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Henry E. Handerson was a southerner in spirit if not by birth. originally from ohio, he ventured to Virginia and Louisiana to tutor and briefly try his hand at a New orleans medical school until his money ran out. When Civil War demanded that even the itinerant choose their geographical allegiances, Handerson joined the 9th Louisiana and was stationed in Virginia . He quickly found soldiering to be his most challenging occupation yet. in his memoir, he recalled an incident from March 11, 1862. “The rain had fallen almost incessantly during our march, and our camps . . . were converted into shallow lakes by the standing water, which prevented comfortable rest by night or day. After a week or more of such experience , thoroughly worn out by want of sleep, i determined one rainy evening to slip quietly out of camp and seek some shelter where i might rest comfortably for one night at least.”1 Though treading lightly in his memoirs for the sake of his readers (his children), Handerson’s euphemism is clear: the private was straggling, a punishable offense. Straggling, one of the most common disciplinary infractions of the war, was defined as being absent from camp or roll call without leave, as every enlisted man who wished to leave the ranks was required to obtain a pass from his commander.2 The duration of straggling could range from a few hours to a night or even several weeks, the latter often termed French Leave or French Furlough. Unlike in the case of desertion, the straggling soldier’s intent was to return to his unit. Wishing to avoid the stigma of cowardice, Handerson explained, “i felt desperate enough to face almost anything for the chance of securing shelter.”3 Handerson knew that if caught, he could face a number of FoUR The Man Who Has Nothing to Lose” Environmental Impacts on Civil War Straggling in 1862 Virginia kATH RYN S H iVE LY M E i E R “ 68 kathryn Shively Meier humiliating punishments as a straggler or worse yet, be falsely accused of desertion, court-martialed, and executed. But desperation was born of experience. The previous october, he had suffered a prolonged bout of typhoid fever, resulting in weeks at a Charlottesville hospital and subsequent convalescence in a civilian home. By March he was with his unit but was serving in a reduced capacity as bookkeeper to preserve his strength. Handerson’s understanding of disease causation prompted his risky pursuit of lodging. Conventional belief among Civil War common soldiers held that nature—weather, miasmas, the southern climate, seasonal shifts, flora, and fauna—was a major cause of disease and mental unfitness. This experiential understanding of health was popular among laypeople before the war but decidedly flourished among the men who now camped, marched, and fought solely outside.4 To counteract perceived environmental threats, soldiers developed a set of habits that often prevented and sometimes treated ailments. For instance, soldiers sought out clean water for drinking or washing their clothes and bodies; they creatively eradicated insects; they foraged for fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs; and they constructed or located shelters to protect against Virginia’s variable elements.5 Straggling became not only a form of self-care used to avoid environmental exposure, but it also enabled other self-care techniques, which could not be effectively practiced without pushing the limits of army discipline. Because the majority of common soldiers in Civil War armies were volunteers (citizen soldiers), they were often permitted looser discipline by regimental officers than were regular units composed of professional soldiers.6 Those soldiers who straggled for instrumental reasons often returned to the ranks with improved morale and physical health. Straggling, however, also had serious consequences for military campaigns in 1862 Virginia, as sometimes upwards of 20 percent of the soldiers in a given army were absent without permission.7 Manpower was vital to waging successful battles, and commanders and government officials lamented the pervasive absenteeism for good reason; however, rather than identifying and correcting the causes underlying straggling, military and medical command increasingly employed punishment as a deterrent, often conflating straggling and desertion. This is a conflation that historians have preserved. As the case of environmental impacts on absenteeism elucidates, straggling should be studied separately from desertion, because it was sometimes a deliberate survival technique that allowed men to improve their performance as soldiers.8 Desertion, in contrast, was a decision to abandon soldiering altogether. in short, despite its appearance to “The Man Who Has Nothing...


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