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The Civil War reshaped the physical and cultural landscape of a nation unprepared for the enormity of a modern war. In her masterfully written and well-documented study of Civil War ruins, Megan Kate Nelson brings into high relief the tension between what the war destroyed and what it created. Ruin Nation includes the narratives of civilians and soldiers, Northerners and Southerners, and free and enslaved persons. Analyzing the destruction of cities, homes, forests, and bodies, the author demonstrates the "evocative power of wartime ruination as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change" (p. 9).
Organized thematically, Nelson offers a complex story of how wartime destruction led a population to question the nature of war and to contemplate their personal experiences. The author begins with a brief overview of Americans' fascination with physical remnants of the past. From natural structures to man-made sites of the "Mound Builders," they sought places providing visual proof of a superior national character. Yet, the Civil War ushered in a new era of ruins. The introduction of new military technologies and changes in federal policies toward civilians created new forms of destruction that affected the physical scenery and psyche of the nation. Nelson's first challenge is to demonstrate how the ruins of cities prompted discussions on the nature of modern warfare and the use of retaliatory measures by battling armies. Soldiers destroyed cities for myriad reasons, whether as a means of keeping supplies out of enemy hands [End Page 597] or to seek vengeance. In any case, Americans confronted the reality that the Civil War blurred the lines between public and private and drew civilians into the conflict.
According to Nelson, nowhere else was this blurred line of demarcation more visible than the invasion and destruction of southern homes. All Southerners—free or enslaved, wealthy or impoverished—were susceptible to Union attack. Nelson, however, aptly contends that for white, wealthy Southerners, the ruins of the "Big House" were proof of a villainous, immoral enemy that targeted defenseless women in their intimate spaces. On the contrary, free and enslaved African Americans saw the destruction of their homes as symbols of liberation. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict helped to destroy the natural environment of the South. Focusing on southern forests, Nelson argues that armies viewed trees as vital resources for fuel, shelter, fortifications, and weapons. Their use of trees devastated the land but also revealed the advanced technological ingenuity of men in a modernizing world. Nelson's last challenge in her study is to explore the ruins of human bodies. Dismembered and maimed bodies provided visual evidence of a new type of warfare and weaponry. Illustrations and photography as well as published eyewitness accounts brought morbid images to the general public. The response, Nelson asserts, was a "mixture of fascination and revulsion" (p. 167). Even more compelling is the author's description of how thousands of ruined soldiers during and after the war confronted a crisis of masculine identity. The permanent physical scars of war emasculated men who felt less than whole. Yet, the cultural dialogue of war wounds praised the ruined soldier as a hero and the federal government offered assistance in the form of employment and prosthetics that allowed soldiers to reclaim their manhood.
Ruin Nation is an illuminating and engaging study of how Americans processed the devastation wrought by a bloody and destructive war. Nelson's use of illustrations and photographs as well as her detailed prose offers a narrative of the Civil War which encourages readers to ponder how Americans created a culture that embraced [End Page 598] ruins but led them to question the horrific nature of war.
Victoria E. Ott is an associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the author of Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War (2008) and is currently researching common whites in Confederate Alabama.