the wilderness of war: nature and strategy IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

IN 1865, THE SCARS on the land wrought by the American Civil War were painfully evident and, for some, took on an ominous countenance. Union Major George Ward Nichols described the war-torn countryside in northern Georgia after William Tecumseh Sherman’s Federal and Joe Johnston’s Confederate armies clashed there in late 1864: “The soil which formerly was devoted to the peaceful labors of the agriculturalist has leaped up, as it were, into frowning parapets, supported and surmounted by logs, and guarded in front by tangled abattis, palisades, and chevaux de frise.” These fortifications were “reflected in quiet, rippling streams,” still guarded by abandoned tetes du pont.[1] If at times the transformation of the earth appeared an active process to Nichols, at others it seemed as though “some giant plowshare had passed through the land, marring with gigantic and unsightly furrows the rolling plains, laying waste the fields and gardens, and passing onto the abodes of men, upturning their very hearths, and razing even towns and cities.” Nor were hills and mountains immune: Nichols imagined what a future traveler might see—Kennesaw Mountain rising before him, “with its grandeur of ‘everlasting hill’ intensified by the mute records of human warfare—with its impregnable front furrowed and crowned with the marks of war.”[2] Subject and object both, nature bore silent testimony to the awesome conflict of the Civil War.

Across the South and in a few places in the North, massive armies collided, leaving trenches and rifle pits gaping like open sores; pits from the explosions of underground mines pock marked the ground, and where thick woods once stood, little but broken trunks and shattered limbs remained. In the most heavily contested areas, the effects of the Civil War were akin to a natural disaster, a comparison often made by those who witnessed its destructive power. Major Henry Hitchcock, a staff officer under Sherman, likened the random devastation of war to the damage done by thunderstorms. Indeed, he believed that the “outrages of war” were “as much a part of the inscrutable and all-wise providence of God, and as necessary and ultimately as beneficial, as the terror which His wisdom has made part of the visible phenomena of Nature.”[3]

Hitchcock’s analogy was an appropriate one, for like a violent storm, war does not discriminate when meting out its awful destruction: urban or rural, human or not, nothing is immune from war’s ruinous power. War can turn cities into piles of rubble and farmland into wasteland. War’s power is not absolute, however; it is, after all, a human endeavor, constrained by the technologies and the ideologies brought to the conflict by those involved. The wartime relationship between humans and nature is a complex arrangement, characterized at times by collaboration, at others by adversarial competition. In the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces continually negotiated the terms of this relationship, attempting to overcome nature’s obstacles as they fought to defeat their human foes.

The landscape was not simply a backdrop to the events of the war—a place where battles took place—but a powerful military resource and an important factor in military decision making. The material exigencies of nature certainly were foremost in military strategists’ minds throughout the war, but three of the most successful Union operations—Ulysses S. Grant’s relentless attempts to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, Philip H. Sheridan’s campaign in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas—focused not on overcoming nature as object, but on destroying the enemy’s primary relationship with the natural world. During these campaigns, Federal forces attacked the foundations of southern agriculture, exposed the tenuous nature of southerners’ control over the landscape, and exploited a deep-seated American fear of wilderness.

Though the success of these campaigns is well known, the part nature played in them has not been explained clearly. Nature—as material object and as intellectual idea—takes an active role in war, though historians have only recently begun to examine its importance. To be sure, military historians always have analyzed how issues such as weather, terrain, and disease affected operations and troop morale. Indeed, analyses of specific battles or larger campaigns must incorporate discussion of topography, geography, vegetation cover, and weather in order to explain why one opponent bested the other on the field of battle. Military geographer Harold Winters’ book, Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War, is an excellent analysis of the “potent and omnipresent synergy between the environment, or physical geography, and battle.”[4] Likewise, Russell Weigley frequently acknowledged in his book A Great Civil War the importance of environmental factors in the outcome of battle; he noted that Vicksburg’s greatest defense was its rugged, broken terrain and suggested that South Carolina’s best protection against Sherman’s advancing troops in 1865 was not the Confederate Army, but “geography and weather.”[5] Geographer Warren E. Grabau’s monumental study, Ninety-eight Days, also focused on the fundamental importance of terrain and geography to the defense and ultimate capture of Vicksburg.[6] These examples are merely representative of the wealth of information military histories provide about the natural obstacles officers and soldiers in the field—and those responsible for keeping them supplied—had to overcome in order to win a battle or capture important ground.[7]

Though campaign or battle histories typically include both geographic analysis and graphic descriptions of war’s destructive nature, nature’s agency is largely missing from more traditional military studies of the Civil War. As environmental historian Jack Temple Kirby explained, “Military historians preoccupied with combat on specific landscapes almost do environmental history, and environmentally minded readers may deduce from conventional texts ecological aspects of warfare,” but the military and environmental historiographies of war—any war—are “parallel; that is, they do not intersect.”[8] This failure to connect is all the more curious because scholars in both fields have bemoaned their marginalized positions within the broader discipline. Military and environmental historians alike urge their colleagues to make their work more accessible to non-specialists; ironically, neither, until very recently, has looked to the other as a possible avenue for bridging the gap and widening their audience.[9]

Kirby’s own contribution to narrowing the gap between military and environmental history was significant. His essay, “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” was the first to examine the Civil War (or any war) from a strictly environmental point of view. His purpose was not to provide a definitive history of that conflict, but rather to suggest a variety of issues in need of study. Edmund Russell’s path-breaking work, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring further connected military and environmental histories when it appeared in 2001. Since then, a growing number of scholars have started to draw the two fields closer together.[10] Ted Steinberg addressed issues of war and environment in Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, including a thought-provoking chapter on the Civil War entitled “The Great Food Fight.”[11] In 2004, Natural Enemy, Natural Ally hit the shelves; edited by Richard Tucker and Edmund Russell, the volume collected ten essays on topics ranging from pre-modern warfare in India and Africa to the two World Wars to “argue for the importance of understanding war as a major and distinctive force in environmental change, as well as the environment as a force in shaping warfare.”[12]

Natural Enemy, Natural Ally included Mark Fiege’s excellent study, “Gettysburg and the Organic Nature of the American Civil War,” which suggested that the Gettysburg campaign “exemplified the environmental conditions that motivated and influenced the larger conflict.” Fiege contended that the war was a conflict over “the fate of the American West. The two regions [North and South] had opposing visions of western social development” and these “competing land ideologies … impelled the two sections into war.” He further suggested that “much of the struggle between North and South was over geographic space,” and that the side “that dominated and defined space, either in the West or in actual theaters of combat, was the side that would prevail.”[13]

Fiege set a high standard for future environmental analyses of the Civil War: he clearly demonstrated that military and environmental histories are inextricably linked. Fiege accomplished what Ellen Stroud urged all environmental historians to do—he brought “to light connections, transformations, and expressions of power” that otherwise would have remained obscure.[14]Feige’s emphasis on the material realities of waging war exposed the power—military and social—that the physical control of nature offered. War is not fought only on the ground, however; it also is fought in the hearts and minds of those involved. It is here, in the realm of ideas, where environmental history can contribute most to our understanding of the Civil War and to military history more generally. Nature is not just a material reality; it also has intellectual and psychological importance to human societies. When Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman planned their campaigns against the southern landscape, they did not simply set out to gain physical control over the rebellious territories, they developed a specific strategy that exploited one of the oldest relationships Americans had with the natural world: a fear of wilderness. Faced with a return to chaos, and paired with physical destruction of once productive landscapes, southern support for the Confederacy weakened and Union victory was attained.


