Book Review: An Environmental History of the Civil War


by Judkin Browning & Timothy Silver

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2020. Pp. x, 270. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1469655381

The Civil War as an Ecological Event

Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver look at the Civil War as an ecological event. Many battles were affected by environmental and weather conditions, such as the Union general Ambrose Burnside’s costly and humiliating “Mud March” in January of 1863.

The book concentrates mainly on certain environmental themes during different parts of the conflict. Following an introduction in which the authors remind us that Burnside’s infamous “Mud March” was not the only event in the Civil War affected by environmental conditions, there are six chapters, covering successive periods in the war which explain the role of environmental conditions on the events. So in Chapter 1, “Sickness” we see how the concentration of men in improvised army camps during the opening months of the war led to devastating outbreaks of infectious disease, while Chapter 2 deals with how the weather from late 1861 through early Autumn of 1862 affected operations in all theaters. Chapter 3 looks at the problem of feeding the armies from late 1862 through the summer of 1863 and its effects on campaigns, notably Antietam and Vicksburg. The role and importance of animals to the armies – a much neglected subject – is covered in Chapter 4 from mid-1863 through the winter of 1864, and the authors make some important points about the devastating effects combat, disease, and death had on horses and mules, and how this affected the armies. Chapter 5 examines the problems of “Death and Disability” among the troops, during the spring and summer of 1864, a period of particularly fierce fighting. In Chapter 6, “Terrain”, Browning and Judkin evaluate the different sites at which battles took place from the fall of 1864 through the end of the war, to explain the role of topography in combat and how the fighting changed the landscape, from the destruction of resources, such as salt mines, to the capture and devastation of cities such as Atlanta.

In their epilogue, the authors discuss the ultimate impact of the war on the environment of the United States after the guns fell silent. They argue that the war caused so much disease, illness, and death because so many people who had been living in rural or small communities suddenly began traveling widely and mingling with many others, which affected enslaved people and Native Americans as well as white soldiers and civilians. Those who survived the fighting, privation, wounds, and disease often faced many problems after the war, perhaps most notably in the spread of venereal disease and the introduction of medicines that left many soldiers chemically dependent. They also note that the death of so many animals, hogs and cattle as well as horses and mules, had devastating effect on the economy, particularly in the South and the Western Theater, where most of the fighting took place, while wartime logging devastated forests, leading to increased erosion.

Browning and Silver have done an excellent job of showing how the environment helped shape that war, and how the war affected the environment, often changing it forever.

The writing flows, is lucid, subtly argued and richly documented. This well-crafted account will enlighten serious students and buffs alike.

An Environmental History of the Civil War, a volume in the UNC series “Civil War America”, is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the Civil War.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. He earlier reviewed The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, Civil War Places, The Union Assaults at Vicksburg: Grant Attacks Pemberton, May 17–22, 1863, America’s Buried History: Landmines in the Civil War, The Women's Fight: The Civil War's Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation, A Republic in the Ranks, and Arguing until Doomsday.




Note: An Environmental History of the Civil War is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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