War Upon the Land:
Military Strategy and the Transformation
of Southern Landscapes During
the American Civil War

By Lisa M. Brady
University of Georgia Press, 2012, 188 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Gordon Berg

A postwar observer of the desolate South after the Civil War commented on the condition of the land over which General William T. Sherman's army had traveled.  “Truly might it have been said,” wrote Englishman John A. Kennaway, using the Bible as his text, “'The land is as the garden of Eden before him, and behind him a desolate wilderness.'  The spirit of the South fairly broke down under the infliction, and her soldiers in many cases refused any longer to fight for a Government which had proved itself powerless to protect their families and their homes.”

Lisa Brady examines four important Union campaigns from Kennaway's point of view.  She argues, eloquently and persuasively, that the ecology of the Southern landscape and the way 19th century Americans interacted with it, were crucial to the military successes achieved by the Federal armies along the lower Mississippi River, at Vicksburg, in the Shenandoah Valley, and through Georgia and the Carolinas. 

Dr. Brady creatively combines the disciplines of archeology, environmental studies, sociology, and military history to show how the strategies and tactics of Generals Grant, Sheridan, and Sherman made war not only on Confederate soldiers and civilians, but on the very land itself.  “Union forces,” she argues, “attacked the Confederacy's resources, its physical and imagined landscapes, and its relationship with nature.”

The bottom lands bordering the lower Mississippi River often proved to be a greater obstacle to the invading Union armies than the Rebel soldiers defending it.  Indeed, General Grant's initial failures to capture Vicksburg were in large measure due to unfriendly natural environments and diseases which they spawned.  These failures, Dr. Brady concludes,  “led him to more innovative tactics that targeted not just the military defenses around the city, but also the city's supporting landscape.”   It was a tactic the southern population would, to their dismay, come to know very well. 

A noted historian of the campaigns waged in the Shenandoah Valley has written that it was “the lynchpin of the Southern Cause and a primary target of the Northern war machine.”  In 1864, Grant ordered Sheridan to bring “hard war” tactics to Virginia's verdant fields.  Sheridan, according to Dr. Brady, waged a war “against the Valley, one that attacked the agricultural and industrial improvements that previously had sustained its citizens and supplied the Confederate army.”  Dr. Brady interprets that Sheridan's orders “were to destroy the means by which Shenandoah Valley residents managed the natural environment, transforming it from a civilized, improved landscape into a virtual wilderness.”

Dr. Brady's pioneering work shows that many new insights into the Civil War can be gained by employing a combination of new disciplines to examine long accepted facts.  The trail she and other young historians are blazing should be followed by many others.

Gordon Berg is a past President and member of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia (cwrtdc.org).  His reviews and articles appear in the Civil War Times and America's Civil War, among other publications.

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