Ted Steinberg, Space, and the Greater Themes of this Course

Ted Steinberg’s work Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History definitely made me think more about the greater themes in this class, and helped me solidify my constantly fluid opinions I’ve developed this semester. This is a perfect book for our class to finish the semester with, as it ties everything we have studied together with how it connects the environment and the history of the United States.  While one could argue that we should have started the course with this book, I don’t believe I would have appreciated Steinberg’s work as much without having read the previous works in this class.  Steinberg makes a number of bold proclamations about how the environment shaped American history (ie: the environment in Indonesia impacting America, as Brandon mentions below).  I don’t believe I would have bought some of the connections he made when I first entered this course, however, because of how we have looked at environmental history from multiple angles, I was thoroughly convinced by Steinberg’s claims.

While we have spent a lot of time in this class discussing things such as what the term natural means to us and how it has changed, I believe the biggest thing we should take away from this class is a greater understanding of how the natural world and environment (regardless of how you define them) have shaped the world we live in.  People usually worry about the future of the environment (as they should), yet they overlook the role it has had in the past, and we were able to fully appreciate that in this class, especially with Steinberg’s work.

I really enjoyed Manish’s discussion of space in his blog post, as the closing space in the modern world is why the environment is changing drastically so quickly, with human’s ability to close the gap between spaces with advanced transportation.  I found it interesting as the idea of humans closing the gap in their westward expansion and privatization of the land applies specifically to my final paper.  When the government built the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam), they felt that they could privatize and expand in Arizona and Nevada despite the desert environments by building a man-made reservoir.  While they were able to help create some semblance of sustainable life, their lack of foresight into how a fully grown city in that area would not be able to thrive in an environment despite what the dam provided.  Just like “King Cotton came back to bite [the South] in the end” (98), the government’s hubris and desire to close the space has resulted in a city that has struggled through water scarcity issues.

While I have (and still do) see nature as an interaction between humans and the environment and cities as a new form of nature, the lack of space complicates this greatly.  I think the modern environment is one in which human’s have a greater role, and cities have developed as a result, however the questions Manish poses and Steinberg doesn’t answer as to “What should we do with things such as trash? Where would pollution go?” are not answerable as long as humans continue to privatize space and insist on a more dominant role in the greater environment.  Human’s greater role in nature is inevitable, but people need to start living in greater harmony with the other elements of the natural world or soon they will feel the consequences. While I don’t have an answer to the issue with the closing amount of space, I don’t believe preserving national parks or doing anything similar that separates humans and the environment completely is a good idea.  Somehow, human’s need to reach a point in which they interact with the environment rather than dominate it, but this is a pipe-dream, and most likely the environment will fight back at some point and human’s will feel the consequences (maybe the crumbling ozone?).

The Struggle for Control: Nature vs. Humanity

Ted Steinberg’s book Down To Earth: Nature’s Role In American History offers a broad discussion concerning the impact of nature and the environment on the development of America. The scope of the work allows for a surface level investigation of various aspects of American history. One event that Steinberg discusses, the Civil War, was the subject of an entire book written by Lisa Brady, which we read earlier in the semester. Steinberg’s analysis of nature’s role in the Civil War, though, adds substantively to Brady’s argument and does not simply rehash her claims. In his discussion of the Civil War, Steinberg argues that the Confederacy’s dependence on cotton contributed to its defeat. This perspective on cotton was new to me, and also quite convincing. Obviously cotton production, which required large amounts of slave labor, is often listed as one of the causes of the Civil War. Even so, never have I heard cotton listed as a factor in the Confederacy’s downfall. Steinberg defends this claim by arguing that the Confederacy’s focus on cotton prevented the production of corn to feed its troops. In addition, Steinberg argues that economic greed was not the sole reason plantation owners were hesitant to replace cotton with corn. Instead, plantation owners feared the repercussions that would result from their slaves having more downtime since corn was a far less labor-intensive crop than cotton. Slavery, which was at the forefront of the struggle between the Union and the Confederacy, essentially limited the Confederacy’s options in terms of food supply and contributed to its defeat. Steinberg’s presentation of the interdependent relationship between slave labor and cotton, which is generally depicted as the major strength of the Southern economy, as a fatal flaw in the Confederate war strategy was both intriguing and persuasive.

