Review of: Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, by David Silkenat

For several days we traversed a region, which had been deserted by the occupants—being no longer worth culture—and immense thickets of young red cedars, now occupied the fields, in digging of which, thousands of wretched slaves had worn out their lives in the service of merciless masters … It had originally been highly fertile and productive, and had it been properly treated, would doubtlessly have continued to yield abundant and prolific crops; but the gentlemen who became the early proprietors of this fine region, supplied themselves with slaves from Africa, cleared large plantations of many thousands of acres—cultivated tobacco—and became suddenly wealthy … they valued their lands less than their slaves, exhausted the kindly soil by unremitting crops of tobacco, declined in their circumstances, and finally grew poor, upon the very fields that had formerly made their possessors rich; abandoned one portion after another, as not worth planting any longer, and, pinched by necessity, at last sold their slaves to Georgian planters, to procure a subsistence … and when all was gone, took refuge in the wilds of Kentucky, again to act the same melancholy drama, leaving their native land to desolation and poverty … Virginia has become poor by the folly and wickedness of slavery, and dearly has she paid for the anguish and sufferings she has inflicted upon our injured, degraded, and fallen race.1

Those are the recollections of Charles Ball, an enslaved man in his mid-twenties from Maryland who was sold away from his wife and child and—wearing an iron collar shackled to a coffle with other unfortunates—was driven on foot to his new owner in Georgia in 1805. As he was marched through Virginia, the perspicacious Ball observed not only the ruin of what had once been fertile lands, but the practices that had brought these to devastation. Ball serves as a prominent witness in the extraordinary, ground-breaking work, Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South [2022], by David Silkenat, professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, which probes yet one more critical yet largely ignored component of Civil War studies.

Excerpts like this one from Ball’s memoir—an invaluable primary source written many years later once he had won his freedom—also well articulate the triple themes that combine to form the thesis of Silkenet’s book: southern planters perceived land as a disposable resource and had little regard for it beyond its potential for short-term profitability; slave labor directed on a colossal scale across the wider geography dramatically and permanently altered every environment it touched; and, the masses of the enslaved were far better attuned and adapted to their respective ecosystems, which they frequently turned to for privacy, nourishment, survival—and even escape. And there is too a darker ingredient that clings to all of these themes, and that was the almost unimaginable cruelty that defined the lives of the enslaved.

The men who force-marched Ball’s coffle as if they were cattle no doubt viewed him with contempt, yet though held as chattel, the African American Charles Ball was more familiar with the past, present, and likely future of the ground he trod upon than most of his white oppressors.  Frequently condemned to a lifetime of hard labor in unforgiving environments, often sustaining conditions little better than that afforded to livestock, this sophisticated intimacy of their natural surroundings could for the enslaved prove to be the only alternative to a cruel death in otherwise harsh elements. And, sometimes, it could—always at great risk—also translate into liberty.

Those who claimed ownership over their darker-complected fellow human beings were not entirely ignorant of the precarious balance of nature in the land they exploited, but they paid that little heed. Land was, after all, not only cheap but appeared to be limitless. As the Indigenous fell victim in greater numbers to European diseases, as militias drove the survivors deeper into the wilderness, as the British loss in the American Revolution removed the final barriers to westward expansion, the Chesapeake elite counted their wealth not in acreage but in human chattel. Deforestation was widespread, fostering erosion. First tobacco and later wheat sapped nutrients and strained the soil’s capacity to sustain bountiful yields over time. Well-known practices such as crop rotation, rigorously applied in the north, were largely scorned by the planter aristocracy. The land, as Ball had discerned, was rapidly used up.

Already in Jefferson’s time, “breeding” the enslaved for sale to the lower south was growing far more profitable than agriculture in the upper south. And demand increased exponentially with the introduction of the “cotton gin” and the subsequent boom in cotton production, as well as the end of the African slave trade that was to follow. Human beings became the most reliable “cash crop.” Charles Ball’s transport south was part of a trickle that grew to a multitude later dubbed the “Slave Trail of Tears” that stretched from Maryland to Louisiana and saw the involuntary migration of about a million enslaved souls in the five decades prior to the Civil War. Many, like Ball, were forced to cope with new environments unlike anything they had experienced before their forced resettlement. What did not change, apparently, was the utter disregard for these various environments by their new owners.

