The American Civil War: An Environmental View
Jack Temple Kirby, Miami University
©National Humanities Center
(part 2 of 6)
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.
1. 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.
|"They exchange pathogens and, lacking immunities, many sicken, and many die."|
2. Death. The war’s staggering toll of young menthree quarters of a million dead, from combat, disease, exposure, accidentunbalanced 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.
3. 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
|Major Fredrick C. Winkler, letter from|
Gordon's Mill, Georgia, May 3, 1864 (excerpt)
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.
|Tessa Pullan, "The War Horse,"|
Virginia Historical Society, 1997
4. 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.
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