IN 1861, WHEN eleven states voted to secede from the Union, the majority of Americans, north and south of the Mason-Dixon line, were farmers who cultivated intimate connections with the land they worked. In the North, small family farms predominated, with wheat, corn, and livestock comprising the main agricultural pursuits. The primary source of labor was the family itself, supplemented with hired hands during planting and harvesting seasons. In the South, the region’s human and material resources were funneled—directly or indirectly—into the plantation system of cash crop monoculture. By the middle of the nineteenth century, “King Cotton” reigned throughout the South, encroaching even upon lands once devoted solely to indigo, rice, sugar, and tobacco.[15]

Although the South was less industrialized than the North—if factories are the standard by which a society is deemed industrial—it was no less tied to the industrial capitalist impulse. The cotton grown throughout the South fed the textile mills of the North and England. Thus, when war broke out on 12 April 1861, the conflict was not between an “industrial” society and an “agricultural” one, but, rather, it was a clash between a society that relied on “free” wage labor, and one that depended on the labor of enslaved African Americans. Guiding both societies was the belief that humans controlled nature, an assumption seemingly supported by a variety of technological advances including steam engines, mechanical reapers, and railroads. Paradoxically, though perhaps not surprisingly, even as they attempted to subdue the natural world, Americans perceived a latent power in the landscape. Harnessing that potential promised other kinds of power.[16]

Agriculture was one method Americans used to rein in the landscape. Premised on a particular view of the land and its products as commodities, private ownership of land formed the basis of nineteenth-century American agricultural practices. Americans in this period prided themselves in carving civilization out of the continent’s vast wilderness, supplanting unmanaged landscapes and unmanageable species with fenced-off tracts of land cultivated with domesticated plants and animals. Agriculture was a symbol of human control over nature and a material safeguard against the perils of wilderness.

The fear of wilderness, or uncontrolled landscapes, has a long history in America. As historian Roderick Nash argued in his pioneering work Wilderness and the American Mind, the concept of wilderness was a crucial factor in the ways European colonizers approached the North American landscape. According to Nash, they “recognized that the control and order their civilization imposed on the natural world was absent and that man was an alien presence.”[17] Landscapes perceived as wild—that is, devoid of human influence—”constituted a formidable threat” to survival and “acquired significance as a dark and sinister symbol.”[18] This version of wilderness, though not always a guide to conduct, continued to dominate American ideas about nature through the Civil War era. When war began to tear through the American landscape, reducing large areas of it to what observers at the time called “barren wastes” and “wilderness,” many Americans had to contend with what those war-changed landscapes meant.

Early in the war, Union Captain Thaddeus Minshall of the 33d Ohio Volunteers wrote home exhorting a friend to “thank your stars that you live in a state untrod by the foot of the invader. No one can form an idea of the evils of war but one who has been in the vicinity of an army.”[19] Several months later he declared, “war is a terrible thing. In its tread it desolates the fair face of nature—all the works of the husbandman, and tramples out all the divine parts of human nature.”[20] Minshall did take some comfort that nature’s seasons continued “coming on apace” despite the horrors of war; he described the beautiful sight of peach and plum trees in bloom, relieved that spring brought signs of life to a landscape dominated by death and destruction. The obvious juxtaposition caused the philosophical Minshall to ponder its larger meaning: “I can but reflect how nature and man are at war,” he wrote, “Nature is strugling [sic] to give every thing a renewed appearance, but the grim monster, war[,] stalks on in the same unvaried course of desolation and ruin.” Minshall predicted, “Terrible will be the condition of the South this season; nothing but the spontaneous effort of nature to indicate that the pursuit of agriculture is possible in the country.”[21]

Minshall’s descriptions of the war-torn landscape in Tennessee support historian Jack Temple Kirby’s argument that few “can conceive of war without environmental danger if not disaster.”[22] Some of the worst damage during the Civil War occurred in heavily wooded areas. Stray bullets, cannon shot, and the occasional saber pounded into the trunks and limbs of trees. Captain Theodore F. Allen of the 7th Ohio Cavalry recalled the fate of “a small grove of about 200 locust trees,” most of them “about the size of a common bed-post,” after the battle of Franklin, Tennessee: “These little trees were literally cut to pieces by the bullets. Some of them not as large as a man’s body had 50 and 60 bullet marks. A reward of [$25.00] has been offered by Several officers to any person who will find in that grove a Tree or Limb 5 feet long which has not been struck by a bullet.”[23] John Tilford, second assistant surgeon for the 79th Indiana Infantry described a similar scene near Atlanta: “The trees in the wood was riddled to splinters by the leaden hail.”[24]

Cities as well as cultivated fields and gardens suffered extensive damage not only from heated battles, but also simply from armies passing through. To describe the effects, countless chroniclers of the Civil War relied upon images of wilderness, reflecting a centuries-old American fear of disordered landscapes. Describing a stretch of northern Georgia, an article published in the Natchez Weekly Courier noted how “the utter loneliness, the want of human life, strikes one with a feeling of desolation.” Citing the lack of all signs of human improvements in the region—fences, livestock, working mills—the author wrote, “So startling is the utter silence, that even when the wild bird of the forest carols a note, you look around surprised that amid such loneliness any living being should be happy. This is the result of war, stern desolating war!”[25]

On a beautiful spring morning in 1865, noted diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut awoke to the scent of violets placed in her room by her thoughtful hostess. For a brief moment, the flowers’ perfume allowed Chesnut to forget the horrible events taking place around her, and evoked memories of a part of her lifewhen the “Sweet south wind that blew in that Garden of Paradise.” Her reverie was cut short, however, when “it all came back, the dread unspeakable that lies behind every thought now.”[26] Chesnut referred, of course, to the vicious war tearing through her beloved southern home, transforming it into “a howling wilderness, the land laid waste, all dust and ashes.”[27]

The comparisons between a war-ravaged southern landscape and a “howling wilderness” were not made lightly, especially when the destruction was the result of deliberate strategy, rather than simply being an unintended casualty of war.[28] Descriptions of such scenes reflected a painful recognition by southerners toward the end of the war that they no longer controlled their environment and that their power to transform the southern landscape into a reflection of southern society was ephemeral. Indeed, a strategy used by General Grant in early 1863, and later by his lieutenants Sheridan and Sherman, which targeted southern agricultural practices and threatened to turn the southern landscape into a “barren waste” and a “wilderness,” had symbolic as well as material import.

One of the Union’s most effective means of attacking the South’s view of itself was the chevauchée, or massive foraging raid. The chevauchèe was meant to be a dramatic demonstration of power, and transformed the destruction of the landscape from a consequence into a weapon of war. These raids, in both their ancient and modern emanations, were intended to disrupt the daily lives of noncombatants and gain resources for the invading forces while denying them to the enemy.[29] In a modern war such as the Civil War, the raids reached epic proportions. Called “hard war” by some and “total war” by others, the strategy was a complex mix of operational and tactical maneuverings premised on new ideas about warfare.[30] It deviated from previously accepted rules of war that attempted to spare noncombatants, and made southern citizens, through attacks on their economic and natural resources, a prime target.

The strategy also was premised on particular ideas about nature. The South’s agricultural wealth was its greatest military asset, providing food and forage for its men at arms, but it was also its most vulnerable resource. According to historian Russell Weigley, a “strike against war resources suggested an indirect means of accomplishing the destruction of the enemy armies. If the enemy were deprived of the economic means to maintain armies, then the armies obviously would collapse.”[31] Although railroads, armories, iron works, and cotton stores were primary targets of the new strategy, the vast acres of fertile farmland that grew crops for human and livestock consumption were more important to southern economic, social, and cultural systems. In targeting the South’s agricultural sector, the Union strategy undermined the region’s most basic relationship to the natural world, destroyed the Confederacy’s ecological foundations, and assured Federal victory.

