Lead Author: Jack Temple Kirby (other articles)
Content Partners: National Humanities Center (other articles) and TeacherServe (other articles)
Article Topics: Environmental history
This article has been reviewed and approved by the following Topic Editor: Brian Black (other articles)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This entry was originally published as "The American Civil War: An Environmental View" in the series "Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History," developed by the National Humanities Center and TeacherServe. Citations should be based on the original essay.
The centennial of the Civil War in the 1960s occasioned defiant displays of the Confederate battle flag, an accelerated and triumphant civil rights movement, and, predictably, opportunistic publication of another huge library of books on the war. My graduate school mentor, trying to encourage his students to undertake research on other subjects, joked that the Civil War era was overcrowded, there being no conceivable niche not already claimed, except, he declared, "The Sex Life of Lincoln's Doctor's Dog." My mentor knew he was wrong. The African-American experience of the war was only then getting sympathetic attention, along with political issues both large and local. Women and the war awaited eager scholars and readers, later. Yet in the nearly four decades since the centennial, demand for old-fashioned (shall I say?) military history and military biography has hardly abated. Environmental history, meanwhile, a subdiscipline born during the 1960s and flourishing modestly since, has yet to impact the Civil War seriously.
The recent historiographies of the war and of "environment" are so curious because they are parallel; that is, they do not intersect. Military historians preoccupied with combat on specific landscapes almost do environmental history, and environmentally-minded readers may deduce from conventional texts ecological aspects of warfare. The historians seem uninterested, however, and few academic military specialists of my acquaintance have read environmental history. On the other side, more than three decades of accumulated literature in environmental history barely touch the Civil War. This is because the bulk of environmental history is western history, set usually beyond the pale of Civil War fighting. The "New Western History" that has provoked so much controversy recently is to a considerable extent environmental, a tragic narrative of human depredations upon semi-arid and arid landscapes. Most historians of environment happen to be westerners, too, and the best graduate programs in the field are in Wisconsin, Kansas, and California. Ergo the parallelism. Easterners (it would seem) must wrench environmental-historical criticism backwards, across the Mississippi.
Toward an Ecological View of the Civil War
A consciously ecological view of the Civil War is actually required, I think, for two compelling reasons.
- The environmental movement itself. Since World War II and especially since 1970 and the first "Earth Day," Americans have belonged to a culture steeped in ecological language and politics. Everyone understands that humans are connected creatures, obligated partners in a dynamic natural community. Nature sometimes presents change without human agency, but human action—making civilizations, technology, warfare—has enormous consequences.
- The knowledge of war as an ecological disaster. No one alive at the dawn of the twenty-first century, from the oldest among us to our most immature students, can conceive of war without environmental danger if not disaster. Students may know from reading or film about World War I's chlorine and mustard gases, and their effects upon men and horses on the Western Front, and about buried, still unexploded shells from 1914-1918 in the farmlands of eastern France and Belgium. More familiar are the atomic blasts of August 1945 in southern Japan, obliterating concrete and steel buildings, trees, humans, dogs and cats, while survivors in outlying places suffered disfiguring burns and ultimately fatal radiation sickness. The United States' employment in Vietnam of the defoliant Agent Orange, a derivative of domestic cotton culture, seems now a particularly macabre exposition of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), a classic of contemporary environmentalism. Iraq used deadly chemical agents while warring with Iran during the 1980s, and in 1991 United Nations' forces on the Arabian peninsula feared the same from Iraq, even as Kuwaiti oil fields and depots exploded, despoiling the air above and the desert below.
For all its own horrors, the Civil War presented none of the above, and perhaps this is the beginning of students' orientation to "environment" during the 1860s. They should understand that we must interrogate the past in our own language, trapped (or advantaged?) by the sensibilities of our time while respecting the foreign-ness of the past. What follows, then, represents my re-reading of conventional Civil War history, biased by my green convictions, and informed by my own and a few others' modest explorations of the war and what we call environment.
A Preliminary Impact Statement
Suppose Congress or the president required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate long-past events and submit to the public ex post facto “impact statements.” An EPA report on the Civil War might begin with these generalizations, and occasional illustrating examples, of the environmental impact on soldiers, animals, cities, farmland, and forests.
