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Nature's Civil War

Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia

Kathryn Shively Meier

Publication Year: 2013

In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions--strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat--which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers' letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Kathryn Shively Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy--nature.
Meier explores how soldiers forged informal networks of health care based on prewar civilian experience and adopted a universal set of self-care habits, including boiling water, altering camp terrain, eradicating insects, supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables, constructing protective shelters, and most controversially, straggling. In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand. While self-care often proved superior to relying upon the inchoate military medical infrastructure, commanders chastised soldiers for testing army discipline, ultimately redrawing the boundaries of informal health care.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Series: Civil War America

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xiv

At one point in time, the manuscript of this book was absurdly replete with examples and unnecessarily didactic. Good-natured and highly respectable people more than did their parts in attempting to steer me back toward good history. All remaining folly is mine. ...

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pp. 1-15

Civil war changed Virginia. In 1862, the blue-green patchwork of Shenandoah Valley hills and farms and the immense, slithering rivers of the Peninsula, so picturesque from a distance, became more like sprawling latrines to the hundreds of thousands of humans who hunkered down to make war. ...

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1. Health and the American Populace before 1862

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pp. 16-34

In their wartime journals and correspondence, soldiers fixated upon cataloging their natural environments. Pvt. William Randolph Smith of the 17th Virginia, for example, wrote in March 1862, “There is the finest pine timber on the road I ever saw. . . . The farms are also fine and fertile. . . . From Robison River to the Rapidan is the finest country I ever saw. ...

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2. At War with Nature

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pp. 35-64

Just a few days into first encampment, soldiers had to reexamine the presumption that those raised on the fresh air of country life had superior constitutions to the urban-bred. “Death invaded my camp,” observed Capt. George Clark of Alabama, astonished by the swiftness of this transformation. ...

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3. Soldiers and Official Military Health Care

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pp. 65-98

Before the war, common soldiers could scarcely have imagined the sprawling, alien medical systems that would be constructed by the United States and the Confederacy. Properly supporting soldier health necessitated the consideration of supply lines and camp sanitation, sick call and diagnostic procedures in the ranks, ...

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4. Becoming a Seasoned Soldier

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pp. 99-125

Given the tremendous environmental pressures on mental and physical health and the unreliable nature of the Confederate and Union military medical systems, common soldiers attempted to reconstruct personal, informal networks of environmental information and health care based on their prewar experiences. ...

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5. Straggling and the Limits of Self-Care

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pp. 126-146

The regimentation of military life was intended to deny individuality. In doing so, it aimed to fortify mental health by serving as a barrier against inaction, resignation, and reluctance to kill and physical health by regulating camp behavior and hygiene. It compelled soldiers to complete the mundane and unpalatable duties necessary to maintaining an army, ...

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Conclusion: Self-Care beyond 1862

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pp. 147-152

On May 22, 1862, New York artillerist George Perkins lay in camp listening to the thuds of hail “as big as marbles and some as big as English walnuts.” Though his “little tent stood the storm well,” the private was sodden and, over the course of the night, developed a raging fever. ...

Appendix 1. Figures

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pp. 153-154

Appendix 2. Tables

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pp. 155-156


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pp. 157-186


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pp. 187-208


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pp. 209-219

E-ISBN-13: 9781469612607
E-ISBN-10: 1469612607
Print-ISBN-13: 9781469610764
Print-ISBN-10: 1469610760

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Civil War America
The Civil War America series interprets the field broadly to include biography, military and nonmilitary history, works that explore the immediate background of the conflict, and studies of postbellum topics related to the war. A few diaries, sets of letters, and memoirs that make exceptional contributions to our understanding of the era also will appear as volumes in the series.