For those who imagined the enslaved limited to working cotton or sugar plantations, Silkenet’s book will be something of an eye-opener. In a region of the United States that with only some exceptions stubbornly remained pre-industrial, large forces of slave labor were enlisted to tame—and put to ruin—a wide variety of landscapes through extensive overexploitation that included forestry, mining, levee-building, and turpentine extraction, usually in extremely perilous conditions.

The enslaved already had to cope with an oppressive collection of unhealthy circumstances that included exposure to extreme heat, exhaustion, insects, a range of diseases including chronic ringworm, inadequate clothing, and an insufficient diet—as well as an ongoing unsanitary lifestyle that even kept them from washing their hands except on infrequent occasions. All this was further exacerbated by the demands inherent in certain kinds of more specialized work.

Enslaved “dippers” extracted turpentine from pine trees which left their “hands and clothing … smeared with the gum, which was almost impossible to remove. Dippers accumulated layers of dried sap and dirt on their skin and clothes, an accumulation that they could only effectively remove in November when the harvest ended. They also suffered from the toxic cumulative effect of inhaling turpentine fumes, which left them dizzy and their throats raw.” [p70] Mining for gold was an especially dangerous endeavor that had the additional hazard in the use of “mercury to cause gold to amalgamate … leaving concentrated amounts of the toxin in the spoil piles and mountain streams. Mercury mixed with the sulfuric acid created when deep earth soils came into contact with oxygen poisoned the watershed … Enslaved miners suffered from mercury poisoning, both from working with the liquid form with their bare hands and from inhaling fumes during distillation. Such exposure had both short- and long-term consequences, including skin irritation, numbness in the hands and feet, kidney problems, memory loss, and impaired speech, hearing, and sight.” [p24] There were dangers too for lumberjacks and levee-builders. Strangely perhaps, despite the increased risks many of the enslaved preferred to be working the mines and forests because of opportunities for limited periods of autonomy in wilder locales that would be impossible in plantation life.

In the end, mining and deforestation left the land useless for anything else. Levees, originally constructed to forestall flooding to enable rice agriculture, ended up increasing flooding, a problem that today’s New Orleans inherited from the antebellum. All these pursuits tended to lay waste to respective ecosystems, leaving just the “scars on the land” of the book’s title, but of course they also left lasting physical and psychological scars upon a workforce recruited against their will.

What was common to each and every milieu was the mutual abuse of the earth as well as those coerced to work it. Ball mused that the quotient for cruelty towards those who toiled the land seemed roughly similar to the degree that the land was ravaged. Indeed, cruelty abounds: the inhumanity that actually defines the otherwise euphemistically rendered “peculiar institution” stands stark throughout the narrative, supported by a wide range of accounts of those too often condemned to lives beset by a quotidian catalog of horrors as chattel property in a system marked by nearly inconceivable brutality.

Beatings and whippings were standard fare. Runaways, even those who intended to absent themselves only temporarily, were treated with singular harshness. Sallie Smith, a fourteen-year-old girl who went truant in the woods to avoid repeated abuse, was apprehended and “brutally tortured: suspended by ropes in a smoke house so that her toes barely touched the ground and then rolled across the plantation inside a nail-studded barrel, leaving her scarred and bruised.” [p78]

Slaveowners also commonly employed savage hunting dogs or bloodhounds that were specially trained to track runaways, which sometimes led to the maiming or even death of the enslaved:

“One enraged slave owner ‘hunted and caught’ a fugitive ‘with bloodhounds, and allowed the dogs to kill him. Then he cut his body up and fed the fragments to the hounds.’ Most slave owners sought to capture their runaway slaves alive; but unleashed bloodhounds could inflict serious wounds in minutes … Some masters saw the violence done by dogs as part of the punishment due to rebellious slaves. Over the course of ten weeks in 1845, Louisiana planter Bennet Barrow noted in his diary three occasions when bloodhounds attacked runaway slaves. First, they caught a runaway named Ginny Jerry, who sought refuge in the branches before the ‘negro hunters … made the dogs pull him out of the tree, Bit him very badly’ … Second, a few weeks later, while pursuing another truant, Barrow ‘came across Williams runaway,’ who found himself cornered by bloodhounds, and the ‘Dogs nearly et his legs off—near killing him.’  Finally, an unnamed third runaway managed to elude the hounds for half a mile before the ‘dogs soon tore him naked.’ When he returned to the plantation, Barrow ‘made the dogs give him another overhauling’ in front of the assembled enslaved community as a deterrent. Although Barrow may have taken unusual pleasure in watching dogs attack runaway slaves, his diary reveals that slave owners used dogs to track fugitives and torture them.” [p52-53]

