Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meier: "NATURE'S CIVIL WAR: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia"

[ Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia by Kathryn Shively Meier (University of North Carolina Press, 2013) Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:164/232. ISBN:978-1-4696-1076-4  $39.95]

Major and minor fads are always running a waxing and waning course throughout Civil War scholarship and publishing. A current climber is "environmental history", perhaps most recognizable in book form by the recent works of Lisa Brady, Kelby Ouchley, and Megan Kate Nelson*.  One might reasonably question whether environmental history has the legs to develop into a truly distinctive force in the Civil War literature, but the practice thus far has yielded points of interest.  While its own content could rather easily fit into existing categories, Kathryn Shively Meier's Nature's Civil War nevertheless eagerly attaches itself to this new interpretive school.  Meier's book offers useful insight into the common soldier's difficult task of maintaining personal health amid the dual stressors of a harsh natural environment and a system of official army care which seemed a disorganized, uncaring, and frequently incompetent bureaucracy to those used to the loving attentions of home and family.

Nature's Civil War is a brief work that nevertheless takes on some large topics. To give readers an idea of what 1860s soldiers expected out of medical care, Meier provides a brief rundown of the competing positions of official and unofficial medicine in the nineteenth century United States. This section documents the debates within states over the need for professionalization in the form of formal schooling and licensing and within the medical establishment itself between traditional physicians and those practicing controversial offshoots like homeopathy. One of the more relevant points raised is the author's contention that the majority of private soldiers had never been under a doctor's care at any time during their pre-military lives, thus they already possessed a foundation of self reliant expectation when it came to treating sickness and maintaining general health.

Meier's focus is not on the health services rendered through official military channels, but rather the steps taken by individuals or small groups to keep their bodies in fighting condition -- a concept she calls "self-care". Her sample of correspondents is not a scientific one, but it's large enough to present insightful anecdotal data. Meier's chosen time period (1862) and geographical area (the Shenandoah Valley and the Virginia Peninsula) are astutely selected to examine self-care issues related to the environment. The spring of 1862 was after the time when soldiers occupied massive training camps filled with those lacking immunity to childhood diseases often lethal to adults but before the creation of efficient medical and hospital systems with the ability to handle common camp ailments of environmental origin.

Meier's documentation of health self-reporting in the correspondence home of soldiers fighting in the Valley and in the Peninsula provides points of comparison between the presumably healthy Shenandoah air and the sickly Chickahominy swamps. Contrary to what was believed at the time to be true, Meier finds no evidence through her self-reporting sample that southern soldiers had any advantage over Union troops in terms of local climate and disease "seasoning". Official U.S. government research (see Appendix 1 chart, pg. 154) also had some interesting findings pertaining to the health of Union soldiers in both locales. While Peninsula soldiers were indeed much sicker during the summer, during the later winter/early spring months Union soldiers serving in the Valley had the higher rate of illness (a situation Meier attributes to exposure to greater extremes of weather). The effects of sickness on the conduct of the Peninsula Campaign by both sides is beyond the scope of Meier's book and remains an understudied and underappreciated aspect of the campaign's historiography.

The previously mentioned concept of self-care is really the heart of the book. Meier describes the attempts by soldiers, in camp and on the march, to look out for their own health, often in direct defiance of the regimentation imposed by the army. While the author does delve into the specifics of self-care, including those related to shelter construction, campsite selection, and the seeking of natural remedies and outside sources of food, I was expecting an even larger collection of concrete examples given the centrality of the theme.

One of the most intriguing sections of the book is the short chapter on straggling. The idea that straggling (to be differentiated from falling out of the ranks with the intent to desert) was an essential component of self-care in 1862, before adequately prepared Union and Confederate medical, ambulance, and hospital systems were in place, is one of Nature's Civil War's more thoughtful contributions. However, this is largely conjecture until someone publishes a focused scholarly study of straggling. Meier recognizes this, duly putting out an appeal for someone to take on such a project. The author also powerfully calls for a change in the literature's traditional definition of a "seasoned" Civil War soldier, from that of a passive survivor with good fortune to one involving a successful implementation of self-care techniques of health and survival. Though erratically focused for such a short work, often seeming like several different research interests loosely combined and lacking a unifying theme,  Nature's Civil War does contribute more than enough interpretive heft to Civil War soldier studies to make it worthy of recommendation.

*. - Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide (LSU, 2010) by Kelby Ouchley; Lisa Brady's War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Georgia, 2012); and Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War [link is to my review] by Megan Kate Nelson (Georgia, 2012).

1 comment:

  1. An interesting review of what appears to be an interesting (if somewhat untargeted) book. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, the author's choice of those two campaigns serves well the focus on self-care, at least from the Union perspective. Both featured bad (and rather unusually wet) weather for the season and locale(s). Both occurred before the Union armies had taken a more systematized approach to "medicine". And the Valley Campaign featured pretty execrable conditions of clothing and sustenance for the troops.


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