Brian Hamilton


Advisors: William J. Cronon and Stephen Kantrowitz

Brian Hamilton


I am an environmental historian of the United States in the era of the Civil War. 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.

I live in Western Massachusetts and teach U.S. history and the history of capitalism at Deerfield Academy. I am also a host of the podcast New Books in Environmental Studies. In Madison, I was active in the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) and serve as an editor of its digital magazine, Edge Effects, and creator and co-producer of the Edge Effects podcast.


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


  • United States 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.”

Selected Publications

Professional Affiliations

  • Agricultural History Society
  • Society of Civil War Historians
  • 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

Courses Taught as Instructor

  • History 227 – Race and Environment in the History of the United States (Summer 2018, Summer 2019)