastery over nature and people shaped the fate of those who lived in Seneca country. He currently is deeply engaged in a project on the politics of public memory. His study of American public holidays compels us to reexamine why we remember particular events, including wars, in only specific ways, ignoring other legacies.[2]

I also invited Ann Norton Greene to comment on War Upon the Land. Greene’s work focuses on animals, technology, and environmental history. In her book Horses at Work, she critiques the notion that new technologies associated with the industrial era eliminated work animals. She shows how mechanization actually increased the reliance on animals, and in the nineteenth century horses were more prevalent than ever. Greene sees the Civil War as a war of animal power. Both sides relied on them, and thousands of horses worked and died. “Dead horses became symbols of the tragedy of war,” she writes, “a way to talk about death and suffering by transferring it to the suffering of animals.”[3]

Our final commentator is Megan Kate Nelson, author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War. Like Brady, Nelson has spent many years probing the environmental dimensions of the war. She has argued that the proliferation of “dead heaps of ruins” in the Southern landscape had a profound effect on American culture. She traces the prevalence of destroyed buildings and natural landscapes, showing their impacts on shared anxieties among Southerners about human behavior, privacy, and the relationship between technology and nature.[4]

Before turning to the comments, I would like to thank all the roundtable contributors for their efforts. H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is an open-access forum and is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.

It is available here: https://networks.h-net.org/brady-war-upon-land-roundtable-review-vol-4-no-7-2014

It also can be found as a link here: https://networks.h-net.org/node/19397/pages/20803/roundtable-reviews

[1] Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76:4 (1990), 1087-147.

[2] Matthew Dennis, Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Matthew Dennis, Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

[3] Ann Norton Greene, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America (Cambridge: Harvard Univesity Press, 2008). Quote on p. 162.

[4] Megan Kate Nelson, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).


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