- Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia by Kathryn Shively Meier
Don’t let the title of this book mislead you. Within your Civil War library, this treatise belongs on the right edge of your collection of medical books, [End Page 603] but not too far from those few and recent volumes that fit firmly in the subgenre of environmental history such as Lisa M. Brady’s War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (2012) and Megan Kate Nelson’s Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012). However, even a casual perusal of this new work will verify that human beings and their environments were as inseparable during the Civil War as they are now and that divorcing the environment from any field of Civil War study may result in the peril of incomplete analyses.
Kathryn Shively Meier, an assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, states in the introduction that her book “at its core is an ethnographic history of soldier health” (13). It is delineated in time by the year 1862 and in geography by the state of Virginia, with separate considerations of the campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula. Her methodology involved mining and analyzing the treasure trove of soldier diaries, letters, and memoirs from that arena for anecdotes pertaining to the writers’ physical and mental health. Considering the extent of disease and other debilitation caused by environmental components such as infectious organisms and inclement weather, Meier asks with gravitas, “How did any Civil War soldier remain healthy?” (2). Her answer and the thread that binds the book is the practice of what she terms “self-care.”
Meier begins with a summary of the state of antebellum health and medicine in America. Foremost in the discussion is the verity that causative factors of most diseases were unknown. Germ theory was yet to be proposed, and even the link between mosquitoes and malaria was undiscovered. Doctors of the day treated patients with nostrums and procedures such as bloodletting that were more harmful than helpful. Rising challenges by reformers and practitioners of alternative medicine caused a degree of chaos in the medical field that left prewar American health in a state of decline. Highlighting inclement weather and diseases, Meier dissects the sufferings of soldiers as related in their writings and supports the theme that “[the] enemy was environment—the weather, climate, seasons, terrain features, flora, and fauna that they could not avoid” (45).
Meier thoroughly traces the evolution of wartime military health care systems in the United States and the Confederacy until 1862. The attitudes of soldiers toward the bewildering medical bureaucracies are assessed in societal context with the conclusion that many preferred to look after themselves. Soldiers practiced self-care to remain comfortable and disease-free, [End Page 604] employing diverse techniques from washing clothes to eliminate parasites, to foraging for blackberries to prevent scurvy. Self-care also included the nursing of soldiers by other soldiers and by civilians, such as those affiliated with the U.S. Sanitary Commission. According to Meier, straggling was a purposeful form of self-care. Defined as “being absent from camp or roll call without leave,” straggling often occurred when soldiers sought food or shelter from harsh weather (127). The men were forced to weigh the benefits of straggling against the risk of military punishment in a setting of shifting tolerance by commanders. The author concludes that self-care was critical to the physical and mental well-being of many Civil War participants, and that this understudied behavior adds new insights into the daily lives of common soldiers.
The narrative is followed by four figures and two tables. All are helpful, but as the author mentions early in the text, conclusions are based on soldier anecdotes not subject to statistical analyses. The relatively small sample size (n < 60 in three out of four categories) when compared to the hundreds of...