US Environmental History: Inviting Doomsday

By John Wills | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Killing in the Wilderness

The American Civil War (1861–65) was about slavery, democracy, and nationhood. The Civil War was also a battle over the environment: a fight for the future of the national landscape, pitting ‘industrial’ against ‘agrarian’, ‘city’ versus ‘rural’, the ‘machine’ versus the ‘seed crop’, and ‘modernity’ versus ‘traditionalism’. It was a battle over two conflicting landscape designs. The American South embodied a traditional agrarian system. Southern plantation owners exploited soil and people alike, nature and black Americans co-opted into a system of servitude. The products of service, tobacco and rice, generated the riches of the South. Monoculture in agriculture furnished a veritable Utopia for the slave barons; a barren land of depleted labour and infertile soil was the consequence. The North embraced a different kind of landscape: the industrial cityscape. Again, business magnates prospered, this time with legions of the working class caught up in the polluted fallout of the chimney-stack economy. The industrial machine clearly fired towards a different future, that of urban prosperity.

The battle over landscape also revealed a deeper, more troubled environmental narrative. The Civil War marked not just a fork in the road between an agricultural or urban future but contributed to America’s march towards environmental collapse. In the colonial period, settlers and merchants often felt overwhelmed by their environment and imagined doomsday as the product of unforeseen plague or something evil in the wilderness. By the mid-nineteenth

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