Another aspect of Steinberg’s work that I appreciated was his effort to demonstrate the impact of seemingly irrelevant events on American history. For example, Steinberg details how a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 resulted in a severe cold spell across New England the following year, which wreaked havoc on the region’s agricultural production (p. 49). Examples such as this helped Steinberg articulate his overarching theme of an interrelated world. Although America is restricted to an outline on a map, it cannot be understood simply by examining occurrences within its boundaries. Whether it was the breakup of Pangaea, volcanic eruptions in distant countries, or diseases and invasive species transported via European ships, the history of America has been greatly influenced by factors outside the geographical United States. As Manish notes in his post, a portion of Steinberg’s work is devoted to examining and understanding various human attempts to shape space to benefit humans. In regards to this effort, I believe Steinberg’s goal is to demonstrate the impossibility of such a desire. For, as Steinberg shows, America’s history is subject to factors well outside of its geographical borders. Nature is too expansive and powerful to ever be completely controlled. Thus, American history has been, and will continue to be, a struggle between natural and human forces.

War Upon the Man? – Nature’s Stance in the Civil War

I found that Brady’s War Upon the Land brought up some interesting concepts for us to consider both with respect to works we have read in weeks passed as well as the history of war and the environment in the United States. One concept that I enjoyed and found particularly effective for Brady was her development of nature as an actor. I thought Brady depicted this especially clearly when she presented the quotes of Captain Thaddeus Minshall stating that “nature and man are at war” (2). While we have previously discussed nature’s potential role in determining the course of American culture and society, this quote from Minshall gives nature both agency an orientation, and one directly opposed to the conquest of humans. With this in mind, I think Brady’s focus on the Civil War becomes a great point at which to start the conversation about war emerging between man and the environment.

As Brady mentions, although the wars of colonial America and the American Revolution housed conflict within North America, the Civil War was the first prolonged and large-scale series of battles to occur on American soil. This compounded with the technology that made the Civil War the first “modern” war in American history places this monograph at the beginning of an age where we see a shift in the way Americans interact within the environment – particularly as industrialization spread rampantly across the United States (4). Additionally by discussing environmental history in conjunction with military history, Brady is able to write a narrative that emphasizes the idea of nature and man as independent, but inherently linked agents. I think this is brought up effectively in Emily’s post where she juxtaposes Brady’s discussion of nature’s “power to shape human decisions” and how Union generals used their own northern ideas about improving, civilizing, and conquering nature in establishing a battle strategy against the Confederacy (emkrall).

Another piece of War Upon the Land that I appreciated was Brady’s use of the concept of “agroecosystems” or “domesticated ecosystems” (9). I think the most effective deployment of these agroecosystems was the ability to use them to highlight the differences between northern and southern farmers leading up to the Civil War. While southern lifestyle was dominated by plantation farms, most northern yeoman looked at their much smaller farmland with industrialist perspectives because the environment did not direct the culture of the North (18). I also think you see the clash between these two divergent environmental cultures in examples like the Union’s efforts to redirect the Mississippi River in the early years of the Civil War. Before finally being able to “embrace the hybrid nature of the river’s landscape,” General Grant’s Union soldiers unsuccessfully tried to turn the river twice, and as a result they suffered at the hands of diseases that plagued the mosquito-ridden region (48). It was not until northerners sought to understand the southern agroecosystem and “ally” with “their erstwhile nemesis, water” that the Union was able to use the southern environment for their own directives (41). Through this work, I think Brady was successful at establishing a framework for future historians to assess the ongoing cause and effect relationship between war and the environment as well as developing an effective frame in which to view nature as an actor in American history.

War on the Mississippi

In War Upon the Land, Lisa Brady seeks to show us how much nature influenced Northern incursions on Southern soil during the Civil War. According to her, nature influenced Northern strategy in key regions a great deal. For this reason, she labels nature as an historical agent with the power to shape human decisions. She doesn’t go as far as Linda Nash in ascribing some sort of consciousness to nature, but she does manage to tie nature to both strategy and the war’s causes.

Manish’s point about the significance of perceptions of land usage and wilderness ties Lisa Brady’s argument to larger 19th century ideas of progress and industry. These cultural ideas about nature informed the Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan’s strategic planning. This includes the idea that control over nature is possible through the application of science and technology. In this context, agriculture presents a means for improving or civilizing nature. And most important of all, despite these perceived powers over nature, controlling nature is difficult and liable to be undermined in an inexhaustible variety of ways. For example, despite all of the North’s successes in canal building over the course of the 19th century, Sherman wrote of the Siege of Vicksburg, “The Mississippi River was very high and rising, and we began that system of canals on which we expended so much hard work fruitlessly” (43).

