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Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia

By Kathryn Shively Meier, University of North Carolina Press, 2013, $39.95

Not until the 20th century did artillery and small-arms fire prove to be a greater threat to soldiers in Western armies than the microbes prevalent in military encampments of earlier wars. In Nature’s Civil War, Kathryn Shively Meier takes a compelling look at how soldiers interacted with the physical environment during the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula campaigns of 1862 and how it profoundly challenged their physical health, tested their mental stability and complicated achieving military success. In the process, she offers a fascinating and groundbreaking study of the ways troops on both sides coped with the environment and struggled to maintain their well-being.

Enough soldiers, of course, endured the rigorous environs of the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula to make operations feasible—though profoundly wearing—in 1862. Critical to their ability to endure, Meier argues, was their decision to take personal responsibility for maintaining their health in various ways, from bathing to drawing on the local population for nutrition and rest. Doing so often entailed leaving the march or camp without authorization, which helped make straggling a major problem for both armies. Straggling aroused the ire of commanders, but Meier makes a good case that it was probably essential for keeping enough soldiers healthy to maintain significant  armies in the field.

Meier documents all of this in impressive, yet efficient style. Her extensive  use of primary and secondary sources make Nature’s Civil War both a valuable contribution to literature on the campaigns of 1862 and an essential work for anyone interested in the common soldier and medical history of America’s bloodiest war.


Originally published in the May 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.