An Environmental History of the Civil War Cover

An Environmental History of the Civil War

Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver

University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2020, 272 pages

Book Review published on: July 31, 2020

Most readers of this review are probably familiar with the tactical details and leadership decisions of the major battles of the American Civil War. In their book An Environmental History of the Civil War, Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver highlight a relatively unknown and little discussed area that factored greatly before, during, and after the battles. Their intent is to give the environmental factors visibility as a “prominent and often neglected actor” in our knowledge and to study the events during that period for potential use for the future.

As I read this book, most of the Nation was in the quarantine/stay-at-home conditions to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Strangely enough, the first chapter of the book is about health, where the authors describe and explain how and why disease ravaged both armies as they formed large concentrations before the war. Both armies suffered from diseases such as typhoid, smallpox, malaria, and sexually transmitted diseases. This was due to the collection of so many people from different areas that the diseases could find new hosts. These were huge factors in the reduction of combat strength, and at one point in the Confederate army, venereal disease rivaled measles. Many of the treatments for these diseases involved mercury and opium, which caused other problems and many would remain addicted after the war. The authors discuss the lack of healthy food preparation, hygiene standards, etc., all of which we account for in today’s military. Union forces documented over 1.75 million cases of diarrhea or dysentery that resulted in forty-five thousand deaths, and many suffered from this for the rest of their lives. In context, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army at the Battle of Sharpsburg was thirty-eight thousand men.

The authors delve into the weather aspects of 1862 that impacted many battles and the supply to both armies such as excessive rain in the spring that prevented growth of or killed crops and drought in the summer and fall, which caused low water levels in rivers and impeded boat movement of troops and supplies. They also explore the impacts of weather and animals to explain areas that most would not learn about elsewhere. For example, as Union Gen. George McClellan retreated during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, the cattle were in the lead of the troops to prevent capture. The cattle left feces on the roads that were muddy and wet, which in return got into the water pools that soldiers drank from, leading to diarrhea and disabling 20 percent of the army. Another example is how the Union troops would contaminate wells or ponds with dead animals to prevent other forces from using them during the drought in New Mexico. Related to health, the authors address the topic of food. The Union army utilized desiccated vegetables for rations. When soldiers refused to eat this unappetizing food, scurvy began to run through the camps, reducing combat strength. They discuss the geology that caused the North to have more fertile ground, thus producing more food stuffs and better meat production to support the Union army, which affected the generally acknowledged “agricultural” South.

The details the authors provide are amazing and a testament to the research they conducted. They provide details from firsthand accounts of soldiers, military and civilian leaders, and civilians appropriately throughout the book. While there is a lot of information and statistics, the reader does not get bogged down in these as the authors aptly provide enough details before the battles, effects and history, culture of the area, explanations of the topics, and impacts before moving on to the next topic. They combine both large battles and smaller engagements. They also discuss the economic impacts of the different areas they cover such as wheat production loss that eventually drove the price for a barrel of wheat to $1,500.

Additionally, the authors examine animal use, waste, and carcass disposal, pointing out that there was virtually no animal care, and there were only two veterinarians in the Union army at the beginning of the war. This may explain why little care was given to the animals by the Union that may have led to a “glanders” outbreak that killed almost 250,000 horses in the army. Browning and Silver note that a greatly possible reason why McClennan did not pursue Lee after Sharpsburg was because of an epidemic of “greased heel” that affected more than half of his horses.

The authors also discuss the impacts to the environment from the deforestation of the southern lands for campfires, railroads, furnaces, etc., that impacted the South for decades to volumes of lead in major battles leeching into the water supplies. Throughout, the authors discuss impacts following the war from fewer eligible southern men for marriage, new fencing laws, creating the precursor to the National Weather Service, the first veterinary school at Iowa State, and the deforestation impacts that led to preserving the Yellowstone National Park. There is so much information in the book that is presented in a very meaningful way and thoughtfully presented. It is hard for this book review to do the book justice. Readers of this book will not study or look at the battles of any war the same without wanting to know more about the environmental impacts.

The book is exceptionally well written. The organization of the book and style of the writers flows seamlessly as an engaging and easy read. I highly recommend this book. It is an excellent and important read for military commanders, medical professionals, and logisticians. We have overcome many of the lessons from this book, but they are important to know and consider, especially in humanitarian operations, conflict, or partnership areas that we have operated before. All military professionals who read this book will not take vaccinations, field sanitation kits, MREs, or kitchen police duty for granted anymore.

Book Review written by: Col. James Kennedy, U.S. Army, Retired, Woodbridge, Virginia