War Upon the Land and The Assumption that Man Can Control Nature

Nineteenth century Americans assumed that they could take control of nature and succeed in achieving their goals. In War Upon the Land, Lisa Brady confronted this American assumption by studying the ways in which the Union military attempted to play around with natural forces in order to defeat the Confederates in the Civil War. What amounted in Union attempts, however, was often pure hubris and failure to control nature. Brady provides the reader with the example of Vicksburg, where Union soldiers intended to tunnel under it, control the Mississippi river, and cause its isolation for Confederate destruction. The Union soldiers did in fact take the stronghold, but by fighting a gruesome battle and not by controlling nature. Their attempt to, what Brady calls, “neutralize nature,” did not succeed in this example. (35)

This assumption that man could control nature is tied to another idea that Brady discusses in her work. In her introduction, Brady clarifies that to “improve” nature, meant essentially to “civilize.” (11) This idea echoes our past discussions in class about the relationship between Americans and the wilderness. It also reminds me of Richard Slotkin’s arguments about white supremacy, the belief that natives symbolized an embodiment of the malevolent force of nature, and that the white man could bring nature under his control. Like our conversations about Native Americans and the wilderness and white Americans’ perception of both, white Northern Americans in the Civil War attributed the institution of slavery to something uncivilized and wild. I found her argument about white Northerners looking down upon southerners as uncivilized folk and using that as justification for fighting such a bloody war to prove interesting. Just like Americans must conquer and civilize the wilderness, the North must conquer and civilize the South by demolishing its abhorrent institution of slavery.

Destroying the South’s backbone of life and commerce, essentially, led to the Confederate loss and, like Emily stated, ensured that the South could not return to its previous state before the war (135). Brady referred to it as destroying the “agroecological foundations” of the South. (23) When supplies had to be left behind, the military was forced to live off the land, further stripping the Confederates of their resources. Nature seemed to be working against the Union military in their attempts to starve and destroy the southern way of life. Mosquitoes carrying diseases wreaked havoc on Union soldiers and rivers flooded impeding Northern movement.  It was as if nature was fighting back against an arrogant species that believed nature was easily and justifiably conquerable. I found Brady’s work to be an interesting and insightful take on the destruction of Sherman and the Shenandoah and Mississippi River campaigns. I thought her work was essentially an argument of how nature shaped human decisions and how those decisions greatly impacted the outcome of the war.

Nature’s Role in Warfare

In War Upon the Land, Lisa Brady looks at the way nature played an active role in the Civil War, both in how it drove strategy on both sides and was often a foe in its own ride to both the Union and Confederacy. She does this in tight, thorough analyses of nature’s role in four different theaters of the Civil War, with each getting its own chapter. For example, as Ian covers in his post, Brady spends a chapter detailing how a desire to control nature determined much of General William Sherman’s strategy in his famous March to the Sea, as well as the challenges brought on by natural agents such as disease and weather. In another chapter, Brady looks at how Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley, led by Philip Sheridan, ravaged the landscape of what Brady calls the “granary of the confederacy.” (73) The strategy originated from Ulysses S. Grant, who ordered that resources in the Shenandoah Valley such as crops, farms, and mills be destroyed in order to weaken the Confederacy. (78) Grant’s strategy paid off in 1864 when he gave control of the area’s forces to Philip Sheridan, a young general who agreed with Grant on the importance of destroying enemy resources in the region. Brady quotes Sheridan as saying that the resource rich territory of the Shenandoah Valley was “a factor of great importance,” showing that Sheridan’s strategy was directly influenced by the region’s natural features. (79) Finally, Brady also points out how ruthless Sheridan was in implementing his strategy, quoting him as saying that he wanted the area to remain a “barren waste” for as long as the war lasted, which of course meant continued hardship for Confederate civilians in the area. (80)

In my Ethics and Warfare class, we have spent some time debating strategies such as Grant and Sherman’s that destroy enemy resources in such a way that the the opposition’s civilians must suffer. We learned that military leaders and ethicists of the Civil War era generally accepted the idea that it was ethically acceptable for civilians of an opposing state to be made to feel the hardships of war, and that therefore such strategies were permissible. I believe that looking at these strategies with a focus toward nature and ecology adds another wrinkle to the moral debates regarding those strategies. In this class, we often look at our subjects of study asking the question of “is this natural” or “was this a natural occurrence.” Therefore, my question is would we consider strategies like enemy crop destruction natural, given that they are driven by an understanding of the importance that control over nature (in the form of agriculture) plays in military strategy. One could argue that it is therefore inevitable in military conflict that opposing forces will mar the landscape in ways to make it less useful for the enemy. However, does that sense of inevitability mean it is morally acceptable to destroy crops when doing so will clearly harm enemy non-combatants? I enjoyed the chapter on Sheridan, as well as Brady’s book as a whole, because it prompts these kinds of tough questions and provides an interesting look at how nature has affected into military history.

