The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Reconstruction of the American Landscape, 1865-1885
Davis, John Dean
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CitationDavis, John Dean. 2018. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Reconstruction of the American Landscape, 1865-1885. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe American Civil War (1861–1865) wrecked the cities, economy, infrastructure, and landscapes of the southern section of the United States. The histories of the Reconstruction Era that followed primarily focus on the efforts toward political reunification and the tragic failure to extend full civil rights to freedpeople in the wake of Emancipation. However, Reconstruction was also a time of physical acts that advanced material evidence of the nation being rejoined. As a time of extensive rebuilding and national renovation, actual construction supported the era’s overarching political metaphor. As the defining event of U.S. modernization, Americans planned and rebuilt their country in a distinctly modern way, acknowledging the twin anonymous forces of capital and nature to define their projections for the nation beyond its accursed foundation built on human enslavement.
This dissertation considers the efforts of the federal state’s engineering apparatus, the military engineers attached to the army in the occupied South, as they rebuilt the economic infrastructure ruined by war, and imposed a federally-maintained hydraulic landscape across the varied ecologies of the U.S. South. American military engineers of the mid-nineteenth century possessed the most technically-sophisticated education and training available on the continent, and their practice, mixing applied geometry with topography, has had vast implications in the organization of the American landscape, apparent to this day.
Despite technical prowess, new techniques available due to rapid industrialization, and a vastly enlarged and powerful federal government, the actual practice of engineering at the time remained provisional, existing uneasily with an equally powerful natural world. Engineers developed design practice that took cues from the “forces of nature,” and sought to inhabit ecosystems by interpreting their “desires.” Design became an extended process of experimentation and learning from the landscape, accounting for physical, biological, and social systems already in place that could help or hinder processes of modernization. Questions of labor dominated discourse over how to organize an effective structuring of wild and remote landscapes, and colored the growing idea within the federal government that territorial management was best achieved through imposition of a mechanical model of infrastructural territory, a process that remains ongoing.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41129139
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