William Thomas III and Kaci Nash
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Recent studies of the Civil War have assessed the environmental impact of the war in broad terms and uncovered ways in which the war unfolded outside and apart from the intended directions of generals and politicians. In particular, historians have explored the role of nature as an active force in the Civil War, focusing on how the landscape was transformed as part of the military strategy and how Americans perceived, interacted with, and controlled nature. These historians suggest that the Union army targeted the South’s agricultural and cultural landscape, reduced it to a “wasteland,” and, in so doing, altered or interrupted its relationship with nature. They have depicted the war as a conflict characterized by massive displacement and movement. Scholars have also revised our understanding of the war’s destructiveness and total number of deaths. They have turned our attention away from the bifurcated approach of “home front and battlefield” to a more holistic approach, one that emphasizes the uniform continuum of movement and exchange along the axes between the home front and the battlefield.
Because the environmental and biological disruption of the war occurred at different scales in different places, the flow of human, animal, biological, and material exchanges varied widely. In many zones of the Union army’s occupation, however, the mobility and scale of the war combined with the environmental conditions to produce especially significant effects, indeed, ones that persisted well beyond the end of the war. The spatial arrangement of the Union army’s occupation depended in part on the available transportation network and, as a result, several central places acted as funnels into and through the war. In these places, such as Alexandria, Virginia, a series of large-scale processes unfolded separate from but connected to the battlefields and the home front. The confluence of the movements of soldiers, civilians, refugees, and animals and the unleashing of microbes around them meant that the war took place in and with human bodies, in and with the natural features of the environment.
Megan Kate Nelson
During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort.
Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy.
Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.