Nature's Civil War

Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia

Kathryn Shively Meier
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Nature's Civil War
    Book Description:

    In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions--strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat--which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers' letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Kathryn Shively Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy--nature.Meier explores how soldiers forged informal networks of health care based on prewar civilian experience and adopted a universal set of self-care habits, including boiling water, altering camp terrain, eradicating insects, supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables, constructing protective shelters, and most controversially, straggling. In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand. While self-care often proved superior to relying upon the inchoate military medical infrastructure, commanders chastised soldiers for testing army discipline, ultimately redrawing the boundaries of informal health care.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1260-7
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    Civil war changed Virginia. In 1862, the blue-green patchwork of Shenandoah Valley hills and farms and the immense, slithering rivers of the Peninsula, so picturesque from a distance, became more like sprawling latrines to the hundreds of thousands of humans who hunkered down to make war. Regiments and their horses rapidly fouled the water supplying encampments, and, in the worse cases, piled trash high between the rows of their tents, forming transitory urban slums. Armies felled trees for firewood and shelter, eliminating protection from the sun and rain, while digging entrenchments produced standing pools of water that bred mosquito larvae....

  5. 1 Health and the American Populace before 1862
    (pp. 16-34)

    In their wartime journals and correspondence, soldiers fixated upon cataloging their natural environments. Pvt. William Randolph Smith of the 17th Virginia, for example, wrote in March 1862, “There is the finest pine timber on the road I ever saw. . . . The farms are also fine and fertile. . . . From Robison River to the Rapidan is the finest country I ever saw. The land is easily cultivated and is splendid.” He also recorded the weather with painstaking precision: “We had some fine weather on the march, but some very bad. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the 11th, and...

  6. 2 At War with Nature
    (pp. 35-64)

    Just a few days into first encampment, soldiers had to reexamine the presumption that those raised on the fresh air of country life had superior constitutions to the urban-bred. “Death invaded my camp,” observed Capt. George Clark of Alabama, astonished by the swiftness of this transformation. Predictably, measles, mumps, small pox, scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and other communicable disease ravaged approximately half of new recruits, leaving the lucky survivors seasoned by the first transition to army life. Clark had to admit, he was confused: “Remarkable as it may seem, the stout country boys whom it may be supposed...

  7. 3 Soldiers and Official Military Health Care
    (pp. 65-98)

    Before the war, common soldiers could scarcely have imagined the sprawling, alien medical systems that would be constructed by the United States and the Confederacy. Properly supporting soldier health necessitated the consideration of supply lines and camp sanitation, sick call and diagnostic procedures in the ranks, treatment at regimental and remote hospitals, and rehabilitation. Because of the division of labor in military bureaucracy, not all these elements were under the purview of the two sides’ Medical Departments. The health systems of the Union and Confederacy involved the Quartermaster and Commissary Departments, commanding generals, military and medical officers, the presidents, and,...

  8. 4 Becoming a Seasoned Soldier
    (pp. 99-125)

    Given the tremendous environmental pressures on mental and physical health and the unreliable nature of the Confederate and Union military medical systems, common soldiers attempted to reconstruct personal, informal networks of environmental information and health care based on their prewar experiences. This unofficial system would be based on spontaneous opportunity, experiential knowledge, and the aid of fellow soldiers and individuals near the front and at home. While it was often impossible for most soldiers, except Virginians stationed near their homes or those on furlough, to receive physical nursing from their loved ones, correspondence served as a proxy for family care,...

  9. 5 Straggling and the Limits of Self-Care
    (pp. 126-146)

    The regimentation of military life was intended to deny individuality. In doing so, it aimed to fortify mental health by serving as a barrier against inaction, resignation, and reluctance to kill and physical health by regulating camp behavior and hygiene. It compelled soldiers to complete the mundane and unpalatable duties necessary to maintaining an army, typically a source of disgruntlement for volunteers. It also, however, handcuffed soldiers to simplistic procedures in highly complex situations and could, contradictorily, engender passivity, as some men were tempted to forfeit responsibility for their survival up the chain of command. Herein lay the paradox of...

  10. CONCLUSION Self-Care beyond 1862
    (pp. 147-152)

    On May 22, 1862, New York artillerist George Perkins lay in camp listening to the thuds of hail “as big as marbles and some as big as English walnuts.” Though his “little tent stood the storm well,” the private was sodden and, over the course of the night, developed a raging fever. The next morning, he dropped out of his battery to wander the bewildering, washed-out roads of the Virginia Peninsula. That evening he fell in with some Michiganites, who took refuge in a barn. All night they heard rats scampering across the planks, stealing kernels of corn. A few...

  11. APPENDIX 1 Figures
    (pp. 153-154)
  12. APPENDIX 2 Tables
    (pp. 155-156)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 157-186)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 187-208)
  15. Index
    (pp. 209-219)