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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nelson: "RUIN NATION: Destruction and the American Civil War"

[ Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War by Megan Kate Nelson (University of Georgia Press, 2012). Softcover, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:256/349. ISBN:978-0-8203-4251-1 $24.95]

With so much written about the character and extent of American Civil War destructiveness, it takes some doing to come up with a new twist on the subject, but Megan Kate Nelson's new book Ruin Nation makes a game attempt at it. Using the language of modern military, gender, class, race, and environmental disciplines, she crafts a cultural history of Civil War physical mayhem in the context of four spheres: the societal (cities), domestic (homes), natural (forests), and the personal (amputation).

Citing Hampton (Va), Chambersburg (Pa), and Columbia (SC) as examples, the first section of Ruin Nation examines the impact of the destruction of towns and cities and the motivations (e.g. revenge or military necessity) behind the act. At the forefront is the American cultural expectation of how and when the justifiable application of ruin to cities would commence, what limits should be imposed, and how the civilian population should be treated. Since the mid-1990s, the effort by many historians to shed the Civil War's problematic "Total War" label has unfortunately led some to reach too far in the other direction, minimizing the level of destruction wrought upon the southern landscape. Nelson's book is a nice tonic to this overcompensation.

Invasions of privacy and feminine domain are issues at the heart of the book's examination of the pillaging and destruction of private homes by both sides. Homes in the paths of armies were often occupied only by women and small children, and Nelson argues that soldiers knew very well the cultural dictates of the various zones of privacy in homes but violated them anyway in order to intimidate, demoralize, and otherwise demonstrate to the civilian population that their government could not protect them. Nelson's descriptions of the pillaging and destruction of slave cabins by Union armies should lead many readers to reconsider the currently popular position that Union soldiers were generally discriminatory in their application of destruction, ransacking plantations and other assumed symbols of secession while leaving the smaller property of the lower classes alone. Nelson found evidence that many slaves were able to acquire a sizable amount of personal property, enough to make them a target for plunder.

"Battle Logs" documents the razing of the forests of the South to feed the insatiable need by roving armies for fuel and construction materials. Vast swaths of woodlands went into fire wood, winter camps, fortifications (e.g. abatis, breastworks, chevaux de frise, etc.), bridges, and corduroyed roads. The interesting cultural note in this section is how so many soldiers seemed not to lament in their letters home the physical transformation of the landscape. Perhaps the frontier American theme of altering nature to human will as a form of "improvement" comes to the fore here.

The final section of Ruin Nation examines what it meant to society to be inundated with thousands of young men maimed by war. The booming prosthetics industry and the ways missing limbs challenged contemporary notions of masculinity and virility are major components of this chapter.

Throughout the book, Nelson stresses the "ephemeral" nature of American Civil War ruination. Symbolic of reconciliation, or perhaps as a broad expression of the American cultural trait of always looking forward, we do not leave ruins in place to serve as memorials. Other cultures may do so, but Americans tend to quickly rebuild or replace. Battlefield homes like the Henry House are reconstructed to their prewar appearance rather than left as naked chimneys for later generations to contemplate. At worst, ground level remains of foundations of homes long gone dot our landscapes and battlefields. In the years following war's end, shattered forests quickly regrew and stumps were removed for more farmland and pasture. Even nineteenth century prosthetics offered the wearer the ability to hide his injury enough to fool the casual viewer. It is these thoughtful perspectives of the cultural aspects of Ruin Nation, rather than its descriptive elements, that make it most worth reading.


  1. Nice review and an interesting book!

    it is worth noting that, while the lone chimneys were not left, in 2009 in Cass County, Missouri, the local historical society built an ersatz lone chimney as a monument to the "Burnt District" of western Missouri where the Border War and the evacuations and concentrations of Order #11 occurred: http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=22089 So at least some taste for the ruin as memorial, even if it took a sesquicentennial to make it appear.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Adam. A few exceptions were duly mentioned by the author in the book. A couple of them, accompanied by nice photos, were the standing chimneys of the Taylor Farm at Petersburg NBP and Malvern Hill's Methodist parsonage, although both look way too pristine (i.e. their brickwork appears to have been entirely repointed) to be true ruins.


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