“Nature’s Civil War”: An interview with Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier

By Tyler Leard ’16

Dr Kathryn Shively Meier will be speaking at the 2014 Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference on the War in 1864 during which she will lead a session on Jubal Early’s 1864 Valley Campaign. She will also conduct a dine-in session on psychological warfare in the 1864 Overland Campaign. Her first book, Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia , examines the relationship between soldiers and the environment in 1862 Virginia, with a focus on the Peninsula and the Shenandoah Valley. She is currently a Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier

Why was the environment important to Civil War soldiers? How did it impact their lives and vice versa?

Civil War soldiers believed that many of their mental and physical ailments, from “the blues” to dysentery or scurvy, were caused by environmental factors, such as particular climates, seasons, airs, or waters. When they weren’t engaged in combat, soldiers fixated on nature and devised ways to combat perceived attacks on their health, employing a set of common behaviors I term “self-care.” Self-care involved such techniques as boiling water, gathering fruits and vegetables, bathing frequently, constructing protective shelters, and eradicating insects. Though germ theory and insect-borne illness were postwar discoveries, Civil War soldiers relied on what they experienced and observed in nature to devise surprisingly effective preventatives and treatments for disease. They also managed to bolster morale, which was essential to army operations.
There is also no doubt that soldier encampments, as well as war mobilization and combat, drastically altered the Southern environment. Mass deforestation, the construction of ditches in fortifications, and the great heaps of dead bodies from battle made Southern environments more dangerous to the humans who encountered them. Further, armies were akin to large cities without supportive infrastructures, spreading refuse and disease wherever they marched and camped.

Were there certain regions where the Civil War was thought to be especially environmentally hazardous? If so, why?

Americans before and during the war perceived the majority of the South, particularly swampy, lowland areas, as more hazardous to physical and mental health. These areas were considered most virulent in the summer. Indeed, on the South Carolina sea-coast, large plantation owners often abandoned their slaves for large swaths of the year to avoid contracting disease, believing African American’s bodies to be better acclimated to the heat and humidity. At the outset of the war, Confederate soldiers predicted that Yankees would fall devastatingly ill in the Southern climate, harming the Union cause. What soldiers on both sides learned instead was that city-raised men avoided contagious diseases, because they had already been seasoned in youth, while those raised in the countryside were ravaged by early camp epidemics, such as small pox and diphtheria.

Did soldiers’ attempts to survive in nature impact discipline and relations with officers?

In order to practice self-care amidst the rigid discipline of army life, soldiers frequently straggled, or temporarily left the ranks without permission, especially in the early years of the war. Sometimes they straggled for just a few hours to bathe or forage; other times they straggled overnight to rest in a private home or church and seek refuge from the elements. Stonewall Jackson’s troopers in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign were some of the most notorious stragglers, often disappearing for weeks to months at a time, because they were on horseback and stationed close to home, making travel more convenient.

While junior officers tended to be more sympathetic toward common soldier straggling, generals balked at the dearth of available men present for duty in their ranks. Over the course of 1862 in particular, generals enforced increasingly harsh punishments for straggling, from depriving soldiers of pay to bucking and gagging (a painful practice in which soldiers were gagged with a bayonet, their arms stretched and bound over their knees). In the late summer of 1862 in Stonewall Jackson’s army, four soldiers who claimed they were only straggling at their courts martial were executed as deserters in front of their regiments. Because of the new deterrents, straggling declined somewhat by the end of that calendar year.

Thank you to Dr. Kathryn Shively Meier for answering student questions in anticipation of the 2014 Civil War Institute Summer Conference. We look forward to her participation in this year’s Summer CWI Conference, “The War in 1864.”

This year’s Institute will take place from June 20-25, 2014. Registration can be done by following this link: http://www.gettysburg.edu/cwi/conference/ See you there!

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