A region’s ecological foundations—the constantly evolving interaction between social, economic, and ecological systems—are the means through which human communities transform material nature into a “system that produces resources for their consumption.”[32] In transforming nature, though, humans and human systems (economic, social, cultural, and political) are transformed, too. Thus, an attack against an enemy’s resources goes beyond the simple destruction of material products toward the destruction of the enemy’s social and economic systems as well.[33]

Under the capable leadership of Grant and through the remorseless execution of Sheridan and Sherman, the chevauchées successfully undermined the relationships between southerners and their landscapes, eliciting a profound change in the region’s ecological foundations and requiring the local population to negotiate a new relationship to the land. These demonstrations of power used widespread, visible devastation as proof of Union might, achieving psychological victory over the southern populace sympathetic to the Confederate cause and logistical victory over the Confederate army. Grant’s revival of a strategy deemed both militarily and economically unfeasible and ethically unacceptable since the eighteenth century led to a broader American strategic tradition of attacking an enemy’s ecological foundations. The tactical use of such an attack was employed many times during the war, but its viability as a strategy on the operational level only became clear in the Union’s actions against Vicksburg, Mississippi.[34]

The campaign against Vicksburg was crucial to Union success in the war. Called the “Gibraltar of the South,” Vicksburg was an important port through which the Confederacy transported cattle and other goods from the southwest and Mexico to its troops throughout the South. It also was surrounded by rich agricultural land. Situated nearly two hundred feet above the Mississippi River, on bluffs formed by the swift currents of the eastern side of a hairpin curve in the river’s path, Vicksburg benefited from holding the high ground over any Union approaches from the west by land or water. A series of wide, gently sloping, natural levees or ridges created by the river’s yearly floods composed a deceptively flat landscape to the west of the city; rising ten to fifteen feet above the water level, and ranging from one hundred yards to miles wide, these ridges provided the rich, dry land that made cotton production in the area possible. They also formed the edges of the area’s nearly impassable swamps. Likewise, the eastern approach to Vicksburg was riddled with narrow streams and swamplands fed by the Big Black River and its tributaries. Located in the heart of bayou territory, these numerous streams created a large system of twisting ridges in the loess soil, and formed a nearly impenetrable fortress around Vicksburg. Each of these natural features would play an important role in the various Union attempts to capture the rebel fortress.

In August 1862 Grant took command of the Army of the Tennessee with orders to gain control over the entire Mississippi River.[35] Vicksburg was the last obstacle to that goal, and Grant planned on marching south toward the city through northwestern Mississippi. Following standard military practice, he established a stationary base behind his army from which supplies easily could be transported to the moving column. Leaving a garrison to guard the supplies, Grant marched toward Vicksburg. However, General Earl Van Dorn of the Confederate cavalry sneaked to Grant’s rear and destroyed the supply depot at Holly Springs, leaving Grant and his army in hostile country with no provisions. Grant recalled the Mississippians’ reaction to the news: “They came with broad smiles on their faces, indicating intense joy, to ask what I was going to do now without anything for my soldiers to eat.” Grant informed the gloaters that he was taking care of the problem by collecting all food and forage to be found in a fifteen-mile area. “Countenances soon changed,” Grant wrote, “and so did the inquiry. The next was, ‘What are we to do?'” Grant told them: “[W]e had endeavored to feed ourselves from our own northern resources while visiting them; but their friends in gray had been uncivil enough to destroy what we had brought along, and it could not be expected that men, with arms in their hands, would starve in the midst of plenty.”[36] This was a lesson not soon forgotten by Grant, and one that he and others taught the southern populace time and again during the remainder of the war.

During a long and fruitless winter encampment on Young’s Point, Louisiana—the spit of land made by the horseshoe bend in the Mississippi River across from Vicksburg—Grant planned another attack on the city.[37] Beginning in April 1863, Grant aimed a creating wilderness through the revival of the ancient practice of the chevauchée. He initiated this plan largely out of necessity; once on the Mississippi’s eastern bank, Grant was in hostile territory. Mississippi’s population was staunchly Confederate in its sentiments, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent massive reinforcements to defend his home state. Steep ridges and precipitous ravines characterized western Mississippi’s landscape, making the movement of a large army with all its supplies nearly impossible. In light of these natural obstacles, Grant decided to cut loose from his supply line and live off the country—implementing the very strategy that would eventually win the war.

Grant’s foraging operations in Mississippi uncovered the Confederacy’s Achilles’ heel—its rich, fertile landscape. In commandeering the stores local residents produced for themselves and for the Confederacy, Grant struck not only a military blow to the rebel forces, but a psychological one against civilian Confederate sympathizers as well. Grant’s orders stated, “It is our duty to use every means to weaken the enemy, by destroying their means of subsistence, withdrawing their means of cultivating their fields, and in every other way possible.”[38] The results of this policy were not lost on those who suffered from it, nor on those who implemented it. As one female Vicksburg resident wrote in her diary toward the end of the siege, “provisions [were] so nearly gone, except the hogshead of sugar, that a few more days will bring us to starvation indeed. Martha says rats are hanging dressed in the market for sale with mule meat: there is nothing else.”[39]

Separated from its hinterland, Vicksburg could not long survive. But the hinterland, too, suffered at the hands of Grant’s nearly seventy-five thousand troops. Agriculture was the cornerstone of the region’s relationship with the natural world, its success the result of constant and delicate negotiation between humans and their environment. Grant’s revival of the chevauchée preyed on the tenuous nature of this arrangement. Sherman, who served under Grant during the Vicksburg campaign, predicted, “We have ravaged the Land and have sent away half a million negros so that this country is paralyzed and cannot recover its lost strength in twenty years.”[40] Despite its obvious hyperbole, Sherman’s assessment was based in truth. In targeting everything southerners employed in pursuit of agricultural productivity—tools, storage buildings, animals, and slaves—Grant’s army attacked the ecological foundations of the Confederacy. What had begun as a measure of simple expedience proved to be such a powerful weapon that Grant integrated it into his arsenal upon taking command of all Union forces in late July 1863. As historian Edward Phillips explained, foraging, “converted now into a weapon, would serve henceforth the same ends as devastation.”[41]

The first real test of the new strategy was Sheridan’s assignment to “end the [Shenandoah] Valley’s days as the ‘Breadbasket of the Confederacy.'” Grant told Sheridan and his Cavalry to “eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.”[42] More specifically, Grant’s orders explicitly instructed Sheridan’s army of nearly fifty-thousand men to destroy existing agricultural goods and any possibility of producing such goods in the area for the remainder of that season. Put another way, Grant ordered Sheridan to take control of the landscape away from the local residents.

The historian Gary Gallagher has described the Shenandoah Valley as “a landscape of breathtaking beauty and agricultural bounty.” It was one of the most productive regions of Virginia prior to the outbreak of the war. Three railroads served the region, moving the vast agricultural stores from the valley to Virginia’s urban areas in the east. Staunton was the main railroad depot, and the macadamized valley Turnpike “provided all-weather service” between that city and Martinsburg to the north.[43] The valley’s numerous mills transformed wheat into flour, wool into textiles, skins into leather, and trees into lumber.[44] With the outbreak of armed conflict in 1861, the resources of the Shenandoah Valley made it one of the most important and contested areas in the country. Often referred to as the “granary of the Confederacy,”the valley became a “lynchpin of the Southern Cause and a primary target of the Northern war machine.”[45]

From the outset of the war until its final six months, however, the valley remained an elusive goal for the Union forces. First under the legendary Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, then under the irascible Jubal Early, the Confederate Army of the Valley protected the fertile Shenandoah from all Union incursions. In concert with its Confederate defenders, according to historian Jeffry Wert, the “Valley itself contributed significantly to Union frustration and defeat in the region.” Federal forces had to subdue “a huge corridor” guarded on the west by the “formidable sentries” of the Alleghenies and on the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains, which in one soldier’s estimation resembled breastworks thrown up by “a race of titans [that] had been at war.”[46] Although employing much more utilitarian language, a Union officer similarly attributed Federal difficulties to the geography and terrain of the valley; he noted that the lay of the land favored Confederate movements on Washington, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. For the Union armies, however, the “Valley led away from the objective, Richmond,” and “exposed [them] to flank attacks through the gaps from vantage ground and perfect cover” firmly under Confederate control. The same officer noted that until “the summer of 1864 the Shenandoah Valley had not been to the Union armies a fortunate place either for battle or for strategy.”[47]

Grant, recognizing the importance of the Shenandoah for the Confederates as both a storehouse and a secure transportation route, noted that it was “well known that they would make a desperate struggle to maintain it.”[48] And indeed they did, plowing through two Union commanders in less than three months. Grant’s first attempt to dislodge the Confederates from the valley ended in disaster. Franz Sigel, charged with tearing up the valley’s railroads, moved tentatively up the valley toward Harrisonburg until he met with resistance at the town of New Market on May 15. A lovely pastoral town, New Market nestled against the massive Massanuttens, orchards skirted the village, and green meadows lay between Sigel’s men and his enemy. Former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckenridge led the rebel forces, which included 247 eager cadets from the nearby Virginia Military Institute.[49] The young rebels routed Sigel, who quickly retreated down the valley.

