Monday, March 9, 2015

Just Finished Reading - War Upon the Land

As you can see I have been on quite the reading spree. I guess that is one positive from all the snow and cold weather. However, I will be happy to see all of this white stuff melt away.

My latest read was published a couple of years ago, and was another selection I had on my "Wish List." War Upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War, by Lisa M. Brady (UGA Press, 2012) examines yet another fascinating aspect of the war (as an environmental study) that has not received much attention before it appeared, but is now producing more works.

To show how the Union army used and attempted to change nature and the southern environment, Brady focused on three campaigns: the Vicksburg campaign, Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas, and the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign. By looking at these campaigns Brady shows how war was made, not only on the various Confederate forces that the Union army encountered, but also on the "agroecological" environments where these campaigns played out.

In the Vicksburg campaign Grant determined to "use every means to weaken the enemy, by destroying their means of subsistence, withdrawing their means of cultivating their fields, and in every other way possible." To do so the Union army embraced a mode of destroying crops and the ability to grown more crops, encouraged slaves to come into Union lines in order to have them supply additional labor and deprive that labor from the Confederates, which in turn undermined "the local residents' (and, by association, the Confederate government's) control over the natural environment." Grant even attempted an enormous canal project that tried to alter the landscape in order to help the Union army achieve victory. And although the canal project failed, a invaluable Union victory was realized at Vicksburg through Grant's method of warfare.

Similarly, and again with Grant's vision, first Gen. Hunter and then Gen. Sheridan reeked havoc in the Shenandoah Valley during the summer and fall of 1864. The Valley was a granary for the Confederacy, its wheat, oats, and other grains fed the soldiers, their animals, and those on the home front. The Union forces in the Valley did tremendous damage to its landscape. And although it was not literally turned into a desert and wasteland as many of the residents described it, its damage and loss proved costly economically, militarily, and politically. Nineteenth century Valley dwellers had worked hard (along with their slaves) to turn the region from an unmitigated "wilderness" into an agricultural paradise, but the Union army's burning and damaging ways reversed those efforts, for at least a time.

Finally, what is fact and what is fiction of Sherman's March to the Sea and beyond has been the subject of debate since those events happened, but it cannot be doubted that some the most significant damage of the war was taken out on Georgia and South Carolina in 1864 and 1865. Again, under the direction of Grant, Sherman carried out the work. Thousands and thousand of slaves, whose labor had brought wealth and prosperity to southern citizens, were liberated, which made recovering from Sherman's bummers a true task. In addition, Sherman's severing of his force from his lines of supply caused his men to live off the land, taking subsistence from those who had it and leaving them with little to nothing. Those in the way simply got washed over like a tsunami. Homes, towns, and crops were burned breaking the will of the people to oppose him and thus helped speed the end of the war.

While this mode of warfare proved successful, it obviously brought an enormous amount of physical and psychological damage to those who suffered through it. One of the things I appreciated about War Upon the Land, was Brady's inclusion of the accounts  of those not only doing the damage to the South's environment, but also those whose worlds were damaged. For many, perceived antebellum  order was turned to wartime chaos and confusion.

War Upon the Land is a significant addition to Civil War studies. And as mentioned, its groundbreaking look at the environmental aspect of the war is already producing more scholarship. Explaining the details of the various methods of warfare and its impact on the South's people and environment are valuable contributions to the field. On a scale of one to five, I give War Upon the Land a 4.5.  

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