Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Geier, Scott & Babits, eds.: "FROM THESE HONORED DEAD: Historical Archaeology of the American Civil War"

[From These Honored Dead: Historical Archaeology of the American Civil War edited by Clarence R. Geier, Douglas D. Scott & Lawrence E. Babits (University Press of Florida, 2014). Hardcover, maps, photos, drawings, tables, appendix, reference list, index. Pp. 332. ISBN:978-0-8130-4944-1 $39.95]

Civil War battlefield archaeology can tell us a great deal. On the fields of battle, it can be used to determine where specific units fought, their positions, movements, tactics, and weapons used. The discipline has also contributed greatly to our knowledge of how fortifications of all types were designed, constructed, and used. The same is true for Civil War camps and bivouacs. The interpretation of the wealth of material culture objects found at these sites has significantly enhanced what we currently know about how soldiers lived and fought, and how the armies of which they were a part were supplied and maintained. Chapters covering all of these investigative themes and more are contained in From These Honored Dead: Historical Archaeology of the American Civil War, the latest collection of essays published by University of Florida Press. The content ranges widely in scope, from regional literature summaries all the way down to detailed technical analysis of findings at specific sites.

Beginning with a recap of recent archaeological investigations of Civil War era battlefields and conflict sites within Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico, the initial chapters have a strong Trans-Mississippi flavor. The three following essays take a closer look at the battles of Boonville, Palmito Ranch, and Centralia. Like the other sections in the book covering specific engagements, these chapters all provide historical context, raise specific questions that archaeological inquiry hopes to help answer, and briefly discuss findings and methodology. Most of the chapters are not too technical, easily followed by readers with little or no background in the discipline. The Boonville piece, a summary of a larger published report, demonstrates how important archaeology can be in discovering the locations of lines of battle, the sequence of fighting and where the most intense combat occurred, and the weaponry used. The team arrives at a controversial position questioning the long accepted wisdom that pro-Confederate units fought largely with civilian firearms in the early period of the war. The work at the 1864 battle site near Centralia offers insight into the anatomy of a perfectly constructed ambush of regular forces by experienced guerrillas, where once again artifact discovery and interpretation using metal detecting methods pioneered during the famous Little Big Horn survey from the 1980s were used to reconstruct events.  To the east, an exploration of two Shenandoah Valley battlefields demonstrates the value of archaeology as an important tool in reconciling conflicting eyewitness accounts of events or even guiding research in a direction not previously mentioned in any documented source.  Many authors in this compilation offer persuasive arguments for using U.S. Army field manual tools (ex. METT-T and KOCOA) for identifying key terrain, the attendant focus on which increases the likelihood of useful artifact discovery within the time and funding constraints inherent to most endeavors.

Another major section of the book concerns itself with the multi-disciplinary approach to the archaeological and historical interpretation of military bivouacs and camps, noting the differences in site layout, material culture, environmental impact, and level of local disruption involved when troops were present in an area briefly versus long term. One chapter involves the successful location of Wesley Merritt's Cedar Creek cavalry camp, its artifact collection offering insights into the material culture of Union cavalrymen and their horses, as well as tracing the actual plan of the camp with a view toward comparing regulations with actual practice. A more permanent and great deal larger Army of Northern Virginia encampment is the subject of another article, the emphasis being on the impact of the camp on civilian (free and enslaved) life, livelihood and property. The final essay in this section is a case study of a Civil War bivouac (in this case, one made by the 14th Connecticut during the Mine Run Campaign), its abundant artifact yield vastly different in nature from those discovered at long term camp sites. These findings allow useful comparisons to be made between material cultures of soldiers in camp and on campaign.  They also provide a model to be applied to future site studies where the history of events is less well known.

Another trio of chapters (on Camp Nelson's Fort Putnam, Confederate Battery 1 at Quantico, Virginia and a CSA battery position along the Apalachicola River in NW Florida) focuses on earthwork defenses, clearly demonstrating the usefulness of archaeological methods in mapping the precise location and extent of fortifications, as well as in offering important clues in how they were constructed. The final essay follows the "myth busting" impacts of two studies (at Resaca, Georgia and Blountsville, Tennessee), their archaeological findings contrasting sharply with local historical lore. While the piece demonstrates well the challenges of pitting new discoveries against entrenched individual and institutional beliefs, it ends with a wise note of caution to investigating teams of the need to be wary of creating their own myths from limited physical evidence.

An important theme throughout the book is the critical importance of metal detecting equipment and expertise to modern military archaeology. Frowned upon by previous generations, it is now regarded as an essential part of any project. Professional archaeologists have also come to value the collaboration of avocational metal detectionists, many of whom possess extensive site knowledge and technical expertise. After finding high artifact yields in ground widely thought to have been completely picked over by relic hunters, many contributors to the volume also caution colleagues against buying into the widespread belief of "hunted-out" sites.

This book and others like it together comprise a deeply persuasive argument for increased partnership in Civil War studies between archaeologists and practitioners of traditional documentary history.  With archaeological work absent from most Civil War bibliographies, such inter-disciplinary collaboration continues to be undervalued. There exists a long list of good reasons, many of which can be found in the pages of this book, why this should change.

More CWBA reviews of UPF titles:
* James Buchanan and the Coming of the Civil War
* A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw
* Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida
* The Southern Mind Under Union Rule: The Diary of James Rumley, Beaufort, North Carolina, 1862-1865
* A Brief Guide to Florida's Monuments and Memorials
* Huts and History: The Historical Archaeology of Military Encampment During the American Civil War
* Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War

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