Civil War Insights
Insights into many different aspects of the Civil War.
This page offers reviews of books on a variety of Civil War topics.
The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War by Mark M. Smith
"Many Americans experienced their Civil War as a cacophony of exploding shells, the sight of burning buildings, the stench of rotting corpses, the taste of spoiled rations in the armies or mule meat in starving cities under siege, and the touch of unwashed bodies crowded in small spaces. A pioneer in the field of 'sensory history,' Mark Smith re-creates these unpleasant experiences as closely as possible through the medium of the printed word."
–James McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom and winner of the Pulitzer Prize
In The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege, historian Mark M. Smith considers how all five senses shaped the experience of the Civil War and thus its memory, exploring its full sensory impact on everyone from the soldiers on the field to the civilians waiting at home.
From the eardrum-shattering barrage of shells announcing the outbreak of war at Fort Sumter; to the stench produced by the corpses lying in the mid-summer sun at Gettysburg; to the siege of Vicksburg, once a center of Southern culinary aesthetics and starved into submission, Smith recreates how the Civil War was felt and lived. Relying on first-hand accounts, Smith focuses on specific senses, one for each event, offering a wholly new perspective.
Often argued to be the first "total war," the Civil War overwhelmed the senses because of its unprecedented nature and scope, rendering sight less reliable and, Smith shows, forcefully engaging the nonvisual senses. Unique, compelling, and fascinating, The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege, offers readers a way to experience the Civil War with fresh eyes.
Mark M. Smith is Carolina Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and author or editor of a dozen books, includingSensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History and How Race Is Made: Slavery, the Senses, and Segregation. Hear Professor Smith speak about the Civil War as an encompassing sensory experience on YouTube.
: Thanks for talking with us today, Mr. Bearss. Let me begin by asking you what inspired you to write a book about the Petersburg Campaign?
ECB: Yes, well we will have to go back a few years to understand the background of how all this came about. The text was written almost 50 years ago in 1958 with the approach of the Civil War Centennial, and I was involved in the preparation for its 50th anniversary. The members of the National Park Service had enjoyed considerable development and expansion during the emergency period of 1933-1942. The emergency conservation program, in which the CCC was acquired, was terminated June 30, 1942 because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The National Park Service changed drastically with the crisis of World War II. The Park Service had 160 areas under its control, but little attention was given to the park infrastructure. In 1955, the Park Service succeeded in getting the executive department and President Eisenhower interested in Mission 66, a ten-year program to develop the parks, road networks, visitor centers, and trail systems. The Park Service embarked on Mission 66 and a decision was made by the National Park Service and the Civil War Centennial Commission that the Park Service would be treated as a priority in order to preserve the areas established in connection with the Civil War.
: And Petersburg was part of that?
ECB: Yes. The Petersburg National Battlefield would elevate its standing by adding a visitor center, new interpretive road systems, and historical walkers. To achieve the Park Service goal, I was assumed a position of Research Historian.
: So part of your responsibility was to write about this Campaign?
ECB: Not initially. My mission was to provide the Park Service with the necessary information to meet their goals. After working on a number of projects associated with the Park System, especially Civil War, I was given the task of preparing two movement maps and supporting documentation for the major Petersburg operations. I prepared troop movement maps for the Petersburg Campaign, which totaled more than 60 large maps. The maps were finalized and accepted by 1964. The only copies of the troop movement maps are on file at the National Park Service—one set at Petersburg National Park and the other at the National Park Services in Denver, Colorado. To support these troop movement maps I researched and then wrote a number of documented essays. This was the days before easy duplication. One original copy of the essays is on file at the Petersburg National Battlefield Headquarters and five transcripts, which are on very thin tissue paper.
: And these are what editor Bryce Suderow found that inspired him to contact you and discuss publication into book form?
ECB: Yes, he discovered the copies at Petersburg. Bryce is an expert researcher and he thought they were worthy of being published to a larger audience. There was zero funding for reproducing the maps and text and no one until Bryce has thought of reproducing them as a publication until he broached the idea with Ted Savas of Savas Beatie.
: And Bryce, who has helped countless authors with research, helped edit your work for publication . . .
ECB: Yes, Bryce standardized the notes to meet the publisher’s style requirements, added introductions and conclusions to each essay so they flow together for publication purposes, and George Skoch drafted maps for each of the essays.
: Were any of the battles you write about in Volume 1 “turning points” in the campaign, and if so, why?
