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Ruin Nation

Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War

Series: UnCivil Wars
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Ruin Nation
    Book Description:

    During the Civil War, cities, houses, forests, and soldiers' bodies were transformed into "dead heaps of ruins," novel sights in the southern landscape. How did this happen, and why? And what did Americans-northern and southern, black and white, male and female-make of this proliferation of ruins? Ruin Nation is the first book to bring together environmental and cultural histories to consider the evocative power of ruination as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change. Megan Kate Nelson examines the narratives and images that Americans produced as they confronted the war's destructiveness. Architectural ruins-cities and houses-dominated the stories that soldiers and civilians told about the "savage" behavior of men and the invasions of domestic privacy. The ruins of living things-trees and bodies-also provoked discussion and debate. People who witnessed forests and men being blown apart were plagued by anxieties about the impact of wartime technologies on nature and on individual identities. The obliteration of cities, houses, trees, and men was a shared experience. Nelson shows that this is one of the ironies of the war's ruination-in a time of the most extreme national divisiveness people found common ground as they considered the war's costs. And yet, very few of these ruins still exist, suggesting that the destructive practices that dominated the experiences of Americans during the Civil War have been erased from our national consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4379-2
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. INTRODUCTION. American Ruins
    (pp. 1-9)

    On a blustery day in December 1864, New York soldier and former Andersonville prisoner of war John Worrell Northrop clutched the railings of a Confederate flag-of-truce vessel in Charleston Harbor. He and his fellow prisoners were to be exchanged, transferred to a Union boat that lay past Fort Moultrie, farther out in open water. Despite the weakness in his legs as a result of prolonged starvation, Northrop stood on the deck, attempting to catch a glimpse of the Union boat. “We could not see our streaming banner,” he wrote, “but we felt it.” The storm drove the Confederate ship ashore,...

  6. ONE Our Own Pompeii: Ruined Cities
    (pp. 10-60)

    Urban centers owe their existence to warfare. The earliest human communities created defensive strongholds to safeguard themselves and their wealth from attack; the towns that survived over the centuries are “palimpsests of 1,000 years of defensive architecture.”¹ Most American cities were not forts or citadels, however; they evolved as economic and political centers in the absence of constant, large-scale warfare. As such, ironically, they invited attack. Union and Confederate soldiers used smoothbore and rifled cannon and incendiary torches to convert many of the South’s cities and large towns into piles of rubble as part of larger campaigns. Most military commanders...

  7. TWO Lone Chimneys: Domestic Ruins
    (pp. 61-102)

    She held her breath and waited, squeezing the children a little too tightly. The guard had been called off and left with his command, so it was just a matter of time. The minutes passed. Then footsteps sounded on the stairs, one pair of boots and then two and then ten. The sound of a door hitting a wall echoed like a pistol shot, and she jumped. She could hear them, moving everywhere throughout the house, breaking open presses, bureaus, and trunks, sending wood splinters whirling through the air. The loud riiiip of sheets and pillowcases, the crash of medicine...

  8. THREE Battle Logs: Ruined Forests
    (pp. 103-159)

    Harper’s Pictorial History of the War (1866) contains a two-page illustration of the deserted winter encampment of Confederate soldiers serving under General Braxton Bragg in Tennessee (see fig. 3.1). The timber used to construct the huts has disappeared, either burned or scavenged by soldiers or locals; nothing is left but a huddled group of chimneys, eerily reminiscent of the “ashes of southern homes” that littered the landscape of war. That same year, behind the former Union lines at Petersburg, Virginia, stood the empty winter quarters of the Sixth Corps. J. T. Trowbridge pronounced it “one of the most beautiful villages...

  9. FOUR Empty Sleeves and Government Legs: The Ruins of Men
    (pp. 160-227)

    As nineteen-year-old Napoleon Perkins set up his caisson in an orchard to the right of the Chancellors’ house in the Wilderness, Confederates opened up on the Union lines, and “it was something frightful the way their shells and canister sweped our lines.” Single canister shots took out entire gun teams as leaves and blossoms from the orchard’s apple trees drifted down to the ground, settling gently on the bleeding bodies of men and horses. A shell whistled into the lines and cut the battery’s corporal in two and then another hit Perkins’s horse in the right foreleg. As he moved...

  10. CONCLUSION. The Ruins of History
    (pp. 228-240)

    After slogging through the swampy ravines of Mississippi during Grant’s campaign for Vicksburg in May 1863, Ohio sergeant Osborn Oldroyd confessed to looking forward to the siege of the city and the sharpshooting practice it would afford him. As he and his men fired over the edge of their rifle pits at the Confederates, who were near enough to spot with the naked eye, the bullets flew with “the familiar zip and whiz.” So many of them littered the ground around the Union lines that Oldroyd “gathered quite a collection of balls, which I mean to send home as relics...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 241-280)
    (pp. 281-312)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 313-332)