Nature as a separate entity in “War Upon the Land”

Lisa Brady provides a unique perspective on the Civil War with her environmental history War Upon the Land, as she effectively portrays the importance of the landscape during the Civil War as well as how both the Union and Confederacy approached the environment.  However, while her argument is still convincing, I disagree with how she defines nature as a completely separate entity from human society.  In her eyes (as Manish noted) nature no longer exists once altered by humans, and that once human’s affect nature it becomes an “agroecosystem.”  Brady’s definition of nature doesn’t change her argument all too much, as the argument about the control of nature of the North and the coexistence of nature of the South are unaffected, yet as it pertains to this class, I can’t help but be thrown off by how she disregards humans as a part of nature.

As Manish wrote below, the different perceptions of wilderness were a key element to Brady’s work, and I agree with Manish’s assessment that the Union’s control over the landscape was a result of the industrialism in the North.  I disagree that these attempted manipulations of the landscape were a bad thing, however, but instead believe that the North’s manipulation of nature was indicative of the changing landscape of the world and how human’s were playing a greater role within nature than they were previously.  The South may have been in harmony with nature (if you consider them different entities), yet their society was reliant on the widespread production of products grown from the earth (tobacco, cotton, etc.) that were reliant on the archaic institution of slavery.  Slavery is a part of human society, but as humans progressed and began realizing it was wrong in the 19th century (evidenced by countries across Latin America abandoned the institution throughout the century, most of which abandoned it before the US), the rise of industrialism occurred at the same time.  With the South’s coexisting with nature, as humans in rural society’s had done forever, they were also rooted in institutions like slavery.  As humans began to make their mark on the environment with the growth of cities and technology, immoral institutions slowly have disbanded.  I apologize as this paragraph has reached “rant status” so I’ll sum up my thoughts briefly: Brady seems to portray the South’s relationship with nature as a positive thing and the North’s approach to nature (and the toll it takes on the environment) as a negative, where I believe that humanity and nature go hand in hand, and as humans become more involved in nature, humanity has become more moral due to the greater communication and control of the landscape.

The Civil War was a battle between the developing North and the unchanging South, and the result of the war left the much of the Southern landscape in ruin.  I believe that humanity is part of nature, and that the result of the war was just a further expansion of the urbanizing society.  Brady’s work effectively pointed out how the landscape played a role in the War with the different sides, yet her portrayal and definition of nature still bothers me.

Lisa Brady’s War upon the Land is an excellent piece of environmental history which analyzes the various ways in which nature shaped the course of the Civil War, specifically when cast as the “enemy” of the Union Army. Brady notes from the start of her piece how another historian, Linda Nash, describes nature in a somewhat conscious manner, indicating that it has the power to shape human decisions (6). Throughout the piece, Brady references this idea through her analysis of military strategy, noting how the weather and environment of a region could significantly alter the army’s direction. One such instance of this is through her description of the Mississippi River as a great theatre for war. Due to the placement of the Mississippi within the confines of the United States and the importance of this waterway as a centerpiece for trade and travel, this area was destined to be a focal point which both armies lobbied to control (26). We see in this description how nature shaped the course of human action instead of humans themselves. As a result of this river being so important to trade and travel, the region for conflict was chosen by nature and not by military strategists. Though the leaders of both armies chose to attack/defend this region because of its importance, this was a predetermined decision based off the environment’s natural design.

Though the environment often shaped human decisions, Brady notes throughout the piece, but specifically in her chapter about Sherman’s March how actively humans fought to control it. In describing the tactics behind Sherman’s March, Brady states how its goal was to gain “control over the landscape,” specifically the natural aspects of the region (95). Yet, Brady also notes how nature was an incredibly hostile force towards either army, but specifically the Union forces in this situation. She notes how the “terrain, weather, and disease” were as threatening or more so than any force that Sherman’s army met on the field of battle (95). Through this perspective, Brady indicates two characteristics of nature and its relationship with humanity. First, like Nash did with her comments on nature shaping human decision, Brady places some human characteristics onto nature, as she casts it as an enemy to Sherman. Though not conscious like in Nash’s interpretation, Brady’s perspective describes nature as much more than a stagnant figure within human interactions.