- Disease. Whenever a predominantly rural people are suddenly and densely brought together in encampments and cities, as they were in 1861, they exchange pathogens and, lacking immunities, many sicken, and many die. The hasty death from measles, in Confederate camp, of Scarlett O’Hara’s hastily-married first husband in Gone with the Wind, illustrates melancholy historical-environmental experience as well as Scarlett’s unhappy romantic progress.Gettysburg, July 1863. (Source: U.S. National Archives)
- Death. The war’s staggering toll of young men—three quarters of a million dead, from combat, disease, exposure, accident—unbalanced the sex ratio for at least a generation, especially in the South, with difficult-to-calculate consequences in terms of labor, business, private life, and the natural world. (It is assumed that immigration more or less righted the northern balance.) In Mississippi, an extreme example, nearly half the white men aged fifteen to forty-five were dead or missing by the summer of 1865. A generation of marriageable, child-bearing-age white women grew past maturity with severely limited prospects for companionship, economic support, and motherhood. In this respect, the former Confederacy bears comparison with Britain and other European participants in the First World War. Some southern women took up the role of farmer, perpetuating the business of forest clearance and soil disturbance usually associated with men in western cultures. The much-widowed Scarlett, it will be remembered, not only maintained her family’s plantation but entered the lumber trade, sawing down north Georgia’s forests to rebuild and expand Atlanta. Other nonfictional women entered public life as clerks, teachers, and other more environmentally friendly occupations.
- Animals. Animals, especially horses and mules, were essential participants in nineteenth-century warfare, and they, too, suffered and died in appalling numbers. Marshalled (like humans) in cities, camps, and fortifications, they also exchanged pathogens and died by the thousands before a single cavalry charge, artillery caisson-pull, or wagon haul could take place. Disease deaths necessitated re-supplies from farther and farther afield, so the war’s equine impact was continental in scope. Many of the horses and mules that survived epidemic disease were maimed and killed by the thousands in battle. Since their carcasses were so much larger than dead men, horses and mules presented daunting sanitary challenges on battlefields. Onsite burial was usually hasty and incomplete. Edmund Ruffin, the Virginia secessionist who reputedly fired the first shot against Fort Sumter and then was an eyewitness to eastern fighting in the first half of the war, reported that nature was little help in cleaning up decaying dead animals and men. Vultures, common and plentiful throughout the regions where the war was fought, stayed away, apparently discouraged by the noise of artillery. The only benefit that may be wrangled from this particular carnage is that modern equine medical science began, arguably, during the great disease kill-offs early in the war. A monument to the conflict’s benighted horses and mules finally appeared late in the 1990s, in front of the Virginia Historical Society’s headquarters in Richmond, not far from Monument Avenue and the towering bronzes of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. Ruins of Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War. (Source: U.S. National Archives)
- Cities and towns. Wars always damage or destroy built landscapes, and as wars progress, they seem inseparable from smoke pollution. Fire, intentional or accidental, was the great agent of destruction, and hundreds of cities and towns were degraded to some degree. Charleston, the elegant nursery of secession, suffered years of Union shelling and fires before it finally fell, late in the war. Vicksburg, Mississippi, too, was long under siege and had few undamaged structures at its surrender. Petersburg, Virginia, famous for its handsome brick warehouses, was frightfully wrecked during the siege of 1864-1865. Atlanta, most famously, burned. So did Columbia, South Carolina, and, finally, Richmond itself.
- Farmland. Many battles took place on farms, and there, too, horrible destruction of both built and arranged landscapes transpired. Farmhouses, barns, and other outbuildings were blown up, burned (often intentionally), or, if left standing, stripped of boards by needy troops of both sides. Farm fences everywhere disappeared, because they were conveniently sized and aged for firewood. Too, crop fields, which sometimes represented hard elemental labor by generations of proprietors (or, more likely, slaves), were remodeled, in effect, with breastworks, trenches, tunnels, and compacted paths, then littered with the dead, the dead’s debris of belongings and equipment, and the wreckage of caissons, wagons, and other martial implements.
