Monday, March 4, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Nature's Civil War

People who haven't studied the Civil War much are often surprised to learn that two-thirds of the soldiers who died in the conflict died from diseases rather than from combat. They often assume that the terribly high figures for combat casualties mean that all those men died, rather than understanding that casualty numbers included wounded and captured or missing men, too. However, after reading Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia by Kathryn Shively Meier, one might wonder why more soldiers didn't die from diseases.

By incorporating a wealth of primary sources from a variety of perspectives, Meier examines the methods that soldiers utilized to battle the forces of nature, an enemy quite often as deadly as those human ones shooting at them.

As the subtitle suggests, Meier focuses her study on the Peninsula and Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1862. On the surface one might assume that the Valley offered a much healthier environment than the swampy Peninsula, but as the author explains both regions offered their own fair share of natural challenges that tested both Blue and Gray soldiers' ability to cope. In the Valley, rapid movements outpacing supplies and sudden changes in climate presented threats to soldiers' health. On the Peninsula, though operating at a slower pace, the large numbers of camping men in a relatively confined space and living in a less than ideal environment and exposed to water borne diseases made survival a roll of the dice. Again, how did more men not die?

Meier explains that soldiers incorporated self-care strategies developed from their pre-war upbringings and also suggested by their comrades. Much as Peter Carmichael explains in his recent book The War for the Common Soldier, Meier shows the pragmatism of the combatants. As she states "Exposure to environmental illness was compounded by supply problems, army regulations, camping, marching, and other aspects of soldiering that were not under the men's control but rather managed by commanders, officers, and medical personnel. It was to this official network of care that soldiers were supposed to turn to to prevent and treat their illness and melancholy." However most soldiers found the army's methods of treatment unsatisfactory. They therefore often took measures into their own hands.

One controversial means that men used to help preserve their health but that superiors disdained was straggling. Commanders often viewed straggling only through their perspective and not the soldier's. However, enlisted men and NCOs often utilized straggling as a coping mechanism. When feeling ill, whether overheated or footsore, straggling offered soldiers a brief respite to attempt to recover. When thirsty for good water soldiers straggled off for well water. When tired of salt pork and hardtack, soldiers straggled to find eggs, chickens or fresh beef. When their inadequate shelter failed, soldiers straggled to a church or barn for a warm, dry night's sleep.

The only complaint with the book that I had was that I wished it was longer. At 150 pages of main text this thought provoking book offers so much that so few students have previously considered. My interest was piqued by it and I wanted more. Nature's Civil War is a truly magnificent contribution to a recent reemergence of studies on the Civil War's common soldiers and is one I heartily recommend.

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