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Beyond the Book

240 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 4 halftones, 2 maps, 4 graphs, 2 tables, notes, bibl., index

Civil War America

ISBN  978-1-4696-1076-4
Published: November 2013

Nature's Civil War

Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia

By Kathryn Shively Meier

Awards & Distinctions

2011 Edward M. Coffman Prize, Society for Military History

In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions--strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat--which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers' letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Kathryn Shively Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy--nature.

Meier explores how soldiers forged informal networks of health care based on prewar civilian experience and adopted a universal set of self-care habits, including boiling water, altering camp terrain, eradicating insects, supplementing their diets with fruits and vegetables, constructing protective shelters, and most controversially, straggling. In order to improve their health, soldiers periodically had to adjust their ideas of manliness, class values, and race to the circumstances at hand. While self-care often proved superior to relying upon the inchoate military medical infrastructure, commanders chastised soldiers for testing army discipline, ultimately redrawing the boundaries of informal health care.

About the Author

Kathryn Shively Meier is assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University.


"A captivating 'ethnographic history of soldier health,' building a strong case for environmental determinism, a phenomenon commonly overshadowed by the 'persistent romanticizing' of the Civil War in popular culture. Recommended to Civil War history buffs and anyone interested in soldiers' adaption and survival in trying environments."
--Library Journal

“Offers useful insight into the common soldier’s difficult task of maintaining personal health amid the dual stressors of a harsh natural environment and a system of official army care which seemed a disorganized, uncaring, and frequently incompetent bureaucracy to those used to the loving attentions of home and family.”
--Civil War Books and Authors blog

"Well written and accessible to undergraduates. . . . Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above."

“By combing through the letters, diaries, and memoirs of 205 soldiers for daily struggles with fouled water, merciless weather, and lice, Kathryn Meier does the near-impossible: adds detail to Bell Wiley’s justly revered Life of Johnny Reb (1943) and Life of Billy Yank (1952)."
--Virginia Magazine

"Meier's research is formidable, her writing graceful, and the analysis judicious. She offers a powerful and imaginative argument about the practical strategies of soldier agency that will invigorate scholarly and popular conversation about how Civil War soldiers survived the physical and psychological trauma of military service."
--Peter Carmichael, Gettysburg College

"Nature's Civil War is an insightful study of common soldiers' physical and mental health. With deep research and stories that leap off the page, this fascinating book will change the way we think about Civil War soldiers' lives in wartime. It will make a mark."
--Megan Kate Nelson, Harvard University

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