ECB: I did not write these essays in separate volumes. How they are being offered is the publisher’s decision, but many are very lengthy, and so two volumes make sense. Now, to your question. The attack on Petersburg on June 9, 1864, which kicks off volume one and was commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, and the assault on Petersburg on June 15 and June 18, were what I consider “turning points” in the campaign.
: And why is that?
ECB: Because winning those battles was essential. The Union Army missed a great opportunity to capture Petersburg. There would have been no siege of Petersburg if they had won those particular battles. On June 15, the Union army commanded by Maj. Gen. George Meade arrived in Petersburg with members of the First Army Corps, and it is a crucial day in the Petersburg Campaign. It was on that day, I believe, that the losses suffered by the Union make it a darker day for the North than the battle of Pearl Harbor was for America. The casualties exceeded even the casualties at Cold Harbor on June 3. On June 18, many Union army units simply refused to advance. After the failure of the attack on the 18th, there was not another major attack against the Petersburg defenses until July 30th, as a follow-up to the explosion of the mine under part of the Petersburg line held by the Confederates. That, of course, has come to be called the Battle of the Crater. There were many important and bloody operations to follow, of course, but none involved a frontal attack until the battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, and the breakthrough that followed during the early morning hours the next day, April 2.
: Why should we remember the Petersburg Campaign?
ECB: In my opinion, all other battles or sieges in the Civil War pale in comparison to the operations at Petersburg. At Vicksburg in 1863, the armies were eyeball-to-eyeball from May 19 to the Fourth of July. At Port Hudson, the armies were eyeball-to-eyeball from May 21, 1863 until the 9th of July. Other major battles were a day or two long, and that was it. The Petersburg armies were in combat to one degree or another every day, and every day men were killed or wounded, from June 15, 1864 to April 2, 1865. That is more than eight months. That represents by far the longest period during the Civil War in which armies were eyeball-to-eyeball. They built miles and miles of trenches, and while the men manning them shot at one another, other major portions of the armies were maneuvering against rail lines and the important road network feeding Petersburg and Richmond. These maneuvers—which represented Union efforts to turn Lee’s right flank and cut off his lines of supply and communication and his efforts to stop them—resulted in several major battles. The campaign was the precursor to what we would witness in World War I. Comparatively little has been written about the operation of Petersburg.
: Why do you think that is?
ECB: Rick Summers wrote a masterful book on one of the epics of the siege of Petersburg called Richmond Redeemed. I doubt anyone will ever write such a detailed account of Petersburg again, but Rick’s book only covers the period from September 29 to October 2, 1864. Other books cover the breakthrough at Petersburg, which was from April 1 - April 3, 1865, and there are a few other general histories. None of them go into the level of detail you see with Gettysburg or with Rick’s book, I think, because it is just too vast and too complex, and because many of the records from that period of the war are missing or incomplete.
: Could this campaign have turned out any differently than it did, or do you think once Lee was pinned into the trenches the game was essentially over?
ECB: Yes, I think the game was over. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Meade’s Army of Potomac were stalemated in front of Richmond and Petersburg, and it was a presidential election year of course. It is arguable, but I don’t think it would have made much of a difference even if Lincoln had lost the election. The Democratic Convention was convening in Chicago to adopt a peace plan, but even if they had won, the war could not have been successfully terminated until the Democrat—in this case Maj. Gen. George McClellan—took office on March 4, 1865. The Democrats would still have had to work with President Lincoln to win the war before taking office. And by the third month of 1865, no one was going to simply walk away from Petersburg. The war could only end one way. It was important to win the war politically, and Lincoln managed to do that with victories in the Shenandoah Valley under Phil Sheridan and the capture of Atlanta by William T. Sherman. Lee prolonged the war by waging a brilliant defensive effort, but once he was pinned in the trenches he had no hope of coming back.
: How does The Petersburg Campaign differ from other works about these battles?
ECB: Remember, it was written as an internal document and focuses much more on the troop movements and fighting of the various battles. There has been a lot of research since then on Petersburg. It is written based on official records plus regimentals, diaries, etc, that were published before July 1964. There will be a large number of regimental sources. But I think it helps point out the major efforts during the campaign, and perhaps spark additional interest and further avenues of study for others.
: You briefly mentioned General Lee earlier. How would you rate his handling of the campaign?
