Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
28 Nov. 2022
Review by Michael Burns, Marine Corps Univ. Press
Animal Histories of the Civil War Era
Ed. Earl J. Hess
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. Pp. 288. ISBN 978–0–8071–7691–7.
Descriptors: Volume 2022, 19th Century, US Civil War, Fauna Print Version

Human actors have of course predominated in the thousands of books written about the US Civil War. But an emerging trend in the environmental history of the conflict has made natural elements, such as agriculture, climate, and water more central.[1] Still, non-human animals have received limited attention. Hence, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, edited by military historian Earl Hess (Lincoln Memorial Univ.), is a welcome corrective volume comprising fourteen chapters by the editor and ten contributors.

The book's great strength lies in the diversity of topics it explores. As Hess states in his introduction, he aims to show Civil War scholars and animal studies experts how their work fits into each other's literature. He calls war "a prime example of concentrated interaction between animals and humans under extreme duress" (2). Each author addresses a specific element of the era—sectional politics, wartime experiences, emancipation, Reconstruction, and Civil War memory—with animals providing a new perspective on the development, conduct, and aftermath of the Civil War and the men and women who fought it.

Historian Michael Woods (Univ. of Tennessee–Knoxville) opens the anthology with an analysis of the link between the antebellum Southern Slave Power and the importation of camels. Camels were a craze throughout the United States but especially in the South. Many leading supporters of camel imports, like (then) Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, exposed the Slave Power's desire to expand beyond the slaveholding states, specifically to the American Southwest. They incorporated multiple levels of the nation's political structure to do so:

Camel-related projects, ranging from army trials and plantation experiments to slaving voyages, do not expose the Slave Power as a tight-knit aristocracy that kept the federal government entirely under its sway, but neither do they prove that it was a figment of feverish abolitionist imaginations. Rather, they suggest that the Slave Power was a network of officeholders, soldiers, and civilians who all envisioned slavery as a dynamic, flourishing institution poised for continued growth throughout the Western Hemisphere. (36)

By concentrating on an unusual animal story of the Civil War era, Woods demonstrates that animals and perceptions of them contributed to ideas of political power in the antebellum United States, thus building a solid framework for further studies of other animals and regions.

Horses and mules played a central part in the conflagration. Historian David J. Gerleman (George Mason Univ.) and Hess both clarify the animals' roles as "engines of war" (45). The former argues that the armies could neither move, nor fight, nor provision themselves without their equine companions, who suffered serious casualties. Given their importance to the soldiers' lives, many horses became strongly attached to their human handlers, who reciprocated that attachment and even mourned their deaths.

Hess focuses more narrowly on artillery horses. These were, he contends, just as much warriors in the conflict as their human masters; they were even provided with special training to help them survive the strain. Being so critical to the fighting, these horses became targets of the opposition and suffered horribly while remaining calm under fire. Gerleman's and Hess's chapters should encourage military historians to look more closely at equines in nineteenth-century warfare.

Abraham Gibson (Arizona State Univ.) briskly surveys the place of horses in the Civil War South. In so doing, he adopts an evolutionary perspective. A war lasting only four years, he notes, did not allow for any significant evolutionary transformation of horses. Yet some American horse populations died off or became feral groups roaming the South. Importantly, Gibson shows that equine experiences in the conflict reflected those of human beings in that no two equines experienced battle and campaigning quite the same way.

Wildlife, too, were affected by the hostilities. Hess and historian Mark Smith (Univ. of South Carolina) explore human-wildlife interactions. Hess provides a brief overview of interactions between soldiers and various fauna throughout the South, splitting a short chapter between soldiers' awareness of wild animals and the war's effect on them. Hess leaves readers wanting more information, piquing their interest with curious stories. This leaves ample room for those interested in expanding the study of human-wildlife interactions.

Smith, a specialist in sensory history, looks at the apiculture—the practice of "living with and cultivating bees"—of the time:

What is perhaps surprising is the extent to which apiculture—understood in both material and metaphorical terms—permeated so many aspects of the American Civil War. Contemporaries drew on bees … to invest secession, mobilization, politics, political economy, and the very fighting of the war with meaning. Although little evidence supports the idea that they were used in a militarized fashion … no insect occupied such a resonant place in the minds and experience of people during the war. Interpretively, human-bee interaction might reside on the "ragged edge" of Civil War historiography; historically, it occupied a surprising center. (121–22)

Americans in the mid-nineteenth century admired worker bees for their industry and hive mentality. Once the war began, the sensory aspect of bee-human relations took over. Smith shows that even the smallest animals contributed to the Civil War experience. He and Hess both underline the need for similar studies.

