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an environmental history of the civil war

25 september 2020

Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver say that they will treat the Civil War "as an ecological event that not only affected people but also altered natural systems and reshaped the already complex interaction between humans, other organisms, and the physical environment" (4). I'm not sure they entirely deliver on this promise, but their Environmental History of the Civil War addresses many an element of the conflict that isn't foregrounded in traditional narrative histories.

Much of Browning & Silver's work, though, consists of standard expository paragraphs about military campaigns, in roughly chronological order. Their chapters are thematic – Sickness, Weather, Food, Animals, Death & Disability, and Terrain – and each theme is attached to a different phase of the war, so we go from initial recruitment after Ft. Sumter, to Appomattox and beyond, without much doubling back, a theme at a time. The organizational feat is impressive and the narrative clear, but a good deal of the book ends up recapitulating many standard histories of the war.

Still, even a reader familiar with the historical outlines will learn much here, and readers new to Civil War history will get their first exposure to it in terms vital to 21st-century thought. We know that millions of men fought, hundreds of thousands died, and millions of slaves (some of whom also in turn fought for the Union) won their freedom. We know less about how many mammals, not just homo sapiens, circulated around North America and crowded into little towns like Gettysburg Pennsylvania and Sharpsburg Maryland.

Readers of civil war history will acknowledge mud and disease, the sewage that flowed everywhere, the rains and freezes that interrupted campaigns, the stifling summer heat. They may not have thought much, though, about: the pressing of horses, pigs, and cattle into military use, for transport, food, and crucially for leather; the stripping of great districts of the South for firewood; the centrality of salt to the wartime economy; the epidemics of sexually-transmitted infections that left their mark long after the War. In between campaign narratives, Browning & Silver impress upon the reader these and many other environmental factors.

One of their stories is literally "for want of a nail" – well, I suppose, a lot of nails. A dearth of horseshoe nails and thus a want of shoes affected many operations. During the Gettysburg campaign, Robert E. Lee "discovered that the horseshoe shortage put a halt to fully half of his artillery and supply wagons" (115). Lee's solution was to reduce the size of batteries, which consequently reduced their firepower and contributed to his defeat in Pennsylvania. Later in the year, the want of nails grew so acute that Rebel artillery officers destroyed old and infirm horses in order to recycle their shoes and the scarce nails that attached them.

Browning & Silver make an interesting point about those horses: nearly all the military horses that served both armies were already alive when the war started. It takes four years for a horse to grow strong enough to pull guns or carry troopers, and the War lasted barely four years. No military breeding program was initiated by either side, and none was considered. The horses each side needed were bought or commandeered from the general civilian supply. In turn, agriculture suffered, especially in the South, and it is possible that the general lack of horses in the immediate postwar years helped jump-start the increased mechanization that would make horse power rare a century later. Of course that mechanization had already started and would have increased anyway, but the War left its mark on the animal population as much as on humans.

The War left its mark on the topography of North America, too, and the authors spend a few pages (182-86) on battlefield preservation. Deliberate maintenance of battle sites as relics (and cemeteries) makes it possible to walk a version of the same physical features today that were walked 155 or more years ago. Browning & Silver do not mention the most striking traces of the conflict, though: the immense works that still surround Vicksburg Mississippi, and the Crater in Petersburg Virginia. Here one can still see the land as worked, more or less violently, by army engineers. (A lesser example are the trenches still visible at the Stones River battlefield near Murfreesboro Tennessee.)

Although I guess I don't really know the amount of maintenance that these earthworks represent. I think of the Crater over its century and a half "slowly closing like a dent in dough" as Robert Frost might have put it, but perhaps even the Crater has to be dug out from time to time to keep it touristworthy. "Just as it was" shrines are always to be mistrusted. They are usually Ships of Theseus.

Ultimately, though An Environmental History of the Civil War is an engaging and readable book, it doesn't write as much from the point of view of material nature as from that of people and their interventions. Even the coda to the book is about how the War indirectly inspired the great national parks of the West – as if to say that the West is the Environment, the fallen East just some burnt-over territory, and our attitudes toward it matter most of all.

Many Civil War histories, as I said, factor in weather and disease; food too has been comprehensively studied; battlefield terrain is practically a sub-specialty of Civil War history. Death and dead bodies are also a big focus of the discipline, as Browning & Silver acknowledge in their chapter on the dead, which relies heavily on the work of Drew Gilpin Faust. Only animals seem to me less-studied, but I may have missed some titles telling the story of the War from the point of view of cattle or horses. Environmental History is synthetic and does bring all these topics between two covers, though, and deserves credit for that synthesis. The book that truly reorients appraisal of the war toward an ecological point of view remains to be written.

Browning, Judkin, and Timothy Silver. An Environmental History of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. E 468.9 .B883