- War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War by Joan E. Cashin
In this deeply researched book, Joan Cashin explores the struggle between soldiers and civilians over human and material resources during the Civil War. The historical record exudes southern privation and destruction, but Cashin pursues more elusive dimensions of this problem. She seeks individual cases of seizure and loss, the mentalities of soldiers who plundered, and the bureaucracies that failed to account for rampant theft and ruin. Unearthing the Confederate side of these issues is particularly daunting because government documents burned or vanished in [End Page 647] 1865. Cashin studies extensive archival sources to overcome this challenge. By relying on personal correspondence, diaries, court-martial records, quartermaster accounts, newspapers, memoirs, the U.S. Southern Claims Commission papers, WPA narratives, and the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, she argues that both armies took what they wanted—including civilian hostages—with little regard for government regulations, military orders, or social norms. Moreover, Cashin shows that this voracious exploitation started in 1861, not years after limited war policies that respected civilians and their property hardened into destructive warfare. From the beginning, ineffective leadership, failures of supply, and unruly armies created a wartime culture that preyed upon men, women, children, animals, timber, homes, provisions, and possessions regardless of people's race, allegiance, or location.
Cashin argues that this wartime exploitation of people and things contradicted antebellum customs. In the Old South, she finds an ethos of communalism founded on kinship, religion, hospitality, honor, and neighborly cooperation. To be sure, hierarchy, not equality, prevailed and some white southerners went hungry, but people assumed there were enough resources for everyone and encouraged each other to share them. This sense of bounty had profound effects on southern forests. Most people believed the woods were an inexhaustible and easily replenishable resource, a view that encouraged waste, not conservation. Nonetheless, according to Cashin, people cherished forests and valued the medicinal benefits of trees as much as they calculated the financial profits of timber. Cashin's southern ethos of communalism echoes the interpretations of established social histories and contrasts with a regional spirit of speculation, exploitation, and greed that appears in recent histories of capitalism and slavery. Though the book does not examine northern antebellum society in detail, Cashin assumes that most Union soldiers came from similarly rural communities that "approached material resources in much the same way, with the same mix of stewardship and carelessness" (27).
Perhaps this antebellum ethos created pangs of guilt in some soldiers who looted, but it did not guide wartime behavior or inform military regulations. In 1861, both armies adopted articles of war that predated the War of 1812 and then modified them to suit their needs as the conflict worsened. Some recent scholarship stresses how Francis Lieber's code refined and restricted Union conduct, thereby avoiding the depredations of a "total" war. In contrast, War Stuff emphasizes the contradictions within the Lieber Code and how its paramount focus on "military necessity" licensed all sorts of conduct that advanced the Union cause. Cashin shows that Confederate policies for handling people and resources often [End Page 648] matched Union regulations verbatim. In practice, southern troops exhibited a sense of entitlement and stole from their own people. Plundering southern homes was not behavior confined to Yankees and deserters, as the Lost Cause myth pretends. Cashin marvels at postwar southerners who forgot their own ravenous armies while living in landscapes that still showed Confederate destruction. She concludes, "Pro-Confederate Southerners lost the ability to tell the truth about what had happened to them, namely that the rebel army exploited the civilian population and its material resources to the full, just as the Yankee army did" (171).
To document and come to terms with the damages wrought by both armies, Cashin meticulously evaluates the war's cost to southern people, sustenance, timber, and homes in thematic chapters that trace the breakdown of...