Some excellent farmland was forever lost—to military cemeteries and battlefield parks. Arlington National Cemetery was once a productive riverside plantation. One thinks also of Antietam in western Maryland, once pastoral, now an outdoor museum; of Gettysburg, where some of the bloodiest engagements have agrarian names—the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard; and of Shiloh, now also a federal park that consumes in part excellent Tennessee riverbank lands. The Vicksburg siege and battles, on the other hand, took place on a landscape so hilly, so tortuously broken, that the most determined nineteenth-century agronomist—one thinks of Edmund Ruffin again since he was also the South’s premier soil scientist—might have gladly consigned the littered battlefield to the bizarre presentation of cemeteries, large marble memorials, and deeply ravined treescape that is the Vicksburg park today.Confederate trenches, Petersburg. (Source: U.S. National Archives)
- Trees and forests. Throughout the South and onto its northern and western fringes where war raged, farms were mere clearings, small ones, usually, in a vast forested landscape that also sustained enormous damage. Soldiers were forester-engineers nearly everywhere—felling trees, stripping limbs, chaining trunks to horses and mules for snaking to campsites and fortifications, where winter quarters and breastworks were almost always made of logs. Artillery fire, especially during sieges and set battles between large forces, also destroyed trees.
Sometimes—poetic retribution—trees killed or injured soldiers as the trees themselves were killed. An unlucky Massachusetts volunteer died felling trees for a fort west of Suffolk, Virginia, in October 1862. New York soldiers in the same campaign flinched as poorly aimed Confederate fire brought down tree branches upon their positions. It was fire, however—intentional and inadvertent—that doubtlessly consumed the most forested landscape, and sometimes men, too. The Battle of the Wilderness, west of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1864, is best known. Smoke from forest fires overwhelmed that from firearms and cannon, and wounded troops (not to mention horses and mules), caught in the holocaust, screamed as they were roasted alive.
So might end a grisly introductory overview of our hypothetical EPA report. Further, deeper, longterm analysis should probably begin with a reminder to students that the American Civil War was a "total" one—that is, unrelenting violence against not only enemy soldiers, but upon the Confederate armies' very capacities to wage war, violence against civilians, cities, farms, animals, the landscape itself. Victory resolved profound national issues, solidifying the supremacy of nation over state, most importantly abolishing slavery forever and liberating nearly four millions of living people. Awesome destruction and unspeakable horror are thus usually justified. Total war's awful technological and political future, in the twentieth century, would be justified similarly.
Meanwhile, the longterm aspect of our report's second chapter may well surprise, because in several senses the Civil War's massive damage was temporary and arguably, not very significant at all. Consider the following evidence of southern "progress" after the war—in farmland, forests, and the lumber industry.
- Farmland. Despite the South's enormous losses of young men, despite the carnage of horses and mules, and despite damage and ruination of thousands of farms, the South not only remained an agricultural region of global importance, but rapidly expanded its commodity production and exports during the postwar decades and long thereafter. Astoundingly, southern cotton harvests at the end of the nineteenth century were triple 1860s production. Such a remarkable expansion was accomplished in part by reconstruction of antebellum farms and plantations, but more by territorial expansion, accomplished through (1) the clearing of swampy forests, notably in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (mostly during the 1880s) and later, across the Mississippi in northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri; (2) the deforesting of upper piedmont and low mountain landscapes, e.g., in northwestern Georgia and northern Arkansas; and then (3) a huge invasion of cotton culture into the subhumid Southwest—central Oklahoma and Texas and, later, in the twentieth century, in the High Southern Plains themselves. A few postbellum cotton growers were newcomers; most were white and black southerners, mobile people, some rich but most poor, scions of large families that survived the war and produced yet larger families of their own. The postbellum southern population boomed, and labor was cheap, the war's great losses no impediment to vast economic growth. Likewise the supply of agricultural power—horses and especially mules—was quickly recovered and expanded. These were the living engines of deforestation and cotton's expansion. Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee were postbellum animal breeders, as before the war, and early in the twentieth century Texas emerged as premier breeder (as well as cotton-producer). Pine region, West Virginia, ca. 1892. (Source: Library of Congress)
- Forests. Edmund Ruffin and other eastern farmers lamented the disappearance of "good" trees long before the war. They meant deciduous hardwoods appropriate to building, especially fences. The typical southern farmer's shifting system of fieldmaking involved setting fire to the woods, cultivating the new field for a few years, abandoning it to a succession that in most places yielded loblolly pines, then returning to the original plot and firing it again. Deciduous trees had little or no time to mature and shade out the pines. So, if we share Ruffin's valuation of deciduous above coniferous trees, much of the South had been undergoing profound forest degradation for at least a thousand years, since Native Americans practiced fire/shifting culture before the Europeans and Africans arrived. The Civil War took (one can only guess) hundreds of thousands of trees of many species, pines especially. Then postbellum clearing for agricultural expansion and the construction of new railroads (especially across the southern Appalachians) must have taken many more, probably exceeding wartime destruction. Trees have ever been the enemy of civilization. Clearcutting hilly and mountainous terrain always invites soil erosion, too, another longterm environmental impact, and one seldom addressed before the New Deal.