For millennia, certain animals have been seen as main sources of sustenance. Historian Jason Phillips (West Virginia Univ.) examines the centrality of hogs as a reflection of US society. In the nineteenth century, hogs loomed large in Americans' diets and social perceptions. In the South, farmers allowed their pigs to roam freely, living off common lands, consuming all the sustenance in their path. Phillips contends that Southerners reflected racial hierarchies by using similar practices and vocabulary in the treatment of both hogs and slaves. His study reveals disturbing elements of American, especially Southern, society of the time.

Hess has a chapter on the practice of vegetarianism in Civil War armies. As modern scientific studies establish the vital place of plant-based diets to healthy humans, Civil War soldiers recognized the value of vegetables and fruits—even fresh meat made them sick compared to eating fresh fruit or vegetables. Still, many combatants (and civilians) choked down meat, believing it was vital to their health.

Like equines, dogs appear frequently in Civil War letters and diaries. Historians Joan E. Cashin (Ohio State Univ.) and Lorien Foote (Texas A&M Univ.) offer complementary studies of these animals. Both also demonstrate that Northerners and Southerners "weaponized canines" (170). Cashin shows that Americans saw dogs as both companions and animal labor, working them hard in various jobs depending on the environment. Many soldiers adopted dogs during and after the war, treating them coldly as another natural resource. Some even killed dogs (called "bloodhounds") used to recapture enslaved people. This complex relationship evolved during the war.

Foote's chapter on canines in South Carolina reinforces Cashin's findings while expanding the complexities of the human-canine relationship. Civilians and soldiers used dogs to control the population, especially the enslaved or imprisoned, during the war, but quickly turned against them after it. Believing the canines killed sheep, an animal resource Southerners believed would replace cotton, South Carolina farmers pushed for the eradication of canines after 1865. Cashin and Foote shed needed light on Americans' love-hate relations with dogs in the Civil War era. This complex bond deserves further exploration, especially in regard to dogs and the institution of slavery.

The volume's final section comprises three chapters on various issues surrounding animals and Civil War memory. Like Hess in his argument about artillery horses, historian Brian Matthew Jordan (Sam Houston State Univ.) reveals the postwar debate over veterans' benefits and animal mascots. Spotlighting the postbellum experiences of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry's Bald Eagle mascot, Old Abe, Jordan reveals that human veterans considered their mascots on the same level. As time moved on, however, politicians questioned supporting fauna veterans, which reflected larger debates on pensions for human veterans. His approach poses bigger questions about the treatment of US veterans, even non-human ones.

In the book's last two chapters, environmental historian Daniel Vandersommers (Univ. of Dayton) and historian Paula Tarankow (Indiana Univ.) explore animals in regard to public presentations, sectionalist sentiments, and postwar reconciliation movements. Vandersommers clarifies the debate over the establishment of the National Zoo in Washington, DC (1888–91). Senators and representatives used animals and the zoo's organization as a means to quarrel over the federal government's proper role. Former Confederates voted back into Congress ridiculed the zoo's funding as a case of federal government overreach; its mostly Northerner supporters stressed that governmental funding could help educate its citizens.

The final chapter concerns how the performances of equine celebrity Beautiful Jim Key[2] and his handler, William Key, a former slave, reflected reconciliationist tendencies from 1896 to 1906. William embodied the comforting ideal of the loyal slave as he cared for Beautiful Jim. This allowed white Southerners and Northerners to overlook sectionalist tensions even as they maintained racial hierarchies. The close relationship between the Keys, Tarankow argues, allowed white Americans to establish concepts of humanity that retained white supremacy. Like Brian Jordan, Vandersommers and Tarankow seek new ways to explore the postwar narrative of reconciliation.

Animal Histories of the Civil War Era takes another welcome step in the Civil War's environmental history. Earl Hess is to be congratulated for his own contribution and those of the other experts gathered in his anthology. As they show so convincingly, animals are central to understanding American society throughout and after the Civil War era.

[1] See, e.g., Andrew Bell, Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever, and the Course of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: LSU Pr, 2010); Lisa Brady, War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: U Georgia Pr, 2012); Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2012); Megan Nelson, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens: U Georgia Pr, 2012); Kathryn Meier, Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia (Chapel Hill: UNC Pr, 2013); Joan Cashin, War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2018); Erin S. Mauldin, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South (NY: Oxford U Pr, 2018); and Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, An Environmental History of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Pr, 2020). All these touch on animals in some way, but only Bell, and Browning and Silver devote at least a chapter to fauna.

[2] See Wikipedia, s.v. "Beautiful Jim Key."

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