Friday, May 6, 2022

Review - "Animal Histories of the Civil War Era" by Earl Hess, ed.

[Animal Histories of the Civil War Era edited by Earl J. Hess (Louisiana State University Press, 2022). Hardcover, illustrations, notes, index. Pages:vii/277. ISBN:978-0-8071-7691-7. $45]

In the new essay anthology Animal Histories of the Civil War Era volume editor and heavy contributor Earl Hess provides us with the first book-length attempt at integrating, in a more formal manner than before, the academic disciplines of animal history and Civil War history. The result is thirteen essays exploring that interdisciplinary crossover as applied to topics before, during, and after the Civil War. The contributing writers are, as Hess describes them, three animal historians with an interest in Civil War history and eight Civil War historians with an interest in animal history. The clear emphasis is on fostering professional ties between largely disengaged disciplines, but the volume could also appeal to those readers outside the academy who have a more than casual interest in emerging areas of study.

Many Civil War readers are at least passingly familiar with the general story behind the antebellum US Army's failed experiment with camel transport, but Michael Woods's opening chapter argues that the idea of using camels in the US (particular in cotton growing areas of the Deep South) was more widespread than previously thought. Several importation schemes surrounding the use of camels as plantation beasts of burden are discussed in his essay, but the writer goes even further in suggesting that those plans were deeply intertwined with the activities of radical proslavery expansionists. The degree to which that connection is integrated with, rather than incidental to, so-called Slave Power conspiracies remains debatable, but it's at the very least suggestive of the kinds of interdisciplinary approaches the anthology wants to promote.

As interesting as camels might be, it's obvious that horses and mules, due to their essential support roles in army supply, transport, and mobility, remain by far the Civil War historical literature's most prominent source of big animal engagement. In this volume, David Gerleman provides readers with an excellent introduction to Civil War horse and mule physical requirements, procurement systems, welfare, physical treatment, and field use. Previously published conclusions regarding Union veterinary care practices being tardy and inadequate are reinforced, yet overall the US system of managing its army's animal motive power was clearly superior to that of its opponent and an important element in Union victory. Undoubtedly drawn from the research behind his upcoming study of Civil War artillery, Earl Hess's first anthology contribution offers a brief glimpse into the world of artillery horses and the heavy demands made upon them. Abraham Gibson follows that with an insightful perspective on the Confederate Army horse supply, maintenance, and replacement policies and practices that reached crisis levels by the middle of the war. Both the Gibson and Gerleman essays offer illuminating contrasts between Union and Confederate military horse management.

The Civil War literature is slowly expanding its horizons when it comes to examining human and animal world interactions in areas beyond the latter's capacity for transmitting disease (about which some fine work has been done). Heavily influenced by Kelby Ouchley's Flora and Fauna of the Civil War (2010), another Hess piece offers an interesting survey of the diversity of soldier-wildlife interactions in the field. Mark Smith gets more specific in the following chapter in his discussion of bees, explaining how they informed both directly and metaphorically the lives and rhetorical perspectives of the Civil War-era generation.

In the anthology's section on animal use as food, Jason Phillips summarizes the interdependency between the southern pig and human populations. Along the way, Phillips points out some significant differences between the sections when it came to hog range management and pork packing. Accompanying that are insights into what the outbreak of war meant to the South's pork supply, which was heavily dependent prewar on northern and Border State imports, both of which were quickly shut down once fighting erupted. Every Civil War student knows that army food supply, quality, and preparation was inconsistent on both sides, and another Hess article, written from a vegetarian perspective, discusses the ways in which unbalanced, meat-centric soldier diets inhibited their personal health and, by extension, their military effectiveness.

A pair of chapters look at canine roles and influences. In Joan Cashin's brief summary of dog exploitation during the war, she comes to the conclusion that they were "weaponized" to a greater extent than commonly believed. In the Civil War-era literature, dogs are frequently discussed in the context of their bloodhound work tracking runaway slaves, anti-Confederate "Brush Men," and escaped Union POWs, but Lorien Foote also reminds us how practically and culturally important they were to game hunting and general security across the South from large plantations to subsistence farms. Critically, she extends that examination into the postwar period when unregulated dog ownership sparked legislative concerns (with all their political, class, economic, and racial implications) over controlling canine numbers and the alleged toll those animals took on livestock (specifically the sheep industry). A wide range of abatement proposals, ranging from taxation all the way to lethal measures, were debated.

Many different animal species were adopted as unit mascots during the conflict, and Brian Matthew Jordan uses the story of "Old Abe," the venerated eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin, as a case study highlighting the longstanding bonds forged between Union veterans and those animals. In a strong reminder that the roots of anthropomorphizing pets has a long history, the Old Abe story also reveals how some 8th Wisconsin veterans believed that the eagle came through association and shared experience to communicate the same partisan ideological attitudes held by its human comrades. A time during which animals intersected with national politics and ongoing debates over the role of government is interestingly expressed through Daniel Vandersommers's examination of the 1888-91 congressional debates (which frequently took on sectional overtones) regarding the proposed establishment of a national zoo in Washington, D.C. Finally, Paula Tarankow uncovers the postwar story of the celebrated entertainment duo of horse talent "Beautiful Jim Key" and his ex-slave performance handler William Key. Tarankow argues that their popular traveling show helped transform old views on equine intelligence as well as, perhaps, deeper connections between human and animal ethical understanding.

Society's views on animal sentience and ethical expectations regarding the limits of animal exploitation are, of course, ever evolving, and Hess and his contributors point readers toward unresolved debates over animal agency as well as differing conclusions surrounding the degree to which Civil War traumas and experiences transformed popular views on animal treatment and conservation. Drawing connections between animal history studies and a number of established Civil War history sub-disciplines, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era is an engaging introduction to "animal-centered" Civil War history in its currently nascent form. Only time will tell what future depth and direction Civil War animal history might take, but this volume certainly provides ample food for thought for those prospective scholars who might be interested in embarking on that journey toward a new branch of Civil War scholarship.

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