The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War. Brian Allen Drake, ed. The University of Georgia Press, 2015.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bernstein
Book cover from the publisher’s website.
The Blue, the Gray, and the Green: Toward an Environmental History of the Civil War, edited by Brian Allen Drake, is the fourth volume in The University of Georgia Press UnCivil Wars series. According to Drake, the essays in this anthology “[b]y both their breadth and their specificity […] show us that the environment weirds the war” (12). This collection weirds the war by expanding “environment” beyond the battlefronts’ natural, built, and arranged landscapes to include nineteenth century visual and literary landscapes, the bodies of animals and vegetation, as well as the geographies of human bodies and minds. Focusing on interactions between and among these many territories destabilizes the narratives Americans have come to accept about the war; old stories are unsustainable in the face of new readings of Civil War-era environments.
Kenneth W. Noe’s essay, “Fateful Lightning: The Significance of Weather and Climate to Civil War History,” insists that the drought that plagued the South over three consecutive summers played a significant role in undermining the Confederacy from within, while the preferred “‘rich man’s war, poor man’s fight’ narrative […] silently and incorrectly presumes stable growing weather, good crops, planter greed, and governmental incompetence” (21). Timothy Silver’s case study of the Black Mountain Boys’ home territory supports Noe’s insistence that Civil War stories must factor in local environments when retelling the Civil War story. In “Yancey County Goes to War: A Case Study of People and Nature on Home Front and Battlefield, 1861-1865,” Silver examines how unusual extreme weather, the “unruly element in our story,” further altered chaotic wartime environments in Appalachian North Carolina and contributed to food scarcity and disease among animals and soldiers, influencing the sorry outcome of Union general George Brinton McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign (62). Examining three battles whose outcomes were determined by the way sound was transmitted through specific environments , Lisa M. Brady applies Carl von Clausewitz’s idea of “friction” to suggest that “[n]ature’s mutable and potentially unpredictable character approximates the role of the individual” on the battlefield, where real war is inevitably more difficult than war on paper (149). Environmental history asks us to engage with the war and its participants in ways that are more sophisticated than Blue/Gray; we must consider non-human nature—weather, animals, microorganisms—as agents, victims, and combatants, too.
Kathryn Shively Meier considers disease as agent during the Civil War, focusing on the ways soldiers practiced self-care by “straggling,” leaving their units temporarily without permission for periods from a few hours to a few weeks to rest or seek clean water, food, or medicinal herbs despite the risk of punishment or humiliation, returning to their ranks physically and mentally healthier. “’The Man Who Has Nothing to Lose’: Environmental Impacts on Civil War Straggling in 1862 Virginia” asserts that, contrary to the belief of commanding officers, who saw stragglers as cowards, soldiers could straggle while still being loyal and committed to the Confederate cause. Meier’s re-reading of straggling improves the image of misunderstood Confederate soldiers and speaks of truth to power: “Given the uncertain state of scientific knowledge, the men’s experiential, observation-based method of interpreting and managing disease environments may have well been superior to their leaders’ understandings” (88). In this anthology, adding the environment to the discussion of the Civil War requires us to reconsider our assumptions about what happened to the male bodies and minds that battled in and with nature; doing so forces us to re-survey our limited territory of expected male behavior.
These expectations sometimes determined the careers of individuals, as Megan Kate Nelson’s article, “’The Difficulties and Seductions of the Desert’: Landscapes of War in 1861 New Mexico” shows. Nelson re-examines the story of disgraced Maj. Isaac Lynde, who commanded the evacuation of Union forces at Fort Fillmore in New Mexico and led them on a deadly march that resulted in surrender to the Confederates at San Augustin Springs and Lynde’s dismissal from the army. Nelson argues against the prevailing opinion that Lynde was a coward whose actions resulted in his troops’ humiliation by describing how built military landscapes in New Mexico combined with topography, hydrology and climate to create a situation in which retreating soldiers died of heatstroke and thirst. Contemporary reports by Lynde’s subordinate officers reflect their damning views of what the officers interpreted as Lynde’s possibly treasonous behavior, including “his tolerance of women and children at Fillmore (who slowed the pace of the march)” away from the fort (35). Over one hundred women and children evacuated along with the Union soldiers, but no data exists about them; evidently, they were liabilities to be written out of this tale. Nelson concludes, “[W]ar may be waged in the name of politics and ideology, but it is fought by bodies moving through space” (48). Environmental history reads the traces left on the landscape, picking up on stories previously—sometimes purposely—untold.