After Sigel’s ignominious defeat, Grant realized that aggressive operations in the valley were of no use to him and decided instead that the best alternative was to make the region “untenable for either army.” Far from a counterintuitive decision, Grant’s plan to destroy the valley’s resources had a solid basis in logic. Wesley Merritt, Major General of U.S. Volunteers, explained: Grant “reasoned that the advantage would be with us, who did not want it as a source of supplies, nor as a place of arms, and against the Confederates, who wanted it for both.”[50] Furthermore, Grant had successfully implemented such a plan the year before in Mississippi. Undermining an area’s ability to support its military forces—psychologically or materially—was a proven method for Grant, and he determined that the Shenandoah Valley posed an excellent opportunity to deploy the strategy once again.

Under Grant, the Shenandoah would no longer be for Union forces a “green and golden deathtrap”—in the words of historian Jeffry Wert—standing defiantly “unconquered.” Drawing on his experiences in Mississippi the previous year, Grant implemented a new strategy that virtually eliminated obstacles posed by the valley and its rebel defenders. He “finally determined to change the past, with a weapon created for the task and with instructions that meant a new, grim-visaged war.”[51] Grant’s plan “aimed at both the destruction of rebel armies and the destruction of rebel war-making capabilities.” As Mark Grimsley noted in The Hard Hand of War, under Sheridan’s command, Union forces would “launch expeditions against Southern croplands, railroads, and war resources.”[52] In other words, they were to attack the valley’s ecological foundations.

Sheridan’s campaign in the valley began slowly, but after several battles against Jubal Early’s Confederates, he gained unstoppable momentum. Pursuing Early’s retreating forces, Sheridan marched three columns of his army up the valley turnpike, passing farms like Robert Barton’s “Springdale” along the way. Barton recalled that two columns flanked the road skirting his property, marching in the fields and “destroying everything before them. Hogs, sheep, cattle &c.; were shot down and left to rot and horses were taken and carried away, whether needed by the army or not. Springdale was left like a wilderness, almost every living animal on the place either being driven off or else killed and left in sheer deviltry and wickedness.”[53] With equal venom and disdain, rebel General John Gordon claimed that after the third battle of Winchester, Sheridan “decided upon a season of burning, instead of battling; of assaults with matches and torches upon barns and haystacks, instead of upon armed men who were lined up in front of him.”[54]

In a report to Grant, Sheridan noted that “the whole country from the Blue Ridge to the North Mountains has been made untenable for a rebel army.” He then proceeded to inventory what his army had destroyed or confiscated in the Luray, Little Fork, and Main valleys: “I have destroyed over 2,000 barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements; over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat; have driven in front of the army over 4,000 head of stock, and have killed and issued to the troops not less than 3,000 sheep. … A large number of horses have been obtained, a proper estimate of which I cannot now make.” He reported that the “people here are getting sick of the War, heretofore they have had no reason to complain because they had been living in great abundance.” Sheridan concluded with a promise to Grant: “Tomorrow I will continue the destruction of wheat, forage &c.; down to Fisher’s Hill. When this is completed, the valley from Winchester up to Staunton (ninety-two miles) will have but little in it for man or beast.”[55]

Four years of armed conflict did indeed take its toll on the lovely valley. As the New York Herald reported on 13 March 1865, just a week after Early suffered his final defeat at the hands of the brash General George Custer at Waynesboro, “Between Sheridan and Early, the fertile Shenandoah valley has been thoroughly cleaned out; the country east of the Blue Ridge, from Leesburg to Richmond, has been left exhausted and desolate by the spoils of both armies.”[56] In the valley proper, retreating rebel cavalry “encountered scenes of utter desolation: smoking ruins, the carcasses of animals in various stages of decomposition, horses killed in earlier battles and skirmishes, and farm animals recently slaughtered. Thousands of buzzards—with lice, one of the few breeds of living things which had prospered and multiplied during this war—circled overhead to gorge on putrescent flesh.”[57]

As Gallagher stated, “Sheridan and his men left a legacy of blackened ruin that served as graphic counterpoint to the storied lushness of the area.”[58] Likewise, Margaretta Barton Colt, Robert Barton’s descendant, noted that the soldiers from the valley “came home to a wasteland—no trees, no fences, no barns, no mills. One Scottish visitor compared it to a moor.”[59] In his official report at the end of the campaign, Sheridan accounted for everything his men had appropriated or destroyed.[60]

In Gallagher’s view, without “an appreciation of why the Shenandoah Valley became first a battle ground and then a wasteland, it is impossible to understand fully the last year of the war.”[61] By laying waste to the valley’s most visible and material source of strength, Sheridan’s campaign furthered the Union cause more than almost any campaign up to that time. It was a strategic, logistic, political, and psychological success. Sheridan’s chevauchée through the fertile valley “constituted the first large-scale demonstration that the strategy of exhaustion could accomplish the psychological and logistical damage envisioned by Grant.”[62] It would not be the last, however. As Sheridan was wrapping up his campaign in the Shenandoah, another of Grant’s commanders was beginning his own farther south. On 15 November 1864, Sherman cut loose his supply lines and set out on his infamous “March to the Sea.”

Sherman’s marches through Georgia and the Carolinas grew from the same premise: undermine local control over the landscape and victory is assured. “We have devoured the land,” Sherman wrote to his wife, “All the people retire before us, and desolation is behind. To realize what war is, one must follow our tracks.”[63] The ability to wreak such havoc was a symbol of power in Sherman’s estimation, and he consciously transformed his southern campaign into a demonstration of that power. Using foraging as a weapon, he cut a swath of destruction up to sixty miles wide along his path from Atlanta to Savannah and through the Carolinas to Raleigh. He lived up to his promise to Grant to do “irreparable damage” to the Confederacy.[64]

What became one of the most celebrated and condemned campaigns of the war was both a military triumph and a psychological one. Sherman recognized this fact, claiming in a letter to Grant that the march would be “a demonstration to the World, foreign and domestic, that we have a power which [Jefferson] Davis cannot resist.” The chevauchées through Georgia and the Carolinas illustrated quite clearly that southerners’ attempts to manipulate the landscape were futile in the face of Federal might. Sherman’s campaigns were the culmination of the achievements and insights gained in Grant’s maneuvers against Vicksburg in 1863 and Sheridan’s rampage through the Shenandoah Valley in the autumn of 1864. “This may not be war, but rather Statesmanship,” Sherman proclaimed, “proof positive that the North can prevail.”[65] Sherman’s final campaigns made tangible the authority of the federal government and confirmed the broadly held assumption that power over the environment was inextricably linked to other kinds of power.

According to the New York Herald, “Sherman had discovered from his foraging expeditions around Atlanta that Central Georgia was filled with supplies; that her endless cottonfields of 1860 had become her inviting corn fields of 1864, for the subsistence of rebel armies.”[66] “They don’t know what war means,” Sherman wrote to Chief of Staff Henry Wager Halleck, “but when the rich planters of the Oconee and Savannah [rivers] see their fences and corn and hogs and sheep vanish before their eyes they will have something more than a mean opinion of the ‘Yanks.’ Even now our poor mules laugh at the fine corn-fields, and our soldiers riot on chestnuts, sweet potatoes, pigs, chickens, &c.;”[67] Confident of ample provisions for his men and animals, Sherman set fire to the railroad depot, cotton warehouses, and armory in Atlanta and moved out with sixty thousand men on 15 November 1864.

