Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Review - "An Environmental History of the Civil War" by Browning & Silver

[An Environmental History of the Civil War by Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver (University of North Carolina Press, 2020). Hardcover, 3 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,199/272. ISBN:978-1-4696-5538-3. $30]

A joint effort from military historian Judkin Browning and environmental historian Timothy Silver, An Environmental History of the Civil War both synthesizes and expands upon the subdiscipline's existing literature. In its pages one can clearly identify major influential works such as Andrew McIlwain Bell's Mosquito Soldiers (2010), Lisa Brady's War Upon the Land (2012), Megan Kate Nelson's Ruin Nation (2012), Kathryn Shively Meier's Nature's Civil War (2013), the 2015 essay anthology The Blue, the Gray, and the Green from editor Brian Allen Drake, Joan Cashin's War Stuff (2018), and Erin Stewart Mauldin's Unredeemed Land (2018). One can readily discern from the publication dates referenced above that Civil War environmental history is a relatively new scholarly development in the field, yet Browning and Silver clearly demonstrate that enough has been published already in book and article formats to warrant the broad, state-of-the-field analysis that their own study provides. On the surface, Browning and Silver's work displays an integrated chronological and theme-based chapter arrangement, but it also uses well-selected examples from the academic literature to impressively highlight how and where those themes closely intersect.

Of course, military historians have always appreciated the debilitating effects temperature extremes had on marching and fighting armies, and their own works have also routinely documented the decimation of regiments (especially new ones) through disease; however, Browning and Silver's opening chapter dealing with soldier health also appropriately stresses the idea that armies themselves were wandering agents of biological and ecological disruption. For instance, in many settled areas with rural populations dispersed enough to prevent epidemics, diseases almost unknown to most locals for generations reemerged with a vengeance when tens of thousands of warm bodies possessing varying degrees of immunity arrived in their midst as instant incubators. Civil War armies could also have the opposite effect. For example, General Butler's intensive cleanup and environmental policing of occupied New Orleans effectively (though mostly inadvertently) quashed southern hopes that the city's regular outbreaks of yellow fever and malaria would made the city too hot for the enemy to hold. It is also suggested that Union armies, by passing through both the friendly Midwest and hostile South, altered the country's "pattern of microbial exchange," bringing contagions such as measles and smallpox deeper into those areas. How permanent those effects would prove to be is unstated. Though mentioned mostly in passing, the book also provides another perspective on emancipation, as mass movement of slave populations across great distances contributed another factor to the war's sudden alteration of microbial equilibrium.

Weather effect is another well-developed facet of traditional Civil War military history. However, it is most often addressed in a campaign-specific manner. Browning and Silver also do this, but, in another example of how they insightfully stress connectivity in their study, they additionally address how climate oscillations had continental-scale impacts on military campaigns in the Civil War. For example, in late-December 1861 massive rain storms rolled into California from the Pacific (a surprise episode that occurred during a prolonged La Nina pattern of below-normal rainfall). This 1,000-year "atmospheric river" event in the midst of a ten-year drought caused devastating flooding and tremendous losses in crops, livestock, and property. It also materially hampered the progress of the famed California Column's march across the southern desert. Spreading east, extraordinary flooding also occurred in the Tennessee Valley. This had a major impact on U.S. Grant's twin river campaign, when high water allowed Union forces to easily capture a flooded Fort Henry and Confederate commanders at Fort Donelson surrendered rather than push their men through flooded ground amid frigid temperatures. Weeks later, heavy rains critically affected both Union and Confederate army movements during the Shiloh Campaign. Even back east, General McClellan's drive up the Virginia Peninsula was similarly affected by exceptional downpours that ruined poorly drained roads not designed for heavy traffic (here the authors' views and interpretations align closely with those expressed in historian Kenneth Noe's contribution to the recent essay anthology Upon the Fields of Battle). Later, McClellan's army would become perilously divided by the rain-swollen Chickahominy Bottom, a weather event that would impact the course of the campaign in several different ways. For one, the swampy conditions created a perfect breeding ground for sickness, and July 1862 would prove to be the worst month of the war for the Army of the Potomac when it came to the percentage of sick soldiers on its rolls. Certainly, weather is just one factor in the success and failure of armies, but the chapter does a fine job of demonstrating that the surprise weather extremes of early to mid-1862 had a major impact across all major fighting fronts.

The next section of the book moves on to the topic of food. Flooding during the aforementioned wet spring of 1862 ruined many crop lands, but the prolonged rains also created perfect environmental conditions for damaging outbreaks of agricultural blights such as wheat stem rust. The authors cite figures as dire as 50% wheat losses in the Shenandoah and perhaps the loss of one-sixth of the South's entire wheat production for the year. Making matters worse, as spring turned to summer and fall, severe drought returned and even more vital corn crops failed. Government and social pressure to grow less cotton and more food was only partially successful, and conscription, land loss, army foraging, and burdensome requisition laws only worsened food shortages on the southern home front. As has often been repeated, obtaining food and forage were important considerations behind both failed northern offensives launched by Robert E. Lee's army. By contrast northern food production grew by leaps and bounds, leaving a substantial surplus even for export.

