Professor Kathryn Meier, winner of Wiley-Silver Book Prize, discusses ‘Nature’s Civil War’

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Virginia Commonwealth University professor Kathryn Meier has been awarded the prestigious 2014 Wiley-Silver Book Prize for her book, "Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia."

The prize, which is awarded to the best debut book on the history of the Civil War, is presented by the Center for Civil War Research at the University of Mississippi.

Meier, a professor in the College of Humanities and Science's Department of History, recently discussed "Nature's Civil War," as well as her overall body of scholarship.

Please tell me a little about "Nature's Civil War" and what it explores.

The book explores how both Confederate and Union Civil War soldiers experienced and adapted to the threatening environment of war in terms of their mental and physical health. Germ theory was a post-war innovation (in the 1870s), so Americans at mid-19th century commonly believed that environmental factors, such as weather, seasonal shifts and miasmas (toxic airs wafting off of swamps), resulted in debilitating diseases and mental ailments. Many Civil War soldiers developed what I term "self-care techniques" in response to these natural hazards; for instance, they boiled their water to eliminate foul tastes, eradicated insects using smoke and other methods, built elaborate protective shelters, and engaged sanitary techniques. Self-care not only prevented disease but it also improved mental health, or in military parlance, morale, which was crucial to sustaining army operations.

What led you to investigate this particular topic?

As anyone who has glanced at a Civil War soldier's letter will attest, the troops constantly discussed their natural environments in their eyewitness accounts, but Civil War scholars had virtually ignored this topic as perhaps too mundane for examination. In fact, two-thirds of all soldier mortalities in the Civil War were from disease rather than gunshots; therefore, learning to survive the environment of war was crucial to making it home at war's end.

How would you describe the book's central argument?

The crux of the argument is that Civil War soldiers practiced self-care in an attempt to combat their natural enemies; however, an important element of this thesis is that self-care involved extensive soldier straggling, a temporary and illicit acquittal of the ranks. Soldiers straggled in order to gain reprieve from the elements in private shelters; they straggled to locate fruits and vegetables; they straggled to bathe and gain access to fresh water. They straggled for a host of reasons they believed would improve their ability to do their jobs, while army command looked upon this loose discipline with utter exasperation. Over the course of the year I looked at (1862), generals instituted increasingly harsh punishments for the offense, while soldiers maintained that they were merely acting as "seasoned" soldiers.

What was life like for the Union and Confederate soldiers in the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862?

Being a Civil War soldier was a miserable enterprise. The armies were literally city-sized but without sufficient infrastructures to support their mobility. Armies fouled their water supplies, food was far scarcer on both sides than you might think, great clouds of flies and mosquitoes swarmed about the human and horse flesh. The Shenandoah Valley campaign had a quicker pace, which meant the mean were exhausted and continually exposed to the elements, while the Peninsula campaign was sluggish. Men wallowed in the swamps, succumbing to malaria and dysentery. Not-so-fun fact: Diarrhea was the No. 1 killer in the Civil War.

Were you surprised by anything you discovered in your research?

Certainly. No scholar had investigated this topic before. I was surprised to see how adaptive the soldiers were to their natural environments and particularly interested to learn how much environment affected army morale. The fifth day of a rainstorm was enough to make many soldiers simply drift out of the ranks until the misery passed.

How did you go about conducting the research for the book?

Most of my archival research was conducted right here in Richmond at the Museum of the Confederacy and the Library of Virginia, but I also researched in Charlottesville as well as in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. My main sources were eyewitness soldier accounts – letters, diaries and memoirs – but I also looked through vast collections of newspapers, official military records, medical records and the papers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a civilian-run medical organization during the war. The most difficult aspect of conducting medical research on the Confederacy is that the majority of the official medical records burned in Richmond in 1865.

How does "Nature's Civil War" fit within your larger body of scholarship?

I began as a military and environmental scholar, whose primary actors are Civil War soldiers. Through this project, I became fascinated with medical history, and now I officially have too many interests on my plate!

What will you be working on next?

I'm working on a biography of Confederate general and Lost Cause architect Jubal Early, as well as continuing my research on the development of public health during the Civil War.

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