That such practices were treated as unremarkable by white contemporaries finds a later echo in the routine bureaucracy of atrocities that the Nazis inflicted on Jews sent to forced labor camps. For his part, Silkenat reports episodes like these dispassionately, in what appears to be a deliberate effort on the author’s part to sidestep sensationalism. This technique is effective: hyperbolic editorial is unnecessary—the horror speaks for itself—and those well-read in the field are aware that such barbarity was hardly uncommon. Moreover, it serves as a robust rebuke to today’s “Lost Cause” enthusiasts who would cast slavery as benign or even benevolent, as well as to those promoting recent disturbing trends to reshape school curricula to minimize and even sugarcoat the awful realities that history reveals. (Sidenote to Florida’s Board of Education: exactly which skills did Sallie Smith in her nail-studded barrel, or those disfigured by ferocious dogs, develop that later could be used for their “personal benefit?”)

I first encountered the author and his book quite by accident. I was attending the Civil War Institute (CWI) 2023 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College2, and David Silkenat was one of the scheduled speakers for a particular presentation—“Slavery and the Environment in the American South”—that I nearly skipped because I worried it might be dull. As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong. I sat at rapt attention during the talk, then purchased the book immediately afterward.

Silkenet’s lecture took an especially compelling turn when he spoke at length of maroon communities of runaways who sought sanctuary in isolated locations that could be far too hostile to foster recapture even by slave hunters with vicious dogs. One popular refuge was the swamp, especially unwholesome but yet out of reach of the lash, another underscore by the author that enslaved blacks by virtue of necessity grew capable of living off the land—every kind of land, no matter how harsh—with a kind of adaptation out of reach to their white oppressors. Swamps tended to be inhospitable, given to fetid water populated with invisible pathogens, masses of biting and stinging insects, poisonous snakes, alligators, and even creatures such as panthers and bears that that had gone extinct elsewhere. But for the desperate it meant freedom.

A number of maroon communities appeared in secluded geographies that were populated by escapees mostly on the margins of settled areas, with inhabitants eking out a living by hunting and gathering as well as small scale farming, supplemented by surreptitious trading with the outside world. The largest was in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina, where thousands managed to thrive over multiple generations.

But not all flourished. In Scars on the Land, Silkenat repeats Ball’s tragic tale of coming upon a naked and dirty fugitive named Paul, an African survivor of the Middle Passage who had fled a beating to the swamp. On his neck, he wore a heavy iron collar that was fastened with bells to help discourage escape. Ball assisted him as best he could clandestinely, but could not remove the collar. When he returned a week later to offer additional assistance, his nostrils traced a rancid smell to the hapless Paul, a suicide, hanging by his neck from a tree, crows pecking at his eyes. 3 [p124]

Scars on the Land is directed at a scholarly audience, yet it is so well-written that any student of the Civil War and African American history will find it both accessible and engaging. But more importantly, in a genre that now boasts an inventory of more than 60,000 works, it is no small distinction to pronounce Silkenet’s book a significant contribution to the historiography that should be a required read for everyone with an interest in the field.


1Charles Ball. Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War. (NY: John S. Taylor, 1837)  Slavery in the United States

2 For more about the CWI Summer Conference at Gettysburg College see: Civil War Institute at Gettysburg Summer Conference 2024

3The illustration of Paul hanging from a tree appears alongside Ball’s narrative in this publication:  Nathaniel Southard, ed. The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1838, Vol I, Nr 3, The American Anti-Slavery Society, (Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838), 13, The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1838

Note: I reviewed this book about a well-known maroon community here: Review of: The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community, by Matthew J. Clavin

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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