Book Review: Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia


by Kathryn Shively Meier

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 220. Illus., maps, tables, figures, notes, biblio., index. $24.95. ISBN: 1469626497

Civil War Soldiers within the Physical Environment

Prof. Meier (Virginia Commonwealth) takes a ground-breaking look at how soldiers coped with their physical environment during the Virginia campaign of 1862; their physical comfort, well-being, morale, and, ultimately, effectiveness.   Meier asks how they adapted to new and unfamiliar terrain, including not merely physical geography, but weather, animals and insects, and related diseases. 

To answer this, Meier combed hundreds of letters, diaries, memoirs, newspapers, medical records, and other contemporary documentary sources, which revealed the many approaches to “Self Care” that troops adopted. The troops themselves adopted “best practices” from a variety of sources. While contemporary medicine was of some help, given its lack of a coherent scientific basis it was not always useful. Some military practices were also of value, once the troops learned how to site a camp properly, taking care to select well watered, health ground, with latrines and rubbish pits properly located at some distance, and so forth. Fortunately, and perhaps most important, there was the prewar experience of many of the troops, mostly men of rural background, even if from the North, who had passed their lives in different environments or could draw upon the rich tradition of folk practice, albeit this was not always beneficial. 

Meier also argues that the troops themselves developed an empirical approach to determining “best practices” through their own observations and experience in camp and on campaign. She examines the effects on the men as they adjusted to their new environment and how this affected their morale and activities. 

Nature’s Civil War, which has been awarded several prizes as an outstanding new work, takes an innovative and valuable look at how ordinary men adapted to the dual challenges of soldiering and unfamiliar environmental contexts.


Note: Nature's Civil War, is also available in hardcover, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4696-1076-4, and in several e-book formats



Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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