Monday, April 18, 2022

Booknotes: Animal Histories of the Civil War Era

New Arrival:
Animal Histories of the Civil War Era edited by Earl J. Hess (LSU Press, 2022).

In creating the unique essay anthology Animal Histories of the Civil War Era editor Earl Hess has assembled a cast of contributors (he describes them as three animal historians with an interest in Civil War history and eight Civil War historians with an interest in animal history) to explore important human/animal interactions during the Civil War period on and off the battlefield. Other elements of the interdisciplinary approach of the volume include animal rights history and considerations of animal agency, environmental history, vegetarianism, and more.

The first essay "describes the use of camels by individuals attempting to spread slavery in the American Southwest in the antebellum period." Of course, absolutely critical to both fighting the war and supporting it on the home front were horses and mules, and the book devotes an entire section to their discussion. From the description: "Horses and mules powered the Union and Confederate armies, providing mobility for wagons, pulling artillery pieces, and serving as fighting platforms for cavalrymen. Drafted to support the war effort, horses often died or suffered terrible wounds on the battlefield. Raging diseases also swept through army herds and killed tens of thousands of other equines."

Another section explores wildlife interactions: "Living and fighting in the natural environment, soldiers often encountered a variety of wild animals. They were pestered by many types of insects, marveled at exotic fish while being transported along the coasts, and took shots at alligators in the swamps along the lower Mississippi River basin." That section also looks at "how smaller wildlife, including bees and other insects, affected soldiers and were in turn affected by them."

Animal consumption is examined in two areas: the "relationships between southern pigs and people" and Civil War meat-eating from a vegetarian perspective. In regard to the former, one might recall some excellent recent work on porcine disease epidemics that radically altered southern soldier and civilian diets.

Much has been written about military mascots, including dogs, and this collection also considers that aspect of canine "service" as well as their exploitation during and after the war. Another postwar-themed piece "focuses on the congressional debate surrounding the creation of a national zoo, while another tells the story of how the famous show horse Beautiful Jim Key and his owner, a former slave, exposed sectional and racial fault lines after the war."

These contributions together "argue for an animal-centered narrative to complement the human-centered accounts of the war," and they enjoin us to better and more fully "recognize and appreciate the animal experience of the Civil War period."


  1. There is a new title by Hess in the offing, CIVIL WAR FIELD ARTILLERY: Promise and Performance on the Battlefield. LSU Press, forthcoming.

    1. Stefan: Thanks for the update. I've been waiting for something along these lines for a long while, and had even speculated as to whether Hess would/should do it. It will fill a real void.

    2. Thanks for pointing that out, Stefan. Hess has floated that project for a while now, and it's good to see that it is coming close to fruition. BTW, he contributed an article on battery horses for this anthology.

    3. It looks like it has a 10/5/22 release date.


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