Monday, February 23, 2015

Just Finished Reading - The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege

While it has been some time now since I last posted a "Just Finished Reading" selection, I hope I am getting back into the swing of things and can share more in the near future.

Ten years after the end of the Civil War Walt Whitman told us that "the real war will never get in the books." Whitman went on to explain what the war was not. "It was not a quadrille in a ballroom. Its interior history will not only never be written=its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862-'65, North and South, with all of his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendships, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written=perhaps must not and should not be."

With the thousands of books written on the war since he wrote those words, I might argue with Whitman's assessment. Each and every year gives us more and more studies on various aspects of the men and women that lived those tragic four years.

Mark M. Smith's The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014) makes a great addition to the war's scholarship and gives us a better understanding by looking a how the war was sensed. In doing so Smith gets us closer to those things that Whitman thought would never make it into the history books.

I suppose one of the reasons I first tried my hand at reenacting so many years ago was to get a better idea of of how the war smelled, looked, tasted, felt, and sounded to those that fought it. My experiences were never as accurate as the original events=it never could be=but at times it surely must have been close=if just for a few minutes or hours. Reading The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege made that fact all the more evident. Smith's method for covering this particular topic is quite interesting. To give us a better idea of the Civil War's sensory history he looks at specific events and uses them to illustrate each sense.

To examine the sense of hearing he talks about the "Sounds of Secession." All of the hub-bub in Charleston during South Carolina's withdrawal from the Union must have been something to hear. When it came time for pushing and shoving, the cacophony of Fort Sumter was deafening for those unaccustomed to such sounds, especially at night.

For the ocular sense, Smith uses the sights at First Manassas. "Eyeing First Bull Run," lets us see the grand panorama of the war's first big fight. Washington dignitaries came out to view the battle and the panic of the Union retreat back to the capital provided many with a view of the havoc that was to come in so many battles that followed.

What I think would be one of war's worst sensory experiences gets covered with Smith's chapter "Cornelia Hancock's Sense of Smell." Smith uses the accounts of this New Jersey woman turned nurse's time helping the wounded after the Battle of Gettysburg. Her descriptions of the smells of death and dying in the July heat really get to the heart of sensory experience.

The terrible siege at Vicksburg provides Smith the opportunity to discuss taste. In the Mississippi River town of refined palates before the war, citizens and soldiers had to adjust to eating rats and mule meat to survive. Grant's grip on Vicksburg had the people living in caves carved from the hillsides and scrounging for the littlest bits of scraps they could find to eat.

For the sense of touch, Smith describes the cramped conditions that the Confederate sailors of the submarine Hunley endured. In a world and time that prized personal space, the close confines of the prototype underwater vessel tried men's mental patience as well as their physical endurance.

Along with the main sense examined with each event, Smith also weaves into the narrative other senses that came into play with each event, which provided a fuller picture. And while I enjoyed reading and thinking about the sensory experience of the Civil War and found the events that Smith chose as examples insightful, I could not help wanting more. The 150-page book was just not enough once my curiosity on this topic was stirred. Hopefully this is just the beginning of scholars' looks at the Civil War's sensory history. There is so much more we can learn by examining this largely overlooked perspective.

One a scale of one to five, I give The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege a 4.25.  

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