The Civil War was even more disastrous than we thought. Joan Cashin
, already a distinguished scholar of the period, looks afresh at the war through the lens of environmental history and material culture and finds only more terrors and even greater suffering. War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War
(Cambridge University Press, 2018) draws from a dizzying cache of research from nearly four dozen archives to capture the brutality and desperation of the wars that raged beyond the battlefield—over food, timber, shelter, and the control of people themselves. Most of these struggles were not between the armies, but between soldiers and civilians. Despite Lost Cause slurs against Sherman and his ilk, Cashin finds both armies fully capable of emptying the stores, robbing the woodlots, and torching the homes of white noncombatants. To have two massive armies with nearly inexhaustible appetites for resources crisscrossing the South ensured widespread devastation. But the destruction was all the greater because soldiers on both sides paid little attention to military codes regulating pillage and plunder, and their commanders were usually unwilling or unable to reign them in. So, Cashin argues, the war caused starvation, deforestation, the razing of villages, and an underappreciated amount of hostage-taking and abuse of civilians. After the war, there was no reckoning, no recompense for the toll both armies took on white southerners, and the scars were bandaged with myths that deceive us still.
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is researching African American environmental history in the nineteenth-century Cotton South. He is also an editor of the digital environmental magazine and podcast Edge Effects.