The stated goal of Sherman’s campaign was to dismantle the military infrastructure of the Confederacy. Railroads, factories, and armories comprised the Federal forces’ main targets. Sherman’s men set fire to any building, warehouse, or structure that could be used for military purposes; they pried up the railroads, set the ties ablaze, and melted the rails, twisting them into “Sherman neckties.” Cotton stores, too, were burned, with the purpose of undermining the Confederacy’s ability to finance its war effort. Fire was one of Sherman’s greatest tools, providing him the means literally to reduce the Confederacy’s military assets to ashes.

The obliteration of the Confederacy’s military infrastructure was only part of the battle, however, as a surgeon in the Union army intimated in a letter home: “It seems now we will hold no interior point between Chattanooga and the Gulf, as all railways, foundries, and other public works will be destroyed before this campaign shall end, and much of the country effectually eaten up and desolated.”[68] Sherman believed that he was fighting not only “hostile armies, but a hostile people,” and that the war could not be won until the southern people were conquered.[69] His secondary goal, therefore, was to demonstrate the futility of civilian resistance to the overwhelming power of the Union Army. His method was ingenious, though not unprecedented. Like Grant in Mississippi and Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman would march his army through the heart of Secessia, living off the land, leaving the local residents little except food for thought.

Georgia provided well for the Union army. Sherman recalled that between Covington and Milledgeville they found “an abundance of corn, molasses, meal, bacon, and sweet potatoes” in addition to “a good many cows and oxen, and a large number of mules.” He attributed this wealth to the state “never before having been visited by a hostile army; the recent crop had been excellent, had just been gathered and laid by for winter.”[70] The riches of Georgia, however, were quickly depleted; Sherman’s army of sixty thousand had to move continuously or risk the same fate as those left starving in its wake.[71] This danger increased as the army neared its final objective in Georgia—the city of Savannah. With the rich cornfields of central Georgia behind them, the foragers had to rely on the rice fields of the coastal lowlands. Although Sherman noted that Savannah’s rice plantations contained ample food and forage, it was only a short while before his army depleted those supplies. Within a week, however, the Federal forces moved into the city. On the morning of December 21 Sherman telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln, presenting Savannah to him “as a Christmas-gift.”[72] Sherman’s nearly bloodless campaign—his “demonstration to the world”—ended a grand success.

Sherman and his men were well aware of the effects, both military and psychological, of their recent campaign. Union Major Henry Hitchcock wrote in his diary that the campaign proved “that a large army can march with impunity through the heart of the richest rebel state, after boldly cutting loose from all its bases, and subsisting on the country.” Hitchcock concluded that the campaign was a “great and important success, full of significance for the future.”[73] Another soldier predicted that the campaign “will be one of the really historical campaigns of the war, much more so than some where vastly more fighting was done. It was brilliant in conception and well executed, but practically one of the easiest campaigns we have had.”[74]

Brilliant, significant, easy—each word accurately described the March to the Sea. In less than one month, Sherman had marched an army sixty thousand strong through the heart of enemy territory with little resistance. The Military Division of the Mississippi left the foothills of Atlanta on 15 November 1864, traversed the rolling country near Milledgeville, crossed the swampy lowlands to the seacoast, “foraging liberally” along the way, and captured Savannah on December 21. Sherman understood that taking or destroying everything associated with agricultural production would bring the Confederacy to its knees. “I know my Enemy,” he wrote to his brother Philemon Ewing, “and think I have made him feel the Effects of war, that he did not expect, and he now Sees how the Power of the United States can reach him in his innermost recesses.”[75]The Confederacy’s strength as well as its weakness stemmed from its power to transform the environment into a productive landscape; by trumping that power, Sherman’s March to the Sea struck a powerful blow to the rebellion.

Daniel Oakey, Captain of the 2d Massachusetts volunteers, remarked that the Georgia campaign was seen as ” a grand military promenade, all novelty and excitement.” He believed it had a deeper significance, though: Its “moral effect on friend and foe was immense. It proved our ability to lay open the heart of the Confederacy, and left the question of what we might do next a matter of doubt and terror.”[76] Emma LeConte, a young woman living in Columbia, South Carolina, certainly wondered what lay in store for her native state. “Yes, the year that is dying has brought us more trouble than any of the other three long dreary years of this fearful struggle,” she wrote in her diary on New Year’s Eve, 1864. “Georgia has been desolated. The resistless flood has swept through that state, leaving but a desert to mark its track.” LeConte had heard that Sherman’s men were “preparing to hurl destruction upon the State they hate most of all, and Sherman the brute avows his intention of converting South Carolina into a wilderness.”[77] Indeed, exhilarated by his success in Georgia, Sherman wrote to Grant in late December exclaiming, “I could go on and smash South Carolina all to pieces.”[78]

Sherman set out from Savannah on 19 January 1865, and was on the coast of South Carolina four days later. Daniel Oakey described the impending campaign as “formidable,” one that would involve “exposure and indefatigable exertion.” Sherman’s plan for the Carolinas mirrored his actions in Georgia, with four corps organized into two wings marching north along nearly parallel lines from the coast toward Columbia. From there he would march to Goldsboro, North Carolina, and end his “demonstration” at Raleigh.

Oakey noted that the campaign’s success depended on continuous forward movement, “for even the most productive regions would soon be exhausted by our 60,000 men and more, and 13,000 animals.” He further remarked that, despite being fully prepared for “a pitched battle, our mission was not to fight, but to consume and destroy.”[79] Special Field Orders No. 120, issued at the beginning of the Georgia campaign and remaining in effect for the entire campaign, included demands for restraint and order in their implementation. Geographic and political differences between Georgia and the Carolinas, however, made the enforcement of such limitations ineffective in the present campaign.

Sherman’s campaigns through Georgia and the Carolina left behind an awesome vista of destruction. For some of Sherman’s men, like Oakey, these scenes verged on the sublime. Describing the army’s advance into “the wild regions of North Carolina,” he wrote: “The scene before us was very striking; the resin pits were on fire, and great columns of black smoke rose high into the air, spreading and mingling together in gray clouds, and suggesting the roof and pillars of a vast temple.” Despite the scene’s allure, however, Oakey concluded that the “wanton” destruction was “sad to see,” all the more so because the “country was necessarily left to take care of itself, and became a ‘howling waste’.”[80]

The campaigns successfully destroyed the last sources of supplies available to the dwindling rebel armies and sent a powerful message to the Confederate populace about the reach of Federal power. The March to the Sea and the Carolinas campaigns demonstrated that the Federal government ultimately controlled how the American landscape and its resources would be used and by whom. The strategy was at once subtle and overt, but its message was inescapable: Sherman’s chevauchées through the Deep South proved Federal power to determine one face of the American landscape. The campaign delivered the fatal blow to the rebellion.

The nature of Sherman’s strategy—to “forage liberally off the land”—targeted the South’s agricultural landscape, its most important resource and the basis of its economy, society, and identity. Union troops destroyed or confiscated cotton, food, forage, crops, livestock, and agricultural implements. The immediate effects of the campaigns were obvious. Alexander Lawson, a Confederate prisoner for part of the march through Georgia, vividly recalled “the davastations [sic] that [Sherman’s] army committed.” Lawson recalled that Sherman “made brags that he would make a black mark to the sea. He certainly did.” Lawson escaped just outside of Savannah, and turned back on Sherman’s path: “I found nothing, no hogs, cattle, sheep, chicken or anything else to eat. I saw a number of the very finest ladies in Georgia in the camps picking up grains of corn for the purpose of sustaining life, who a week before that did not know what it was to want for anything. I finally crossed the Savannah River into South Carolina, where his army hadn’t been, and it was the first food that I had for about eighteen days.” For these depredations, Lawson believed that Sherman had earned a “warm spot in Hell.”[81]

Sherman did not destroy the land; what was laid waste, however, was the ecological foundation of the Confederacy. Agriculture based on slavery was the cornerstone of the southern relationship to the natural environment. Its success relied on a precarious system of power premised on the oppression of black Americans and on constant and delicate negotiations with nature. Sherman’s chevauchées through Georgia and the Carolinas capitalized on the nature of this relationship, shifting the balance of power just enough to cause the Confederacy to topple in upon itself.


