Lisa Brady's War Upon the Land inaugurates the first wave of full-length environmental histories of the Civil War. While her case studies—Vicksburg, the 1864 Shenandoah Valley campaign, and Sherman's march through Georgia and the Carolinas—are welltrod scholarly territory, her analysis is satisfyingly fresh. She argues that the success of Union strategy was linked to the most important nineteenth-century relationship of America to nature: control. The agricultural system of the Confederacy not only allowed its people protection from the threats inherent in unmanaged environment, but it also lent cultural meaning to the fledgling country. By 1865, Union generals undermined the ability of the Confederacy to control nature, thereby reducing its citizens to dependent wards in need of food and resources. The landscape, astutely defined as "the product of a community's relationship with the surrounding natural environment" (p. 92), lay in ruin, helping to prompt the Confederate surrender.
Brady's choice of the three campaigns provides diversity and a sense of Union strategic evolution, despite their late dates. Operations at Vicksburg progressed from a blundering attempt at canal construction to Grant's masterful use of foraging as ecological tool. Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley troops ravaged what they saw as the most civilized of southern farms, eliminating the main food source of the Confederacy. And Sherman's men accomplished an easy foraging campaign in Georgia only to bushwhack their way through South Carolina. Throughout the narrative, environment remains a neutral agent, which "provided great assistance if approached correctly" (p. 48). [End Page 595]
Brady accounts for the shortcomings of the case studies in her introduction, notably the dearth of southern voices, who enter the narrative only as responses to destruction. The result can, at times, feel triumphalist toward Union victory without a clear sense of what was key to unlocking Grant's successful environmental strategy. But this is likely because there was no illuminating moment for Grant, but rather a persistent plodding through hostile terrain until he struck upon opportunities to unhinge the Confederate landscape. A critical aspect of the strategy was controlling food, by foraging campaigns and agricultural destruction, but Brady also contends that engineering training at West Point encouraged strategic use of the environment.
One of Brady's most powerful applications of environmental history to the war, which others will surely expand upon, is her use of Donald Worster's "agroecosystem" (p. 9). Agroecosystems—part natural, part domesticated landscapes— "may or may not be as stable as the ecosystems they replace" (p. 10). Thus to Northerners, the disorderly agricultural system of the Confederacy appeared fragile and easily exploited. The flaw in southern planning was that cotton required great tracts of land, which often confined husbandry and food crops messily to the periphery. Reconstruction, then, became an attempt to restructure the southern environment in the northern image. Part of postwar northern planning also involved western preservation, specifically of Yosemite.
Brady contends that her approach could be applied to any war, and she has since moved on to explore other military conflicts to prove that point. She does, however, set the bar high for environmental histories of the Civil War with meticulous analysis and a robust evidential base. Her introductory literature review is an excellent point of entry for scholars unversed in the emerging scholarship, and her conclusion poses thought-provoking speculations that scholars will flesh out in coming years. Overall, Brady proves that the environmental historical perspective can help unravel persistent mysteries surrounding the war, as well as ask questions we have not yet considered. It is a promising beginning. [End Page 596]
Kathryn Shively Meier teaches history at the University of Scranton in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She is author of the forthcoming book, The Seasoned Soldier: Coping with the Environment in Civil War Virginia, 1862 and is currently researching the relationship between environment and medicine in Civil War America.