As with the case of food production, animal procurement and care was another indispensable area where the North achieved marked superiority by 1863. Veterinary care was neglected by both sides, but the Union system of horse procurement and rehabilitation, accompanied by the ability to create a superabundance of shoes and other equipment, far outpaced the South's tardy and insufficient efforts. The drought of 1863 also fatefully taxed Lee's ability to feed his animals, and both artillery and transport in the Army of Northern Virginia inexorably declined from that point onward. The concentration of dead horses along march routes and battlefields also created an ecological challenge, as their bulky bodies were difficult to dispose of in a way that did not create unsanitary conditions for nearby soldiers and civilians.

As much as horses were essential to transportation and work, hogs were a staple of the southern diet. With the war shutting off traditional sources of hog importation, pork procurement became integrated with Confederate war strategy. However, a major environment consequence of gathering hogs together in large holding areas for processing was disease, and hog cholera swept through entire regions. The book notes that the virus killed nearly the entire hog population of Arkansas in 1862. To make up for the shortfall in pork, beef became a larger part of the southern diet during the war. However, Union military successes in the West, bovine diseases endemic to southern climes, and the losing combination of great distances and deteriorating transportation networks (the great cattle-raising states were frontier Texas and Florida) meant that sufficient supplies of beef could never consistently reach the front. After the bitterly harsh winter of 1863-64 killed the majority of Texas cattle, the weather also had its say in making a bad situation even worse.

The next chapter addresses the environmental effects of human battle deaths, with particular emphasis placed on the consequences of 1864's advent of more continuous contact between opposing armies. The general ecological effects of mass casualties are examined, from internal biological processes of decay to sanitary issues for both the survivors and local populations. Environmental interactions between various organisms (including bacteria, worms, insects, and rats) and battle wounds are also discussed. The huge number of deaths and disabling wounds among the country's working-age population affected the farm labor force in both sections, but in the South the deficits were far less replaceable. According to the book's sources, southern land improved for cultivation decreased by ten million acres between 1860 and 1870. How much of this environmental change was due solely to labor factors is difficult to assess, but the deaths of well over one-quarter of all southern soldiers (along with the permanent disablement of many thousands more) must have had a tremendous impact even without taking into account the loss/redirection of forced labor through emancipation.

Finally taking readers through the end of the conflict and beyond, the book examines the war's widespread assault on both natural and improved landscapes. Also discussed are examples of how the need to secure vital natural resources (ex. the salt-producing parts of SW Virginia) brought the war to isolated places with no other strategic value and forbidding fighting topography. The need to cut down vast tracts of forest lands to fuel local industries transformed landscapes for miles around, and the frequency of those efforts contributed to what would become the predominant Civil War battlefield terrain type—a mixture of woods (both primary and secondary) and adjacent clearings of improved land. Though the publication of Scott Hippensteel's Rocks and Rifles (2019) is perhaps too recent to have been included as a source, both books come to similar conclusions about how geology, limestone deposits in particular, shaped the strategy and tactical decisions of Civil War commanders. The section also looks beyond the battlefield in examining wartime actions with long-term consequences far beyond 1865. In addition to the arrival of Sherman's army group before Atlanta overwhelming an already precarious water supply, tree losses due to wartime consumption (as well as the bombardment of the city itself) subjected Atlanta to greatly increased water runoff and soil erosion that altered the landscape on a semi-permanent basis. New South urbanization certainly must have contributed to the more permanent reduction in tree cover, but, according to the sources, even after a century of replanting campaigns the city had only regained a tiny amount of the vegetative cover that it enjoyed prewar. Of course, historians have often observed that forests disappeared at an alarming rate wherever Civil War armies roamed, but few have recognized that it was typically the most valuable types of wood that went first. This harmed the economic futures of local residents already struggling through postwar economic devastation. Through erosion deforestation also had the compound effect of further reducing farmland acreage. According to often startling figures cited in the book, deforestation, fence destruction, draft animal shortages, and other factors frequently meant that entire southern counties still had only a fraction of prewar levels of improved acreage in production by 1870. Citing the Mauldin book referenced earlier, the authors also note that the societal advancements brought by emancipation were not generally extended to the agriculture-supporting environment. Apparently, contract labor was no match for enslaved labor when it came to performing the backbreaking essential work of land maintenance (ex. drainage, fertilization, land use rotation, etc.). Indeed, the book references the study of one expert who estimates that topsoil erosion in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina was up to 120% higher in 1880 than it was in 1860, the affects of which profoundly reduced crop yields over that period.

Further solidifying environmental history's maturing status as a true sub-field of Civil War studies, the volume clearly demonstrates that this growing body of work represents more than a transient academic fad. As evidenced in the book, Civil War environmental history continues to perform a valuable service through highlighting and deepening our knowledge and appreciation of the many connections between the natural world and the Civil War's military and home fronts. In this manner, Browning and Silver's synthesis convincingly treats the war as an "ecological event" as well as a clash between armies and societies.

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