Still, the southern forests remained so vast thirty years after the Civil War that the well-organized and technologically proficient U.S. timber industry turned to the Southeast during the 1890s. Frederick Weyerhauser and other entrepreneurs, having already cut down the forests of the upper Great Lakes states, staked out the Pacific Northwest and, simultaneously, the Carolinas, the Gulf Coast, West Virginia, and so on. Most state and national forests in the contemporary South are large tracts long ago clear-cut and abandoned by these entrepreneurs.
- Lumber heading west. The massive cut-down of American forests during the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century intimately connected to the Civil War. The Homestead Act of 1862 unleashed long pent-up Yankee ambition to colonize western territories with midwestern-style family farms. Southern members of Congress had resisted the scheme because they preferred a Great Plains open to slavery. So when southerners withdrew to their own, Confederate, congress, Yankee ambition was finally realized. By coincidence, a thirty-year-long Union war against Plains Indians began the same year. Near extermination of the Plains' dominant quadruped, the bison, was underway, too, and the first transcontinental railroad was completed only four years after the war ended.
Now an enormous, virtually treeless landscape awaited transformation into farms and towns, demanding millions of linear feet of imported wood—for housing, barns, fences (even barbed wire must be nailed to posts), churches, town buildings of all sorts, and railway ties. The legendary Paul Bunyan's thousands of real-life lumberjack counterparts first supplied the demand from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota; then came Bunyan's southern brethren, black and white—sons and grandsons of liberated slaves and soldiers of both sides.
Ultimately, it is the nineteenth-century North American landscape itself that astounds. It fueled an industrial revolution, sustained the massive damage of civil war, yet still had reserve capacity to power the juggernaut of rail, farm, and city-building across the center of the continent. The enormous costs of such heroic feats of construction were publicized with alarm even before the end of the Civil War. In 1864 George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat in Italy and former congressman from Vermont, published Man and Nature: or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, a precocious work still honored by environmentalists, which approached the human-natural world relationship in a manner we would call ecological. Marsh's was not a lonely voice, either. I think it more than coincidental that young John Muir, already alienated by the rapacity of progress, had walked west, to the Sierras, and begun his life's work at wilderness preservation. And Frederick Law Olmsted, already renowned as co-designer of Central Park in Manhattan, spent parts of 1863 and '64 in California, studying the Yosemite Valley and recommending a preservation plan to the state government. One must think, then, that the Civil War is connected, causatively (within a larger context, to be sure) with the emergence of modern nature-protection. This broadest view yields the conclusion—ironic yet a serious one—that the Civil War means practically nothing and nearly everything, environmentally speaking.
