Travel Grant Recipient Research Report: David Silkenat

Posted on October 28, 2020

David Silkenat
Dr. David Silkenat

David Silkenat is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of three books: Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War (2019), Driven from Home: North Carolina’s Civil War Refugee Crisis (2015), and Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (2011). He is a two-time winner of the North Caroliniana Society Book Prize and serves as the Chair of the Scottish Association for the Study of America and on the editorial boards for the Journal of the Civil War Era and American Nineteenth Century History. Dr. Silkenat was a recipient of the 2018-2019 SCRC Research Travel Grant, and this report is based on his visit to Special Collections.


On August 23, 1812, Robert Stevens wrote to his parents in Rhode Island from New Orleans in the aftermath of a hurricane, “a Scene of horror & devastation.”  Hours before the storm hit, the city was awoken by alarm bells “with the news of an intended Insurrection of the Negroes. Their plan was to set fire to the town in the four quarters, to rob Banks, plunder the Inhabitants & murder those who should make opposition to their progress.” The twin threats of a hurricane and a slave uprising terrified the city’s white residents, who spent a restless night on high alert. When the sun rose the next morning, they witnessed scenes of “the night’s destruction.” Although the damage was widespread, Stevens noted that plantations near the city suffered the worst of it, where the slave quarters were “swept away & every living soul with them.”[1]

Robert Stevens letter
Robert Stevens Jr. Letter to Parents,
23 August 1812 (SC 00684),
Special Collections Research Center,
Swem Library, William & Mary.

Stevens’ letter demonstrates one of the many ways in which the natural world intersected with slavery in the American South. My research at the Special Collections Research Center sought to shed light on how the environment shaped Southern slavery and how slavery remade the Southern landscape. I read plantation journals that documented endemic flooding and soil erosion in Virginia, an overseer’s diary chronicling how enslaved labor clear-cutted a forest to make way for a tobacco plantation, and the correspondence of plantation owners who complained about how enslaved people used the nearby woods and swamps for clandestine meetings. This research contributes to what will eventually become a book that explores the environmental history of American slavery. Organized thematically, the project looks at the interaction between slavery and six aspects of the Southern environment: swamps, forests, rivers, soil, weather, and animals. Taken in isolation, each of these topics reveals a facet of the Southern ecosystem transformed by the institution of slavery; collectively they suggest an ecological collapse with its roots in black bondage. While the Southern environment provided the context for the peculiar institution, enslaved labor remade the landscape. The expanding slave frontier irrevocably transformed the environment. On its leading edge, slavery laid waste to fragile ecosystems, draining swamps, clearing forests to plant crops and fuel steamships, and introducing devastating invasive species. On its trailing edge, slavery left eroded hillsides, rivers clogged with sterile soil, and the extinction of native species. Although the precise mechanisms and effects varied in Virginia’s tobacco fields, Louisiana’s swamps, and North Carolina’s pine forests, slavery exacted the same swift price. While environmental destruction fueled slavery’s expansion, no environment could long survive intensive slave labor. The scars manifested themselves in different ways, but the land too fell victim to the lash. In addition to listening to the voices of the enslaved, this study also draws upon the writings of planters and agricultural reformers, who wrestled with how to reconcile the demands of mastery, the market, and mother nature. In seeking to extract labor from their slaves and fertility from the soil, slave owners created a brutal capitalism that laid waste to the Southern landscape and to black bodies.

Painting of enslaved laborers
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, "An Overseer Doing His Duty
near Fredericksburg, Virginia," Maryland Historical
Society, Baltimore.  

When William Anderson, a fugitive from bondage, sought to explain why more enslaved people from Mississippi did not flee, he observed that “it is almost impossible for slaves to escape from that part of the South, to the Northern States. There are a great many things to encounter in escaping, vis: large and small rivers, lakes, panthers, bears, snakes, alligators, white and black men, blood hounds, guns, and, above all, the dangers of starvation.”[2] Anderson understood that slavery’s shackles were not just man-made: enslaved people toiled in an environment that conspired with slave owners to keep African Americans in bondage. At the same time, Anderson and other enslaved people knew the Southern environment in a way their owners never could. By day, they plucked tobacco worms, trod barefoot in the mud as they hoed rice fields, and felt the late summer sun on their backs as they picked cotton. By night, enslaved people clandestinely took to the woods and swamps to trap opossums and turtles, to visit relatives living on adjacent plantations, and at times escape to freedom.


[1] Robert Stevens Jr. Letter to Parents, 23 August 1812 (SC 00684), Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library, William & Mary.

[2] William J. Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson (Chicago: Daily Tribune, 1857), 26.