“IT IS DIFFICULT to condense into a few pages, and yet to render my tale interesting but not wearisome, the harrowing sight of ruin and destruction, the incontrovertible accounts of hardships encountered and to be endured, which met me at every turn.”[82] The challenge that post-war traveler Henry Deedes faced in writing about the destruction of the South is the same one that historians of the conflict also must overcome. Tales of the devastation to the southern economy and its landscape—that is, to its ecological foundations—abound, as do commentaries of its immediate consequences and long-term repercussions.

As early as February 1865, witnesses to the strategy’s agricultural devastation predicted a dark future for the South, marked by barren fields and abandoned farms. After campaigning through Georgia and the Carolinas with Sherman, Thomas Osborn remarked, “Unless the war closes within the year, the people of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina will do no producing this year, positively from an inability to do it, and partially from actual discouragement. People the world over raise crops for their support and making money, but if it yields them neither, they will not do much at it. This certainly has been the case in these three states, as well as in a considerable portion of Mississippi that last year.”[83] He also anticipated that the devastation to agricultural regions would unhinge southern society and prompt its citizens to desert their homes. “Our Army has travelled over thousands of miles of territory which will be abandoned by the inhabitants who will never return, and these sections will grow up to a wilderness.”[84]

The degeneration of a once populated and “civilized” landscape into a state of wilderness—devoid of people and basic amenities—was a dismal prospect, and southerners’ attempts to recover from the war and re-establish agricultural productivity appeared unsuccessful to many visitors immediately after the war. The most common indicator that the South was in danger of returning to a state of wilderness was the lack of even the most basic symbols of “improvement”: fences and well-tended, cultivated fields, both of which were primary targets of the chevauchées. Their absence provided visible and tangible evidence of the strategy’s success. In targeting southern agriculture, Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan undermined southerners’ control over their own landscapes. In destroying barns, tools, crops, and fences, the Union generals and their troops effectively obliterated the artifacts that once served as evidence of human influence over the environment. If left to its own devices, in other words, the landscape soon would return to the wilderness previous generations of southerners had worked so hard to eradicate.

The war did not literally destroy the southern landscape, however; historian Mart Stewart clearly demonstrated this in his study of coastal Georgia. What was devastated, though, were the means by which the antebellum southern landscape was maintained.[85] As Thomas Clark and Albert Kirwan suggested in their study The South Since Appomattox, in “an agrarian society like that of the ante-bellum South, ravages of war are erased from the land more quickly than in urban, industrialized countries.” Fields covered in clover instead of cotton remain fields, but buildings destroyed by cannon fire are not so easily disguised. “Even so,” Clark and Kirwan noted, “it would be long years before physical reminders of the devastation disappeared from the southern countryside.”[86]

It would be even longer before the psychological scars would begin to heal. Tales of Sherman’s marches still resound through the South, evidence of the continuing legacy that campaign—and its focus on transforming civilization into wilderness—had on the region. Though post-war descriptions and memories of the “waste lands” Sherman left behind far outstrip the actual devastation, that exaggeration demonstrates the psychological power of the military strategies based on fear of wilderness.

The consequences of the Union’s shift in military policy extended well beyond the surrenders of Robert E. Lee and Johnston in April 1865. The three commanders most responsible for the new policy—Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan—maintained control over Federal military policy for the next three decades. As Lance Janda argued in “Shutting the Gates of Mercy,” the Civil War set an important precedent in American strategy making. Janda argued that the “application of force against an enemy’s noncombatants and resources” in the Civil War led directly to the strategies employed against Native Americans later in that century. As the primary executor of the chevauchée in the Shenandoah Valley, Sheridan learned a powerful lesson, and applied his knowledge and experience in the Indian campaigns of the following decade. On becoming General-in-Chief, Sheridan proposed to destroy the buffalo herds upon which the Plains peoples depended. He knew from his Civil War experience that attacking the enemy’s resources could be an effective strategy; he believed that he would defeat the American Indians if he could destroy their means of survival.[87]

Sheridan’s determination to follow through on his threat is debatable. The herds had already declined significantly by the 1870s as a result of sport hunting by curious travelers moving west and a vigorous trade in buffalo hides in America and abroad. What is important however, are the implications Sheridan’s words had for his contemporaries as well as his successors. That Sheridan believed that he and his army—much reduced in size after the late conflict—had the power to accomplish such an enormous task is the most significant aspect of his statement. Words, in this instance, spoke louder than actions. Sheridan’s threat provided a terrible template for future contests by American armed forces. The belief that humans had undeniable power over nature, and that they could destroy it at will to defeat an enemy, took on awesome proportions in the twentieth century. Chemical and biological weapons, atomic bombs, defoliation agents, and attempts to control the weather for military purposes are all products of the deep-seated belief that humans control nature.[88]

Thus, the lasting changes wrought by the war were not the physical transformations of the natural environment, but rather the ways in which Americans thought about war and interacted with their landscapes. As Edmund Russell demonstrated in War and Nature, American military strategies often mirrored American attempts to control the natural environments closer to home. That presumption did not originate in World War I, but rather in the Civil War, when the triumvirate of generals—Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman—demonstrated their power over the Confederacy’s armies and its territory through the destruction of the southerners’ control of their domestic landscapes.

Lisa M. Brady is assistant professor of history at Boise State University. She currently is working on a manuscript entitled War Upon the Land: Nature and Warfare in the American Civil War.


The author would like to thank Donald Worster, Mark Neely, Mark Fiege, David Walker, and the anonymous reviewers for Environmental History for their comments and suggestions. Research for this article was funded in part by the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky, and the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs at Boise State University.
1. Chevaux de frise (“horses of Holland,” named after where they were first used) are defensive, fencelike structures composed of long, sharply pointed stakes (often small tree trunks) set at angles intended to obstruct cavalry movements. Tetes du pont (bridgeheads) are defensive works in front of bridges to prevent enemy access to the span.

2. George Ward Nichols, The Story of the Great March from the Diary of a Staff Officer (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1865), 16. Theodore Upson, a soldier with the 100th Indiana Volunteers, also described the effects of the attack on a Confederate battery on Kennesaw Mountain. He recalled that Union forces fired a dozen twenty-pound Parrot guns on the battery, and “it looked as though there was nothing left but a big hole in the side of the mountain.” Theodore F. Upson, With Sherman to the Sea: The Wartime Diaries of Theodore F. Upson, ed. Oscar Osburn Winther (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), 114–15.

3. Henry Hitchcock to Mary Collier Hitchcock, 29 January 1865, in Marching with Sherman: Passages from the Letters and Campaign Diaries of Henry Hitchcock, ed. M. A. DeWolfe Howe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927), 217.

4. Harold A. Winters, et al., Battling the Elements: Weather and Terrain in the Conduct of War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 1.

5. Russell F. Weigley, A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861–1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 268 and 418.

6. Warren E. Grabau, Ninety-eight Days: A Geographer’s View of the Vicksburg Campaign (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2000).

7. It would be impossible to reference all military studies of the Civil War that include analysis of natural obstacles or geographic issues, largely because any military analysis of a battle, campaign, or war, by necessity must examine the geographical questions. In addition to those mentioned in the text, one study that is particularly useful is Earl B. McElfresh, Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), which examines the war from the perspective of the maps created by both armies’ topographical engineers and cartographers. For general histories of the war, see James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), and Bruce Catton’s Centennial History of the Civil War series, The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat (New York: Doubleday, 1961, 1963, and 1965).

