Places of Exchange: An Analysis of Human and Materiél Flows in Civil War Alexandria, Virginia
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Places of Exchange
An Analysis of Human and Materiél Flows in Civil War Alexandria, Virginia

On September 18, 1861, the men of the 2d Connecticut arrived in Alexandria, Virginia. Assessing the transition from their homes in Connecticut to the hardships of soldiering, the regimental historian later reflected that conditions were rough: the “hard ground, severe duties, irregular sleep, bad food and worse water of a Virginia camp” were impossible to endure “without loss of health and life.” Indeed, one and a half months after their arrival, Daniel E. Lyman of Company C became the first soldier in the regiment to die. He died of typhoid fever, and by New Year’s Day 1862, just a few months later, seventeen more men had died of various diseases, including chronic diarrhea, pneumonia, and dysentery.1

The 2d Connecticut’s experience was typical of the Union army in many respects, and it reveals the importance of the interstitial zone between the home front and the battlefield, where these soldiers spent considerable time and where many of them died. The regiment’s soldiers were among the first to volunteer and arrive in Alexandria, and from there they went to the war front and back again numerous times. They spent many months encamped in this newly occupied zone, along with tens of thousands of other men and animals, where they exchanged microbes in a process intensified and [End Page 359] concentrated by the war. For the soldiers of the 2d Connecticut, the war was fought not only on battlefields, but also with and in their bodies, as well as in and with the natural features of the environment. In these interstitial spaces, the battles taking place in soldiers’ bodies and their relationship to environmental conditions became especially significant, if not very well known or understood at the time. As the war increased the flow of humans, animals, materiél, and insects into specific regions and places, it altered both the disease environment and the natural landscape.2

Yet, few spatial analyses of the Civil War account for the heightened conditions in places such as Alexandria, Virginia, or for the materiél, human, animal, and biological flows through them. The most detailed description of the Union occupation, its pattern, and its effects is Stephen Ash’s analysis of “three worlds,” comprising “the garrison towns, the Confederate frontier, and No-Man’s Land.” Union occupation, he points out, not only advanced further into the South over time but also acquired “a distinctive geography.” He argues that the experiences in each of the “three spheres might well be considered different worlds.” In sum, Ash’s typology of occupation zones provided one the first attempts to assess the geographic dimensions of the war over time. More recently, scholars have examined the destruction of the war in spatial terms and explored in depth the intensity of change in specific locales. In one of the most ambitious spatial analyses of the war, Scott Nesbit and Edward L. Ayers have attempted to chart the process of emancipation over time and across space, imposing spatial patterns on an otherwise highly variable individual experience.3 [End Page 360]

Although not specifically focused on the war’s geography, other historians have assessed the environmental impact of the war in broad terms and begun to suggest spatial patterns through which the war unfolded. In particular, Lisa Brady examined the role of nature as an active force in the Civil War, focusing on how the landscape was transformed as part of military strategy, and how Americans perceived, interacted with, and controlled the landscape. She argued that the Union army targeted the South’s agricultural and cultural landscape, reduced it to a “wasteland,” and, in so doing, altered or interrupted its relationship with nature. Yael A. Sternhell has recently explained the war in the Confederacy as a “revolution in motion,” in which large numbers of soldiers and civilians crisscrossed the nation, exchanged information, shifted loyalties, and affected the military outcome of the conflict. Megan Kate Nelson has described the destructive nature of the war and how the ruination of houses, cities, land, and bodies was...