My work investigates how enslaved people acquired agricultural and environmental knowledge and the effects to which they deployed this knowledge after the destruction of slavery. Diverging from spatial analyses of slavery centered on the interstices of the plantation, my research looks instead to the fields and explores how some enslaved people gained power through work, within the master’s geography. I argue that the characteristics of this power shaped the postwar lives of freed people.

My dissertation follows the biography of Benjamin Montgomery and his family, enslaved in Mississippi by Joseph and Jefferson Davis. Montgomery made himself expert in the agroecology and market relations of the Davis plantations and indispensable to their operation. He understood his autonomy and his family’s prosperity to be linked to his mastery of the material world and financial relationships. This remained true after Emancipation, when the preservation of his freedom—in the explicitly capitalist terms in which he understood it—required his nimble response to drought, flood, pests, and unstable credit and commodity markets. Montgomery’s life underscores the importance of approaching Reconstruction by accounting for how local struggles with the natural world influenced freed people’s aspirations, actions, and politics.


  • U.S. Environmental History, Civil War & Reconstruction, Agricultural History, African-American History

MA Title:

  • "To Make Another New England: White Northern Reformers and the Sea Islands Landscape, 1862-1865"

Working Dissertation Title:

  • "Cotton’s Keepers: Black Agricultural Expertise in Slavery and Freedom."


  • B.A., cum laude, Columbia University
  • M.A., University of Wisconsin-Madison

Selected Publications:

  • Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day: The Making of the Modern Environmental Movement, an online exhibit and digital archive, launched February 2010, View Website.

  • Review of Brian Allen Drake, ed., "The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War" (Athens: University of Georgia, 2015) in Register of the Kentucky Historical Society (Winter 2016)

  • Review of Lisa Brady, "War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes During the American Civil War" (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012) in Agricultural History (Fall 2013)

  • “Davis Island: A Confederate Shrine, Submerged,” Edge Effects, View Website.

  • “Freedom’s Dystopia,” Humanities NOW, View Website.

Professional Affiliations:

  • American Society for Environmental History

Courses Taught as TA:

  • History 102 -  The United States since 1865, Professor Will Jones, Spring 2011
  • History 247 - History of American Capitalism, Professor Colleen Dunlavy, Fall 2011
  • History 460 - American Environmental History, Professor William Cronon, Spring 2012 and Fall 2010
  • Environmental Studies 112 - The Social Perspective, Professor Samer Alatout, Spring 2014 (Head TA)
  • Environmental Studies 113 - The Humanistic Perspective, Professor Frederic Neyrat, Fall 2013;
  • Community and Environmental Sociology 230 - Agriculture and Social Change in Western History, Professor Jess Gilbert, Spring 2013
  • Environmental Studies 113 - The Humanistic Perspective, Andrew Case, Fall 2012


Brian Hamilton

William J. Cronon and Stephen Kantrowitz