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The period from 1900 to 1945 was characterized by both surprising continuity and dramatic change in southern agriculture. Unlike the rest of the nation, which urbanized and industrialized at a rapid pace in the late nineteenth century, the South remained overwhelmingly rural and poor, from the 1880s through the 1930s. But by 1945, the region was beginning to urbanize and industrialize into a recognizably modern South, with a population concentrated in urban centers, industries taking hold, and agriculture following the larger-scale, mechanized trend common in other farming regions of the country. Three overlapping factors explain this long lag followed by rapid transformation. First, the cumulative effects of two centuries of land-extensive, staple crop agriculture and white supremacy had sapped the region of much of its fertility and limited its options for prosperity. Second, in response to this “problem South,” generations of reformers sought to modernize the South, along with other rural areas around the world. These piecemeal efforts became the foundation for the South’s dramatic transformation by federal policy known as the New Deal. Third, poor rural southerners, both black and white, left the countryside in increasing numbers. Coupled with the labor demands created by two major military conflicts, World War I and World War II, this movement aided and abetted the mechanization of agriculture and the depopulation of the rural South.

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During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort. Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy. Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.