8. Jack Temple Kirby, “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” on the National Humanities Center website, Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History (revised July 2001), Emphasis in original. Until Kirby’s essay appeared in 1997, there was no environmental historiography for the Civil War, though, as Kirby noted, one could extrapolate the environmental aspects of the war from many sources. Some of the best are those that examined agriculture during and after the war, including Thomas D. Clark and Albert D. Kirwan, The South Since Appomattox: A Century of Regional Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967); Paul Wallace Gates, Agriculture and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 1965); and John Solomon Otto, Agriculture during the Civil War Era, 1860–1880 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994). Mart Stewart’s study of Georgia also provides excellent insight into the changes the Civil War brought to a particular region; see Mart Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

9. John Lynn suggested that military historians needed to adapt to historical trends if they wanted to survive in academia. See “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” Journal of Military History 61 (October 1997): 777–89. The future of environmental history similarly has been discussed; see for example, Adam Rome, “What Really Matters in History?: Environmental Perspectives on Modern America,” Environmental History 7 (April 2002): 303–18; Ted Steinberg, “Down to Earth: Nature, Agency, and Power in History,” American Historical Review 107 (June 2002): 798–820; and Ellen Stroud, “Does Nature Always Matter?: Following Dirt through History,” in History and Theory, Theme Issue 42 (December 2003): 75–81. See also “Anniversary Forum: What’s Next for Environmental History?” Environmental History 10 (January 2005): 30–109. Remarkably, only Marcus Hall’s contribution, “True Environmental History,” explicitly mentions studies of war and military topics as a possible avenue for future environmental history analysis, though he marked it down in part to being “trendy” (pp. 42–43).

10. Edmund Russell, War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Russell argued that “war and the control of nature coevolved: the control of nature expanded the scale of war, and war expanded the scale on which people controlled nature” (p. 2). Though Russell’s was the first book to be published that explicitly examined the intersections of war and nature from an environmental history perspective, interest in the connections between military and environmental history began as early as 1996, as evidenced on the H-Environment Discussion network. A quick keyword search using “war” on h-environment ( brings up numerous threads relating to the two world wars and the Civil War. Publications, however, still remain few and far between.

11. Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Steinberg suggested in “The Great Food Fight” that the Civil War was fought over two competing visions of how Americans should organize society and the landscape (pp. 89–98). Surprisingly, with the exception of the Civil War chapter, Steinberg devotes only one to three pages each on other major American conflicts— the Revolution, the two World Wars, Vietnam, and the Cold War—each of which had arguably more impact on the nation’s resources and environment than the Civil War.

12. Richard P. Tucker and Edmund Russell, eds., Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of Warfare (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004), 2. Also in 2004 J. R. McNeill published a sweeping, though short, study of forests and warfare in world history in which he ably demonstrated that “as long as war is part of human culture … nature and warfare are bonded together.” See “Woods and Warfare in World History,” Environmental History 9 (June 2004), 388–410, quotation on 406.

13. Mark Fiege, “Gettysburg and the Organic Nature of the American Civil War,” Natural Enemy, Natural Ally, 93–109. While other scholars are working on Civil War-related topics in environmental history, presenting their work at numerous conferences and meetings, Fiege’s “Gettysburg” and Kirby’s “The American Civil War” are at present the only studies published. With time, we likely will see much more on the topic in print. Quotes from 93–95.

14. Stroud, “Does Nature Always Matter?” 80.

15. Southern agriculture was as diverse as southern society. For excellent overall studies of the agriculture of the South, see works cited in note 8.

16. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 157.

17. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 3d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 7.

18. Ibid., 24.

19. Thaddeus Minshall to Friend, 2 January 1861 [1862]. Papers of Judge Thaddeus A. Minshall, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Ky., (hereafter FHS).

20. Minshall to Friend, 26 November 1862. FHS. All spellings are original.

21. Ibid., 26 March 1863, Camp Near Murfreesboro, Tenn. FHS.

22. Kirby, introduction to “The American Civil War: An Environmental Perspective.”

23. Theodore Allen, Diary, 12 January [1865]. Uncataloged collection, FHS.

24. John H. Tilford, Diary, 16 May 1864. FHS.

25. Natchez Weekly Courier, 15 November 1864. Originally published in the Indianapolis Journal. Newspapers and Periodicals Division, Library of Congress.

26. Mary Boykin Chesnut, 29 March 1865, in A Diary from Dixie, ed. Ben Ames Williams (1905; reprint, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961), 510. Chesnut here referred to Sherman’s march through South Carolina and the burning of Columbia.

27. Chesnut, 26 February 1865, Diary, ed. Williams, 489.

28. Although an appreciation for wilderness began to develop in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Nash rightly pointed out that “it was seldom unqualified. Romanticism, including deism and the aesthetics of the wild, had cleared away enough of the old assumptions to permit a favorable attitude toward wilderness without entirely eliminating the instinctive fear and hostility a wilderness condition had produced.” Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 66.

29. These raids were not uncommon in the ancient world, but their most recent use prior to the Civil War was during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, 1337–1453. See Mark Grimsley, The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 190–91.

30. Mark Grimsley in Hard Hand of War prefers the first term; more common are the historians who describe the Civil War as “total war.” See, for example, Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, eds., On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861–1871 (Washington, D.C., and Cambridge: German Historical Institute and Cambridge University Press, 1997); Daniel Sutherland, “Abraham Lincoln, John Pope, and the Origins of Total War,” Journal of Military History 56 (October 1992): 567–86; Lance Janda, “Shutting the Gates of Mercy: The American Origins of Total War, 1860–1880,” Journal of Military History 59 (January 1995): 7–26; McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom; and Phillip Shaw Paludan, “A People’s Contest”: The Union & Civil War, 1861–1865, 2d ed. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). For the opinion that the Civil War was not a total war, see Mark E. Neely, Jr., “Was the Civil War a Total War?” Civil War History 37 (1991): 5–28.

31. Russell Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 145.

32. Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76 (March 1990), 1090.

33. My argument here is adapted in part from William Cronon’s study of colonial New England, which provides an excellent model for examining the process by which “economy … becomes a subset of ecology.” Cronon argued that by “drawing the boundaries within which their exchange and production occur, human communities label certain subsets of their surrounding ecosystems as resources, and so locate the meeting places between economics and ecology”: See William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill & Wang, 1983), 1 and 165. My interpretation also fits, albeit somewhat awkwardly, into what Donald Worster has identified as the “second level of environmental history,” which focuses on the ways in which modes of production “have been engaged not merely in organizing human labor and machinery, but also in transforming nature.” See Worster, “Transformations of the Earth,” 1087–1106. If the creation or adoption of such modes of production transform nature, then their dismantling also will have an impact on the natural environment. One cannot explain changes to economic systems (either voluntary or coerced) without also considering changes to environmental systems and vice versa.

34. Without using the term “ecological foundations,” Russell Weigley and Lance Janda have written on the ways in which Civil War-era policies that attacked enemy resources established a precedent for future U.S. military strategies. See Weigley, “The American Way of War, 128–52; Weigley, “American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 408–43; and Janda, “Shutting the Gates of Mercy.” Foraging, of course, was not a novel development created by the Americans during this war; it had been used for centuries, and as recently as Napoleon’s wars early in the nineteenth century. However, with Napoleon’s strategic operations, foraging was a means to an end; under Grant and his lieutenants, it became an end in itself. For discussion of Napoleon’s use of foraging, see Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980). Ulysses S. Grant was not the first Union commander to use the massive foraging raid, or chevauchée, in his operational plans during the Civil War; General John Pope used it earlier in the war but was condemned for doing so. See Sutherland, “Abraham Lincoln, John Pope, and the Origins of Total War,” 567–86.

35. The Union Army, like its Confederate counterpart, comprised numerous departments, typically named after major geographic regions or rivers where the department was campaigning. Thus, the Army of the Tennessee campaigned in the region of the Tennessee River and throughout the Mississippi watershed, whereas the Army of the Potomac—which fought primarily against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia—remained mostly in Virginia.

36. Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, ed. Mary Drake McFeely and William S. McFeely (New York: Library of America, 1990), 290. Emphasis in the original. Holly Springs, Mississippi, is about forty miles as the crow flies southeast of Memphis, Tennessee.