Secondly, Brady indicates the power of nature against humanity, as she references it as stronger than any army Sherman faced. Nature’s ability to kill thousands with disease or disasters is significantly stronger than any bullet or cannon ball, as it remains an unrelenting force which cannot be killed. Brady references this seeming immortality of nature towards the end of her piece, which indicates humanity’s insignificant amount of power in relation to nature’s own. Quoting John Muir, Brady describes how even after all the natural devastation as a side-effect of war; nature continues to regenerate from the wastelands, thereby displaying its eternality (136-137). Though many people might argue that this does not happen today, we have noted in class how buildings are often taken over by nature within a few years, further indicating nature’s supremacy.

I completely agree with Manish’s points about nature being something beyond human control. As is clear through my previous comments about Sherman’s efforts to annihilate the southern landscape, no matter how much he destroyed, nature inevitably reclaimed its hold on the area, displaying its superiority to humanity. Though I agree with this definition, I believe it needs to be expanded to incorporate humans living in harmony with nature, as we have seen this theme exist in countless works this semester. Whether we agree with human ecological alteration or not, it is evident that humans have and will for the foreseeable future remain a part of the natural ecosystem of the world, indicating their place within it. As a result of this, though humans may not control nature, there exists a place within the “wilderness” for them to coexist with their surroundings, offering a different perspective than the more hierarchical relationship that Brady presents.

War Upon the Land: The Differing Perceptions of Nature by the North and the South

There can be no doubt that wilderness played a very important role in the American Civil War. Lisa M. Brady’s War Upon the Land focuses on nature’s role in the conflict and the differing conceptions of nature by the North and the South. In order to understand this difference a definition of nature is needed. Brady utilizes Steven Stole’s definition in her narrative. Wilderness is “defined places and times when humans did not yet control their environment or where they had lost control.” This definition is similar to one that Brandon put forward in his post when analyzing the perspectives presented in Robert Marshall’s essay. “The Problem of the Wilderness,” is an area without permanent inhabitants, impossible to cross by mechanical means, and so vast that a person attempting to cross it must sleep out.  In short, the wilderness is an escape from civilization.”

Both these definitions are very similar in that they portray nature as something that is separate from human control. While humans can interact with nature they cannot ever tame it. For my purposes I see nature as its own person. When considering the Civil War there is the Union and the Confederacy but I believe that nature/ wilderness is a third party that played an integral role in the struggle. This would be an idea that Brady would appear to agree with. Nature would fill a role similar to American Indians during the Revolutionary War, a group that had their own interests separate from the two main parties.

What I believe to be one of Brady’s most important arguments is the idea that the North and the South had dramatically different perceptions of wilderness and this reflected each regions placed importance on the agriculture and the land in general. For the Union Army, led by General Sherman, the land was something that was destined to be tamed and controlled. This mindset was reflected throughtout the war with Grant’s army and their refusal to abide by the limitations that nature placed. “Even more than reenvisioning the landscape in military terms, however, Sherman’s operations were predicated on gaining control over the landscape. Control- over nature, labor, and territory- formed the basis of the campaign.” (95) In some ways this mindset could be the result of northern industrialism where every aspect of the culture was controlled and able to be manipulated. The land itself was very much undervalued and the concepts of civilization led many to see anything “uncivilized” as an opportunity to civilize and demonstrate industrial strength over agriculture. Could this also be a reflection of Union exceptionalism?

On the other side the Southern states reliance on the land led to a very different relationship with nature. They did not see it as something that simply could be controlled. Their close interactions with nature made them understand that the best benefits could be contrived when living in harmony with nature instead of trying to overcome it. Those living in Vicksburg understood this idea. Where the Union Army tried to change the Mississippi River’s flow, the confederates understood that this was impossible and that was a major reason why Vicksburg was located where it was. The city of Savannah was another city that was built in harmony with nature. As a result nature provided the city many natural defenses that allowed the confederates to hold out for a considerable amount of time.

It is clear that the north and the south held very different perceptions on nature. Unfortunately, the North prevailed through their destruction of the land. The south was greatly devastetd for their reliance on nature was so great that they had failed to establish indpendent means for survival. Still despite the North’s victory, the Union still failed to understand the true identity of nature. While protectionism grew in the later part of the 19th century, most in the north never understood the benefits of living with nature instead of trying to isolate it through a paternalist mindset. In some ways this failure to understand coexistence may have set the US on the path of greater environmental destruction through unsustainable means being justified by the fact that a limited part of nature was being protected.