Whenever I introduce myself in conversation as an “environmental historian,” many non-academics assume I write about environmentalism as a political movement or the history of environmental policy. It almost never helps to use the full title of my field of study by saying, “I’m an environmental historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S. South,” because inevitably the follow-up is: “Was there an environmental movement during the Civil War?” Brief explanations of the ecological impacts of the Civil War and its relation to the agricultural context of Reconstruction are usually met with nods and smiles, and then always, “But how do you do that?”
I have a lot of practice answering these questions, since this is a discussion I have with my own mother at least once a month.
While environmental history is too well established for these sorts of conversations to happen at conferences, there is still a sense of confusion about the mechanics of that field, its sources, and most importantly, its usefulness to what historians do in the classroom. Just as debates about class, race, and gender infuse our pedagogical approaches to teaching material, so too should “environment.” Whether frogs or fluorocarbons, climate or cholera, soils or sows—considering the larger context of the human experience provides fuller, more nuanced depictions of well-known events in U.S. history.
Environment is particularly salient in Civil War and Reconstruction classes, for by reminding students of the omnipresence of the natural world, we reinforce the intimacy soldiers had with the non-human environment; the effects of disease, terrain, and weather on battle outcomes and questions of military logistics; enslaved people’s necessity for the war effort on both homefront and battlefield; and of course, that issues about labor after emancipation and much of Reconstruction legislation were about labor on the land.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.