After the war, reminders of its devastation remained visible on the bodies of the human population and the natural environment, as well as in the American psyche, as Aaron Sachs writes in “Stumps in the Wilderness,” an essay examining nineteenth century literary and visual art references to the American landscape, which were numerous and varied before the war. Sachs focuses on the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia as a cultural turning point that “made Americans consider the collision of humanity, technology, and nature” that limited the meaning of “wilderness” to a bloody, stinking, scorched wasteland (100, 97). Very shortly after the Battle of the Wilderness, Congress established Yosemite Valley, California, as part of the wilderness preservation movement, so, in Sachs’s words, America could “re-create itself through recreation in the wilderness,” a “re-creation” that would not be possible for veterans suffering from what we now call PTSD (103). The Civil War disrupted and polluted the Victorian pastoral with death on an industrial scale that forced Americans looking at depictions of nature post-war to face “that almost all the killing of the war years had been utterly unnatural,” a reckoning with Progress that Sachs suspects brought an end to the tradition of American landscape painting (108). Along with landscape painters, antebellum writers had sometimes idealized the physical world, and the Southern highlands were imbued with especially positive connotations that lasted long after the war, according to John C. Inscoe. “’The Strength of the Hills’: Representations of Appalachian Wilderness as Civil War Refuge” is a literary study of works depicting “the wartime moral geography of the Appalachian South,” where wilderness was equated with sanctuary by some but where others “played on that contradiction between natural beauty and human atrocity” (115, 124). An environmental approach to the Civil War gives us a way to read our country’s post-traumatic environmental stress brought on by the collision of humanity, technology, and nature that resulted in unnatural killing of bodies moving through space.
The agribusiness environment was another Civil War battleground, where many Piedmont farmers continued to plant bright leaf tobacco in spite of Confederate need for increased food production. Because of poor hill soils, Confederate taxes-in-kind on some agricultural products, and confiscations, tobacco was more profitable than grain, and the dominion of tobacco endured beyond both the war and Reconstruction, according to Drew A. Swanson, who re-reads the South’s Civil War agricultural story in “War Is Hell, So Have a Chew: The Persistence of Agroenvironmental Ideas in the Civil War Piedmont.” Bright tobacco—and its social, economic, and cultural environments—proved resistant to obvious factors of disruption, succeeded where cotton failed, and became even more profitable after the war, when cultivation spread and consumer markets expanded. The dark side of bright tobacco’s resiliency emerges post-war in the same environments that benefitted during the conflict, as “[p]rofitable tobacco meant that white landowners were less likely to sell land to freedpeople than in many parts of the cash-strapped postwar South, and landowners often asserted their control over freedpeople’s labor through violent means.” Additionally, ecological changes resulting from pre-war “best use” practices and misunderstandings of area soils exhausted fertility; restoring soil fertility meant using commercial fertilizers, dependence on which contributed to debt peonage (181). The financial burden of chemical fertilizers, a new kind of bondage, is further explored by Timothy Johnson in “Reconstructing the Soil: Emancipation and the Roots of Chemical-Dependent Agriculture in America.” The antebellum plantation system and extensive agriculture had driven westward expansion by the South; earlier in this volume, Nelson explains the practical and symbolic nature of the Southwest territories “as landscapes of mobility and a crossroads of empire,” a vision articulated in Confederate general Henry H. Sibley’s plan to capture the far West (36). Such a grand undertaking would require reckoning with the desert, which Jefferson Davis had begun to do in March 1855, when “he convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 for the purchase of camels in the Middle East and North Africa, and their transportation to the United States” (49, note). Weirding the war, indeed.
Emancipation meant the end of the western Confederate dream, but Johnson asserts that Southern debt peonage caused by the ecological shift from extensive cultivation to chemical-intensive agriculture maintained a familiar race and class hierarchy with the help of the brilliant marketing rhetoric of David Dickson, whose plantation was lost but whose entrepreneurial spirit was not. Johnson says that, after the war, “Dickson believed he could sell fertilizer as an antidote for both the social unrest and the underproductive soils of Georgia’s cotton land” and wrote about ways fertilizer could hasten the South’s economic recovery (198). Dickson took advantage of white landowners’ displacement by touting his fertilizer as superior to freedmen because it had no human needs but could nevertheless behave as an overseer, allowing white landowners “to work freedmen when they would bring you into debt without it,” maintaining the old cotton-based racial order even as erosion and continuous cropping continued to damage soils (199, 205). While the postwar social environment lagged in the Victorian agricultural past, the agribusiness environment sped forward with industrialization and urbanization, capitalizing on “the diminishment of native soil fertility in other agricultural regions, the replacement of manure producing draft animals with tractors, and the maturation of a fertilizer industry capable of harnessing minerals and fossil fuels” to create chemical fertilizers for sale in the U.S. and abroad (205). Petrochemical dependence, climate change, race relations, technological progress—the questions we pose now about these issues were battle cries of the Civil War era.
Environment is time as well as place, and environmental approaches to the Civil War narrative serve as an excellent portal into the story of modern America. In Paul S. Sutter’s “Epilogue,” a conversation with the essays in this book, he calls the Civil War “a critical moment in the history of American environmental thought and politics,” which “gave birth to the environmental management state” (231, 234). Sutter’s timeline of post-Civil War homesteading legislation demonstrates that we can learn from our environmental mistakes, a hopeful ending to a book of new stories that encourage us to move away from unsustainable ways of thinking about a war waged over environments far wider than North and South.