37. Young’s Point was the location of a proposed canal that attempted to bypass the city of Vicksburg and open the Mississippi River to Union control and navigation. One post-war traveler recounted his response upon first seeing the Young’s Point canal works opposite Vicksburg: “From the heights above the town the windings of the Mississippi can be seen for miles, and the expedient tried by the Federals to make a cut through the low-lying land opposite to and below the town to a point in the stream above it … was very clearly demonstrated. Such a plan, however, could never have entered any but an American brain; but the energy that could in a very few years complete a railway across some three thousand miles of rough country, much of it inhabited by hostile Indian tribes, and could even think of laying an electric telegraph across or through the unfathomable Pacific, was baffled here, for the cut was filled in with the surrounding soil as soon as the water was admitted.” Henry Deedes, Sketches of the South and West, or Ten Months’ Residence in the United States (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1869), 100–101. For a military analysis of the endeavor, see David F. Bastian, Grant’s Canal: The Union’s Attempt to Bypass Vicksburg (Shippensburg, Pa.: The Burd Street Press, 1995). The canal efforts at Young’s Point were not the first such attempts in the war. Early in 1862, General Jonathan Pope tried to sidestep a Confederate stronghold near New Madrid, Missouri, by cutting a canal around Island No. 10. Pope’s success, both in cutting the canal and capturing the garrison on the island, set an important precedent for Union actions on the Mississippi across from Vicksburg. Lisa M. Brady, “War Upon the Land: Nature and Warfare in the American Civil War” (PhD dissertation: University of Kansas, 2003), 27–28.

38. Ulysses S. Grant to Frederick Steele, 11 April 1863, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. 1, vol. XXIV/3 (s38) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880), 186–87.

39. “A Union Woman Suffers through the Siege of Vicksburg,” in The Blue and the Gray: The Story of the Civil War as Told by Participants, ed. Henry Steele Commager (New York: Wings Books, 1991), 667.

40. W. T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, 5 July 1863, in Sherman’s Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William Tecumseh Sherman, 1861–1865, ed. Brooks D. Simpson and Jean V. Berlin (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 500.

41. Edward H. Phillips, The Shenandoah Valley in 1864: An Episode in the History of Warfare, The Citadel Monograph Series, No. 5 (Charleston, S.C.: The Citadel, 1965), 18-19.

42. Quoted in Grimsley, Hard Hand of War, 167.

43. Gary W. Gallagher, “The Shenandoah Valley in 1864,” in Struggle for the Shenandoah: Essays on the 1864 Valley Campaign, ed. Gary Gallagher (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), 1–3. Martinsburg is now in West Virginia. John Loudon MacAdam of Scotland developed in the early nineteenth century a system of paving roads with gravel and larger stones. Roads so paved were (and still are in some parts of the world) known as “macadamized” roads.

44. The Shenandoah Valley was an integrated landscape, blending cropland with industrial works, including over seventy flour mills, eight saw mills, eight iron furnaces, four tanneries, three saltpeter works, one powder mill, and one woolen mill still in operation as late as 1864. See Phillips, Shenandoah Valley, 22–23. See also, Gallagher, “Shenandoah Valley,” 2.

45. Thomas A. Lewis, The Guns of Cedar Creek (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 5.

46. Jeffry D. Wert, From Winchester to Cedar Creek: The Shenandoah Campaign of 1864 (Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1997), 27. Wert quotes George T. Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, From 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April, 1865 (Albany: S. R. Gray, 1866), 390.

47. Wesley Merritt, “Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley,” in The Way to Appomattox, ed. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel (1887; reprint, New York: Castle Books, 1956), 500.

48. Grant, Memoirs, 614.

49. For a first-hand account of the battle by one of the cadets, see John Wise, “V.M.I. Boys Fight at New Market,” in The Blue and the Gray, ed. Commager, 1031–36.

50. Merritt, “Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley,” 500.

51. Wert, From Winchester to Cedar Creek, 28.

52. Grimsley, Hard Hand of War, 163. Grimsley applies this argument to the entire “strategy of raids” instituted under Grant’s command in 1864–1865.

53. Robert Barton memoir excerpt in Margaretta Barton Colt, Defend the Valley: A Shenandoah Valley Family in the Civil War (New York: Orion Books, 1994), 340.

54. John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 327.

55. Sheridan to Grant, 7 October 1864, 9, P.M. Sheridan Papers (Microfilm Edition), Library of Congress.

56. New York Herald, 13 March 1865. Newspapers and Periodicals Division, Library of Congress.

57. Phillips, Shenandoah Valley, 21.

58. Gallagher, “Shenandoah Valley,” 1.

59. Colt, Defend the Valley, 19.

60. Historian Edward Phillips recounted the list, including “435,802 bushels of wheat, 77,176 bushels of corn, 20,397 tons of hay, and large quantities of other kinds of food and feed.” Furthermore, Sheridan’s army also had taken “10,918 beef cattle, 12,000 sheep and 15,000 hogs, besides thousands of pounds of bacon and ham from smoke houses.” Twelve-hundred barns burned, farm implements were taken or destroyed “in order to prevent future planting.” Finally, Phillips noted, “Sheridan’s men destroyed what had survived thus far of the valley’s industrial facilities.” Phillips, Shenandoah Valley, 22–23.

61. Gallagher, “Shenandoah Valley,” 18.

62. Ibid., 16.

63. William T. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, 26 June 1864, in Sherman’s Civil War, ed. Brooks and Berlin, 657.

64. Sherman to Ellen Sherman, 1 October 1864, in ibid., 727.

65. Sherman to Grant, 6 November 1864, in ibid, 751.

66. New York Herald, 28 November 1864, reprinted in Natchez Weekly Courier, 9 December 1864. Newspapers and Periodicals Division, Library of Congress.

67. Sherman to Halleck, 19 October 1864, in Sherman’s Civil War, ed. Brooks and Berlin, 736.

68. Natchez Weekly Courier, 2 December 1864. Newspapers and Periodicals Division, Library of Congress.

69. Sherman to Halleck, 25 December 1864, in Sherman, Memoirs, 705.

70. Sherman, Memoirs, 658.

71. Jacob D. Cox, Sherman’s March to the Sea, Campaigns of the Civil War, vol. 12 (1882; reprint New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 22.

72. Sherman, Memoirs, 711.

73. Hitchcock Diary, 10 December 1864, in Marching with Sherman, ed. M. A. DeWolfe Howe, 167.

74. Thomas Osborn to S. C. Osborn, 31 December 1864, in The Fiery Trail A Union Officer’s Account of Sherman’s Last Campaigns, ed. Richard Harwell and Philip N. Racine (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 80.

75. Sherman to Philemon B. Ewing, 29 January 1865, in Sherman’s Civil War, ed. Brooks and Berlin, 810.

76. Daniel Oakey, “Marching Through Georgia and the Carolinas,” in The Way to Appomattox, ed. Johnson and Buel, 674.

77. Emma LeConte, When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte, ed. Earl Schenck Miers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), 3–4. Entry dated 31 December 1864, Columbia, S.C. LeConte was safely ensconced at the campus of South Carolina College (now University of South Carolina), one of the few areas in Columbia to escape destruction by the fire of 17 February 1865.

78. Sherman to Grant, 22 December 1864, in Sherman’s Civil War, ed. Brooks and Berlin, 722. Sherman refers to Thomas’s success at Nashville.

79. Oakey, “Marching Through Georgia,” 675.

80. Ibid., 677–78. The resin pits Oakey referred to were notches cut into the trunks of the pine trees.

81. Alex Lawson to Mr. S. A. Cunningham, 12 December 1910. FHS. Major Lawson served in the Sixth Kentucky, part of the famed “Orphan Brigade.”

82. Deedes, Sketches, 77.

83. Thomas Ward Osborn, 27 February 1865, in The Fiery Trail, ed. Harwell and Racine, 154.

84. Osborn, 22 March 1865, in ibid., 201.

85. Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe,” 4.

86. Clark and Kirwan, The South Since Appomattox, 23.

87. Janda, “Shutting the Gates of Mercy,” 25.

88. For an overview of the various ways humans in the twentieth century have attempted to manipulate nature for military purposes, see Arthur Westing, ed., Environmental Warfare: A Technical, Legal, and Policy Appraisal (London: Taylor & Francis, 1984).






Are you passionate about history?

Share that passion with the world. Join us: Contribute to History Cooperative