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This book is the latest entry in Stephen Berry and Amy Murrell [End Page 92] Taylor’s UnCivil Wars series, which aims to publish short, teachable works that pull something new out of a picked-over war. This book also measures the progress environmental historians have made in contributing to Civil War historiography. Editor Brian Drake has brought together pathbreaking scholars, including Mart Stewart and Timothy Silver, authors of influential environmental studies of the South, as well as Lisa Brady, Megan Kate Nelson, and Kathryn Shively Meier, who just this decade have published the field’s first monographs on the war.
The volume predominantly sings of warfare and men at war. Eight of its ten chapters infiltrate the lines and return with reports of generals and soldiers talking much less about the enemy and much more about mud, mountains, and malaria. “The bitter onslaughts of nature,” in Meier’s phrase, comprised the most menacing opponent (p. 89). Compared to their colleagues in other fields, military historians require fewer reminders that the natural world shapes the outcome of events. But the contributors here go unusually far in considering the ramifications of material contingencies, frequently to reappraise maligned military figures. Megan Kate Nelson argues that Union major Isaac Lynde’s supposedly cowardly abandonment of New Mexico’s Fort Fillmore followed, instead, his rational assessment of the fort’s poor topographical sitting, the unsuitable climate, and his forgivably poor judgment as he succumbed to heat stroke. Lisa Brady asserts that Union major general Don Carlos Buell failed to come to General Philip Sheridan’s aid at Perryville (the proximate cause of Buell being stripped of his command) because the sounds of battle that were to be his cue were muffled by wind shear and the shapes of the hills. And Meier offers an apology, and even praise, for soldiers who abandoned their posts for days or weeks, explaining that they were motivated not by fear or laziness but by a desire to preserve their bodies and minds from the ravages of, among other terrors, infectious disease and parasites and the similarly noxious cures dispensed by army medics.
The best chapters benefit from—as the founding generation of [End Page 93] environmental historians proposed—attending simultaneously to ecology, economy, and culture. Drew Swanson reveals how bright leaf tobacco managed to thrive in piedmont North Carolina from the 1840s through the rest of the century owing to its biological adaptation to the nutrient-poor soils left behind by extensive plantation agriculture, a wartime price spike combined with access to regional manufacturing centers, and a savvy branding campaign launched by planters. Nelson explicates how the Confederate government’s desire to replenish its treasury with California gold and use the American Southwest to realize its imperial vision precipitated battles in the Chihuahuan Desert, the outcomes of which depended on the responses of the bodies of soldiers and horses to the forbidding climate.
The most perceptive review of this volume may prove to be its own epilogue, in which Paul Sutter questions the utility of the book’s common refrain, “nature has agency.” He judges nature to be unproductively capacious and agency to be insufficiently subtle to describe the relationship between history and the environment. Social historians, the first to deploy agency in their analyses, have for the most part left it behind, deciding it obscured questions about power and politics. The environmental history of the Civil War, in its current state, has little to say about the politics of what was the greatest political crisis in U.S. history. It also has yet to engage scholars of African American history, who have done the most of late to widen our understanding of the causes and consequences of the Civil War. Hopefully, it is in their direction that these and other talented environmental historians will head as the field goes marching on. [End Page 94]
BRIAN HAMILTON is a doctoral candidate in history at...