Civil War scholarship has recently seen significant growth in the social, cultural, and environmental contours of the conflict. Works by Lisa M. Brady and Megan Kate Nelson have underscored the decisive role played by the natural and built environment in shaping the military and cultural foundations of the Civil War. Kathryn Shively Meier’s Nature’s Civil War is a welcome and much-needed addition to this important historiographical trend. Her case study, which uses the 1862 Peninsula and Shenandoah Valley campaigns as a comparative palette, explores the social history of soldiers at war against nature. For Meier, this is a study of a different kind of war—a ubiquitous and often devastating conflict between common soldiers and germs, weather, terrain, and parasites. Central to her thesis are the attempts by soldiers, if often strained and remarkably deadly, to control their environments. Meier convincingly argues that instead of becoming passive victims of the myriad environmental hardships, “soldiers themselves developed an almost primitive relationship with the environment from the moment they left home . . . creating circumstances that fostered their own best chances for surviving the Civil War” (p. 151).
Germs, weather, and vermin together proved a more persistent and deadly enemy for Union and Confederate soldiers than any human foe. Indeed, as Meier shows, common contagions alone “ravaged” a startling 50 percent of new volunteers. Difficult terrain and extreme temperatures also took a toll. Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the early winter of 1862 thrust Confederates and their Union foes into harsh winter weather and challenging mountains giving rise to diseases that thrived on cold and weak soldiers. Meier balances Jackson’s Valley Campaign with the humid, muddy, and mosquito-infested Peninsula Campaign the following spring and summer. Union general George [End Page 679] B. McClellan’s frustratingly slow push up the Peninsula pitted tired and frustrated soldiers against malaria and water-borne illnesses that thinned the ranks on both sides while vast quantities of rain-induced mud hampered the already glacial pace of the Union army toward Richmond. In the end, Meier contends, Union and Confederate soldiers’ “enemy was environment—the weather, climate, seasons, terrain features, flora, and fauna that they could not avoid, exposed as they were by lack of supplies, a pace too quick in the Valley to secure proper protection and too slow in the Peninsula to avoid befouled soil and water, and swarms of disease-bearing insects” (p. 45).
At the core of Meier’s work is how soldiers adapted—physically and mentally—to such incredible environmental hardships. Official military health care was deficient on both sides. Comprised of a “bewilderingly complex” top-to-bottom medical system dominated by people who could hardly relate to the health care needs of common soldiers, Union and Confederate troops were forced to “accept responsibility for their own bodies or succumb to illness and possibly death” (p. 98). Self care begot what Meier calls the “Seasoned Soldier”—one who had survived the initial outbreaks of communicative diseases and took it upon himself to maintain, as much as possible, his own health and mental well-being. Soldiers increasingly learned how to diagnose, treat, and prevent many common diseases caused by parasites, poor water, and close contact in extreme environments. Such adaptations, Meier contends, “provided the opportunity for average Americans to proliferate knowledge about health and nature and innovate with an unprecedented urgency” (p. 148).
Nature’s Civil War is an innovative, engaging, and welcome addition to the scholarship on both common soldiers and environmental history. By using two distinct 1862 campaigns with equal emphasis on Union and Confederate soldiers and how they adapted, or succumbed to, their war-induced environments, Meier provides remarkable insight into the social and environmental history of common soldiers at war while simultaneously posing provocative directions for further work on Civil War environmental history. [End Page 680]
MATTHEW M. STITH is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at...