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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

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. the bodies of men and animals slain in battle polluted soil and air and attracted fearsome swarms of flies. in 1862, Virginia looked and felt ominous, and indeed it was.

War also changed common soldiers. the men who composed Union and Confederate armies now labored almost entirely outside, exposed to exceptionally challenging conditions with scanty protection. Too often they lacked supplies, infrastructures, and, crucially, the scientific knowledge that might have encouraged better environmental management. When illness or melancholy struck, soldiers most intensely missed civilian life; before the war, they had relied upon family members (usually women) to care for them in times of distress. Now they were expected to turn to army surgeons, whose limited understandings of disease and uneven training rendered them unreliable, their treatments suspect. Worse still, soldiers would be treated in the hospital, a space once reserved for the unloved, the itinerant, and the urban poor. the soldier became entangled in this frightening new existence before he even fired his weapon at the enemy.

Eighteen sixty-two Virginia, and indeed the Civil War as a whole, provides a window in time to when hundreds of thousands of average . . .

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