A Poorer South, After All
Yet there is one more thing, more narrowly regional, about the war and a South changed forever. Here we return to farm fences burned, and to farm animals, this time cattle and especially pigs. Soldiers of both sides tore down and burned uncountable southern farms' ubiquitous fences, usually for their cookfires and winter warming. Soldiers (both sides, again) also appropriated and [[consumed millions of southern meat animals, boiling or roasting beef and pork over fires fueled by torn-down fence wood. The collective picture is the beginning of the end of southern rural life as it had been known for at least two centuries. Swine had been, with corn and other vegetables, not only the foundation of nutrition but of the independence of the southern yeomanry and poor, who had always been the great majority of the white population. Beginning in seventeenth-century Virginia, colonial legislatures had decreed that crop fields be securely fenced so that settlers might let great numbers of cattle and hogs range at large. The open range, a sensible accommodation to heavily forested eastern frontiers, permitted the rich and poor alike to accumulate subsistences and even wealth in animals that fattened for free. By the early nineteenth century, however, wealthy planters began to attack the range and its essential fencing laws as archaic: animals should be fenced instead of fields, they argued. Timbers for countless miles of fencing grew scarcer and expensive, range animals were more subject to disease epidemics, rural neighborhood peace was continually disrupted by disputes over broken fences and tramped crops. Edmund Ruffin and his friends proposed "reform" in Virginia during the 1830s, but their effort was promptly crushed. Virginia was, after all, a white-male democracy, and ordinary rural men understood that those with little or no land could hardly grow feed crops for confined animals. Fence reform would deprive them of their herds and reduce them to dependency. In the North, meanwhile, fencing reform succeeded and spread westward through the free states, so that by the time of the Civil War, the southern countryside was truly distinctive and, ironically, considering the prevalence of plantation slavery, a "democratic" countryside where even poor men (white, mostly) could feed their families and, as drovers and sellers of surplus beef and pork, participate in markets.
Thus the war destroyed not only thousands of miles of fences but consumed range cattle and hogs. In a subregion which I studied intensively for a longitudinal environmental history—seventeen counties in southeastern Virginia (below the James River) and adjacent northeastern North Carolina—there were nearly 360,000 hogs in 1860. According to the next federal census, in 1870, after five years of peace, there were still less than half that number. By 1880 the swine population had grown only about 60,000, but during the depressed '80s fell again. It rose substantially during the '90s, held steady during the first decade of the twentieth century, rose precipitously during World War I, then fell again and dramatically so, during the depressed 1920s. The postbellum high recorded in the 1920 census still did not equal the 1860s figure. Ordinary and poor southerners' hog heaven was gone forever.
Other scholars have demonstrated the Civil War's impact more generally. The open range was fatally crippled during 1861-1865—decades before fencing reform was finally successful—and the South was transformed from a self-sufficient surplus-shipping region into a region that imported fat Midwestern pork. Dependency in pork was a persisting burden of defeat in war, and there is more. Arguably southerners' nutrition deteriorated after the war, too. Range animals' meat is lean. Pork shipped south from Cincinnati came principally from new breeds such as the Poland China, an enormous porcine balloon on stick-legs, bred for fat. Southern consumers, suffering already from steadily declining cotton prices, became the Americans most likely to suffer heart diseases and strokes.
At least as important is black southerners' disadvantage at the dawn of their freedom. Neither federal nor state governments offered much material support to a people who began to negotiate free life and labor without property or education. There was no "Forty Acres and a Mule"—black folks' modest dream of reward during the war. Nor were there to be sufficient feral cattle and hogs in the woods and swamps, which might have provided the most basic sustenance and independence. Had the free range actually functioned as it had before the war, many black peasants might have taken up the economies poor white men had enjoyed already for two centuries; i.e., they might have claimed, bought, or inherited some pigs, anged them in the woods, fed themselves their own meat, traded for other food and necessities, and ultimately, perhaps, with expanded holdings sufficient to market surpluses for cash, purchased land. Instead, most ex-slaves fell into a dependency of an especially onerous sort, sharecropping, taking rations from landlords and merchants who bought Ohio meat by the barrel, falling into near-perpetual debt, and into the dubious celebrity, ultimately, of medical pathology. In the twentieth century, the South was known not only as the "Bible Belt" but the "Hypertension Belt." The postwar landscape, meanwhile, relentlessly reorganized, deforested, and cotton-spread, gradually closed out remnants of the open range and opportunity for poor people of any color. Fire, too, the ordinary farmers' means of creating crop fields, was finally criminalized in the early twentieth century. This reform, too, was as much a consequence of the Civil War, it seems to me, as the work of the brilliant new profession of forestry.