Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Ruin Nation

I attempted to purchase Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War while at a conference about a year ago, but the publishing sales representatives must have been had more pressing business because they were no where to be found at the sales table. After about a 15-20 minute wait, I gave up.  So, Ruin Nation went onto my Amazon.com Wish List, and there it lingered until I finally put in an interlibrary loan request at my local library, who got a copy into my hands.

The wait was worth it. I really enjoyed reading this interesting take on the war. It was and was not what I was expecting. I was expecting to read about the terrible destruction to the built and natural environment that was wrought during the war, but I was not expecting to read about how the war ruined human bodies through amputations.

That is basically how Ruin Nation was organized by author Megan Kate Nelson.  It is broken into four parts:

1 - a look at ruined cities. Hampton, Virginia  in 1861, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1864, and Columbia, South Carolina in 1865, come in for the majority of the discussion on this particular section. What prompted these cities' demolitions and how their citizens responded to the destruction was quite interesting and the authors analysis was insightful.

2 - a look at ruined homes. People's thoughts about the safety and sanctity of their homes was challenged during the Civil War. Rifling through people's private residences made some soldiers think twice, while others, calloused by the war, thought little of seeking our personal property for gain or destruction. Whether pulled down to make for clear fields of fire, or burned in revenge, private citizens lost an extraordinary amount of personal property during the war. This sense of lost lasted much longer than the war itself - financially as well as in terms of disdain for the enemy that destroyed.

3 -  ruined landscapes. Armies not only made war against each other, they seemingly made war against nature itself. Trees were cut by the thousands to provide fuel for fires, materials for fortifications, roads, and bridges. Landscapes were changed to make way for military railroads and to form transportation and communications networks - not to mention the man-made forts, trenches, and earthworks that covered the southern environment.

4 - ruined bodies. The destruction caused by improved technology in weaponry in the Civil War was unprecedented. Large numbers of amputations of legs, arms, feet, hands, and fingers created needs not realized before. Who was going to take care of veterans that survived, but survived less than "whole" men? In the North the federal government, and in the South the states provided pensions for those who were physically wrecked by war. Losses of limbs also caused a crisis in gender roles as men struggled to remain providers and women tread on egg shells so as to not overstep traditional boundaries and spheres of responsibilities, but yet survive. And while cities and homes were rebuilt and the destruction caused by the war soon disappeared - and as forests regenerated and landscapes returned to productive farmland - bodies did not fix themselves, limbs did not grow back. Those that suffered lost arms and legs were left to deal with their loss until they breathed their last.

Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War is a book I think almost anyone with an interest in the war will find beneficial. It adds to a growing niche of environmental studies, but as mentioned, it is much more than that.  My only wish is that the author would have touched more upon the mental destruction that occurred to soldiers who experienced combat, but I suppose that could make a book of its own. I highly recommend Ruin Nation. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

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