On the occasion of our being deep into the seventh month of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and mindful of the fact that Congress has not yet passed Sen. Mary Landrieu’s bill to create a national commission, allow me to harp on my lingering complaint that too few historians, amateur and professional, have been providing us with books that take up neglected subjects and provide unique perspectives on our most devastating war and its present day legacies.
How do I know what I am talking about? Well, I do read each issue of the United States Civil War Center’s indispensable Civil War Book Review, which covers the 500 or so books on the war published each year.
So I am encouraged when the occasional fresh look at the war comes along. Who in the world would expect to come across Flora and Fauna of the Civil War, an environmental reference guide?
Yes, I am recommending, very strongly, a reference guide, one that is thorough, witty, and full of insights from a fresh perspective on the effect of environment on soldiers and the effect of soldiers on environment.
Ouchley’s method is “a blend” of military and natural history, making frequent use of passages from the letters of soldiers, one of whom wrote that at Vicksburg “the bluffs are covered with cane-brakes, blackberry bushes and any amount of underbrush and filled with all kinds of venomous reptiles.”
As befits a reference volume, Ouchley provides photographs, numerous drawings, many notes, a fulsome bibliography, and a detailed index.
As a first impression, Benjamin Franklin Cooling’s To the Battles of Franklin and Nashville and Beyond may not strike readers as the fresh perspective they hunger for, but a close look reveals its uniqueness. Cooling not only does not stop, as many histories do, when the last shots have been fired on the battlefield, he plunges into the reconstruction phase that plagues us still.
Beyond that, he brings to bear upon the often-told Franklin-Nashville campaign the new concepts of “hybrid” or “compound war,” which consists of conventional battles, “counterinsurgency, general lawlessness, stabilization, reconstruction, and nation-building.”
National security experts, such as himself, are applying that concept to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our Civil War was a new kind of war, but in ways too seldom analyzed, although military colleges are studying Grant’s strategies in the variegated Vicksburg campaign. Cooling urges historians to strive to apply this holistic method.
Cooling goes on to show ways in which viewing our Civil War as a hybrid of various kinds of activities on diverse fronts, naturally including the environmental, enable Washington policy-makers to approach current and future wars.
Cooling does not stress environmental factors and Ouchley only touches upon battles anecdotally. But their readers may combine the two. That’s how to sometimes get ahead of intensely focused historians.
David Madden’s latest novel is Abducted By Circumstance. His new novel, London Bridge In Plague And Fire, will appear in the spring. This fall, he is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Appalachian State University.