ECB: General Lee fought a masterful defensive operation of what had become essentially a siege. Lee could not continue doing what he had done in 1862 and 1863, which was seizing the initiative and maneuvering to gain an advantage on his opponents. One he was fighting at Petersburg he was essentially locked in place. General Grant’s job was to cut the railroad lines leading south to North Carolina, and southwest out of Richmond and Petersburg to Danville and other points. Every time Grant sent out a force to cut these lines and stretch the Confederates, General Lee engaged it, frustrating Grant in his efforts to cut the cords leading to Richmond and Petersburg, including the very important Southside Railroad. It is not until the operation culminating in the battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, that Grant succeeded in cutting that line. Lee’s efforts prolonged the war and this was important because Lincoln was running for reelection. That was the only hope the South had by that time.
: So Lee was successful for many months . . .
ECB: I think it is fair to say that Lee had been generally successful until about the end of March 1865. By that time, Sherman’s army had taken Atlanta, marched to the sea, and was moving north through the Carolinas toward Lee’s position in Virginia. Lee’s situation by that time became all but impossible, and he was finally forced out of Richmond and Petersburg when Sheridan crushed Pickett at Five Forks and Grant ordered an assault the next morning that cracked open the lines.
: Civilians on both sides must have been war weary by that time . . .
ECB: The public was very war weary, and Lincoln might have lost the election, and that was what the South was hoping for. But as I had stated, Generals Sherman and Sheridan scored victories just weeks before the election, public opinion shifted, and Lincoln won by a landslide. So we will never know what would have happened had he lost. Grant’s operations kept most of General Lee’s army pinned down while other commands won victories in the Shenandoah, Georgia, and in the Carolinas.
: What was your approach to writing The Petersburg Campaign?
ECB: At the time, it was part of my job, but I found it interesting to write documentation for the Park Service managers and interpreters to develop and interpret Petersburg. As I did the troop movement maps, I invariably did a lot of research into the campaign and the commanders involved. I used regimental histories, diaries, journals, and other sources as research, as I mentioned before, including the Official Records.
: What do you hope readers take away from The Petersburg Campaign?
ECB: I would like readers to understand that the Park Service is very lucky that Mission 66 was so successful in bringing parks up to standards. A great deal of effort and years of work were spent by Park Service personnel to preserve the areas we’re talking about. There would be few or no visitor centers or interpretive roads without the Park Service.
: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it.
ECB: You’re welcome.
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Nick Smith is President of our Civil War Round Table, and also currently Commander of the Rosecrans Camp, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. He has been studying the Civil War since childhood, and has spent the past several years researching Civil War veterans with connections to southern California.
Below you will find Nick’s review of America's Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery and the Slow March Toward Civil War
America's Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery and the Slow March Toward Civil War
By Joseph Kelly, Overlook Press, a July 2013 release.
This book is an unusual study which presents the unusual premise that the Civil War had causes that can be laid at the feet of a few specific individuals, or at least a small group. This group, representing the rich planters of the Charleston area, changed the overall attitudes of southern society about slavery and squashed dissent at the point in time when serious discussions about the future of slavery were still possible.
Kelly's study suggests that slavery might have died out under its own moral weight if the Charleston planters had not been in such a strong political position. The weakness in this argument is that it ignores the financial momentum which slavery gained in the early 19th century, after the cotton gin and other innovations changed the ways in which slavery was profitable. Much of the financial capital of the south was tied up in slaves or in the infrastructure of slavery, and remarkably few wealthy people will voluntarily impoverish themselves in order to make a social point. In their situation, as Kelly points out, it's easier to change your moral stance, and try to change those of folks around you.
Even with that one small weakness, the book is a fascinating examination of Charleston, and how it could have exercised political and social power far beyond its actual size. More than 50 pages of notes add to the depth of this, and give any serious student a host of options for further reading, but the basic book's 320 pages of text provides quite a bit of both history and historical context. The creation of the "happy slave" myth, along with the "positive good" theory of slavery are put into a context, and we learn why these were created, as well as how.
Other sections vary in depth. The section on Denmark Vesey was fascinating. I had never realized how much his trial had in common with the Salem Witch Trials, until reading Kelly's overview. Also, some other accounts gloss over the size and scope of the panic leading to the trial, which was all about a phantom uprising. The very real uprisings which occurred were somehow never seen as invalidating the "happy slave" concept.
Even the later story of Robert Smalls is put into context, including the later use of his stolen ship in the Union attacks on Charleston later in the war.
Overall, this is a powerful and interesting study of a small part of a nation with cultural leverage. Just as Boston was at the heart of the American Revolution, Charleston spent thirty years or more leading the south toward Civil War.
If you are interested in the long-term causes of the Civil War, this is a book you should read. I would suggest heading to Vroman's or a comparable book store and pre-ordering a copy.