May 9, 2013. With more than 55,000 books in print about the Civil War, one might assume that there is no new information to be gleaned about the event that separated states, communities and families. But there is a topic that has received scant attention – the environmental history of the Civil War.
Professor Timothy Silver and Associate Professor Judkin Browning from Appalachian State University’s Department of History have aligned their academic interests on a project that has received a $100,000 collaborative research fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).
Silver is an environmental historian and the author of “Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America” published by the University of North Carolina Press, as well as “A New Face on the Countryside: Indians, Colonists and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 1500-1800” (Cambridge University Press).
Browning is a military historian and the author of “The War Begins Anew: The Seven Days’ Campaign, 1862” published by Praeger Publishers and “Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina” published by the University of North Carolina Press, as well as other books about Civil War leaders and military campaigns. “Essentially, we plan to recast the Civil War as an environmental event and not so much as a military conflict,” Silver said. The book will illustrate the war’s disruptive influence on the relationships between people and nature, and how natural factors such as disease, malnutrition and weather helped shape the course of the war, according to information from ACLS.
“I have always been interested in how war disrupts or changes the relationship between people and the environment,” Silver said. “The Civil War is the only semi-modern war fought on American soil and arguably, I think, the second-largest movement of people and animals in American history – the first being Europeans colonizing the Americas.”
The historians will document how the large-scale movement of troops and animals changed communities and towns, including the effects of disease outbreaks such as measles and typhoid in humans and diseases that affected animals, such as hog cholera and glanders in horses. Silver said that Union and Confederate soldiers accused each side of releasing diseased horses in an effort to infect their enemy’s herds.
Silver and Browning will turn to rosters, soldiers’ diaries and letters, and published materials for their research.
“We like to say our sources are hiding in plain sight,” Silver said. “The great thing about working on the Civil War is that it’s the most written about event in American history. A surprising number of sources have been published or are available digitally. We are using sources that a lot of historians have used before but never really looked at through the lens of environmental history.”
As a military historian, Browning has many examples of battles that were determined in some ways by the weather. For example, the largest battle in Kentucky might not have happened if it had rained more in the area during the summer and fall of 1862.
“The average Civil War buff doesn’t know that the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky occurred because severe drought conditions forced Union and Confederate armies to search for water. They ran into each other as a result,” Browning said.
Water, either too much or not enough, is a common environmental theme throughout the Civil War. Consider this from a soldier writing to family in Michigan just before the start of the Gettysburg campaign: “We have had no rain to speak of the last six or seven weeks. We get very hard up for water in this Part of the country,” he wrote. “But a soldier has to drink anything. Sarah, I have drunk water out of a ditch when there [h]as been a Dead horse laying a few rods above the same Water and glad to get it.”
For Gen. George McClellan, too much rain and the mosquito-borne malaria that followed may have changed the course of the war. “We are pretty careful about arguing this, but we believe McClellan’s famous retreat from Richmond in 1862 was the result of illness,” Silver said. “McClellan and his men were really sick, not indecisive about marching on Richmond as some historians write. They were fighting dysentery and malaria from the torrential spring rains.”
Browning added that, “It also was so muddy, McClellan couldn’t move his Union troops. The weather ends up shaping the campaign and allows Lee to attack McClellan and protect Richmond.”
Silver added, “If it hadn’t rained and the war had ended with McClellan taking Richmond in 1862, there would have been no Emancipation Proclamation.”