Wednesday, April 20, 2022

David Silkenat's "Scars on the Land"

David Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer in American History at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of several books, including Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War, a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Scars on the Land: An Environmental History of Slavery in the American South, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Scars on the Land is in the middle of chapter on how enslaved labor transformed waterways in the South. Here is one paragraph:
The flooding along the Mississippi became progressively worse in the 1850s. In the decade prior the Civil War, the levees broke nearly twenty times in the stretch between the Red River and New Orleans, inundating in the neighboring cotton and sugar fields. Unfortunate riverside planters often went bankrupt when they lost a year’s crop, but enslaved families paid a much higher price. In 1851, floodwaters destroyed a year’s sugar crop on Judah P. Benjamin’s Bellechase Plantation, sixteen miles south of New Orleans. Burdened by debts, Benjamin decided to abandon sugar planting for law and politics. He hired a well-known slave auction house to liquidate his holdings. At noon on January 12, 1852, interested parties gathered in the St. Louis Hotel’s ornate rotunda, which had hosted slave auctions for more than a decade and had become notorious among abolitionists for its juxtaposition of luxury and human degradation: published later that year, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin featured a New Orleans slave auction modeled on the site. For sale that day was not only the land, buildings, agricultural equipment, and livestock but also 129 enslaved men, women, and children, each listed by name, age, and occupation on an advertising broadside. Auctioned individually and in small lots, Bellechase’s enslaved community fragmented, dispersed to plantations up and down the Mississippi. The historical record remains silent on the eventual fate of Syphax, a thirty-five-year-old bricklayer; Armstead, a forty-year-old stable hand; fifty-five-year-old Maria Cooper and her twenty-three-year-old daughter Harriet; and the 125 other enslaved people auctioned that day. It does reveal, however, that Judah Benjamin was elected to the US Senate later that year. He would go on to serve the Confederacy as Jefferson Davis’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.
To my surprise, this excerpt is actually a really good sample of book's contents. It highlights how environmental factors like flooding had a significant impact on the lives of enslaved Southerners. Scars on the Land tries to address two main themes: how the environment shaped the lives of the enslaved and how slavery shaped the environment. This paragraph from page 99 suggests both of these themes, but really emphasizes the former. Readers will discover that the levees that collapsed in this paragraph were the product of more than a century of enslaved labor all along the Mississippi, brutal work that transformed the river and the surrounding environment in profound ways.
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--Marshal Zeringue