Kathryn Shively Meier’s Nature’s Civil War adds significantly to Civil War studies, a discipline continuously growing since the last shot was fired nearly 150 years ago. She combines innovative environmental history with “the stalled field of common soldier studies, a tremendously popular branch of military [End Page 73] history” (8). In doing so, she transforms the antiquated tale of troop movements into an elaborate epic that men only sometimes successfully endured. Meier explores nature’s transition into war as soldiers contaminated water, created waste piles, destroyed forests, and littered the landscape with the corpses of animals, enemies, and friends. In turn, Union and Confederate men had to defend themselves against nature: fighting pests, scavenging for food, seeking clean water, tearing through woods and swamps for better shelter, and straining to maintain their deteriorated bodies.
Meier specifically studies the campaigns of Federal and Confederate troops in Virginia during 1862. This close lens provides her with ample sources and endless possibilities to explore larger issues. She employs letters, diaries, memoirs, manuals, medical records, newspaper articles, and government documents. Her wide variety of sources repeatedly reveals that the environment was a key forgotten contender during the Civil War. While Meier’s book may be rather short, the pages come alive with the voices of those long gone; she utilizes their words to expose the constant pressure soldiers faced after being torn away from home and transplanted into the wilderness. For many, the enemy was not just the soldier opposing them on the battlefield but also the environment on all sides. Instead of being inspired by God or camaraderie, one Federal soldier bitterly wrote his wife, “I wish [McClellan] might drive the reble army to hell so as to let us out of the swamp” (48). Their desperation uncovers a fear that few scholars have discussed: the common soldier’s anxiety over surviving the everyday hardships of the Civil War.
Meier writes that soldiers, military commanders, and medical authorities all worked to relieve the staggering effects of nature on troops. In 1862, still quite early in the war, both sides of the conflict were scrambling to protect and serve sick soldiers. Military leaders were stunned as soldiers collapsed from the effects of weather and pests; these losses ultimately altered the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsular campaigns. Newspapers printed images of Federal soldiers literally fighting the Virginia forests, and Confederates confidently wrote home as they “gleefully anticipated the destruction the Peninsula miasmas would wreck upon their enemies” (52). Meier convincingly shows that nature waged its own war in Virginia: a ceaseless battle to diminish and destroy those who occupied her swamps and woods. While many scholars today have apparently forgotten this secondary conflict, the military and medical professionals in 1862 were perfectly aware of and perhaps even fixated on this terrible struggle. [End Page 74]
Meier’s argument goes beyond the environmental effects on soldiers and reaches how men chose to fight back. As communicable diseases devastated his troops, one Confederate captain faintly observed, “Death invaded my camp” (35). In response, military leaders and physicians attempted to enforce rules to stop nature’s onslaught. Yet, common soldiers often refused to rely on remedies like quinine and standard army regulations; Meier claims that many soldiers instead practiced self-care and that these men were the healthiest, regardless of what side they fought for. She contends that regimented military life “handcuffed soldiers to simplistic procedures in highly complex situations and could, contradictorily, engender passivity, as some men were tempted to forfeit responsibility for their survival up the chain of command” (126). Her work suggests that more scholars should pair environmental concerns with traditional military history to see what extraordinary results may emerge.
In Nature’s Civil War, Meier reveals the lost lives of common soldiers by investigating their relentless everyday struggles to survive. Although her narrow scope leaves much to be explored, her study provides an excellent beginning to a topic that other historians should further examine. The...