According to the Civil War Trust, the ACW cost 625,000 lives (some estimates are significantly higher) – nearly as many American soldiers as died in all the other wars in which this country has fought combined – and was the largest and most destructive conflict in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914. Ms. Nelson goes into detail.
Megan Kate Nelson is a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University. She is the author of Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp. What she presents here is a panoramic view of the extent of the Civil War’s ruination and its effect on us as a people.
The ACW was not just a political upheaval. It was a social, environmental, and social upheaval of the first order, as well. Its violent nature not only took hundreds of thousands of lives – almost 2% of the total 1860 resident population of some 31,443,000 (US Census Bureau) – and many, many more wounded (many grievously and long lastingly), its devastation extended to cities and villages, industrial and transportation infrastructure, farms and livestock, fields and forests and waterways, and, most importantly, peoples’ sense of themselves – their realities, relationships, aspirations, and futures.
The war, particularly in the South, touched everyone. It was a shared experience, yet “Americans read the ruins in different ways depending on who they were, where they lived, the type of object destroyed, the moment in time, and who had done the destroying.” Ms. Nelson elaborates: “Nevertheless, northerners and southerners reacted in similar or even identical ways to wartime ruination. Therein lies one of the ironies of the war’s ruin narrative…its participants found common ground in their consideration of the costs.” And it is these narratives and descriptions that she captures and shares with us.
The book is divided into four broad chapters, each dealing with separate but entwined categories of ruin: cities, houses, trees, and people. War unmakes and remakes the landscape and society, and so these categories describe ephemeral ruin. As she puts it: “Within a generation of their production, most of them had disappeared from the American landscape. City buildings and homes were rebuilt or their materials were repurposed as southerners got on with the work of literal reconstruction. The acres of stumps and tree shards that soldiers created on the march, in camp, and in battle grew over with successive species. The men who fought lived the longest; veteran amputees survived into the twentieth century, but then they, too, were gone. What are left are merely traces, not ruins: stone foundations, a lone chimney here or there, grassy mounds marking former earthworks, fragments of bone in a medical cabinet.”
The book doesn’t have the fast-paced flow of a battle narrative, but it is quite readable. Relying heavily on period letters, literature, news media, drawings, and cartoons, it is a solid work that opens the door for many of us to a different way of looking at the ACW. It is a valuable read for anyone, seasoned or novice, interested in the Civil War and its cultural significance. I highly recommend it.
Reviewed by Emil Posey