Review: “Flora and Fauna of the Civil War” by Kelby Ouchley

FloraFauna-coverWhen I give battlefield tours, I make it a point to draw attention to the beautiful natural environments we get to enjoy while we’re out on the battlefield. I often contrast that against the horror of the events that took place there during the war, and I try to explain how the landscape affected—and, in turn, was affected by—the stories there.

Natural history frequently gets ignored by many historians, though, so it’s no wonder that the myriad multitude of Civil War microstudies have still somehow managed to ignore environmental issues. “Yet without a doubt,” says naturalist Kelby Ouchley, “the Civil War caused major landscape alterations on a local scale.”

Ouchley’s Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide (LSU, 2010) finally brings together in an effective, multidisciplinary way the realms of natural history on one hand and Civil War history on the other. Flora and Fauna intertwines biology and ecology with military, social, and cultural history to explored the “roles and uses of many wild plants and animals” during the war.

“A second, equal goal is to examine how people, soldiers and citizens alike, thought about wild flora and fauna in a time of epic historical events, as recounted in their own words,” Ouchley writes. He draws from hundreds of journal entries and letters, which he then compiles by subject.

Ouchley“[T]he sketches often expose scenes and moods beyond natural history or practical realms that facilitate a deeper understanding of the conflict regarding the individuals who were at ground level,” Ouchely says—and, indeed, they do. In those intersections, interesting things happen.

Ouchley, a former biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, divides the book into flora and fauna, then subdivides each section into entries based on common names (not scientific nomenclature or taxonomy).

If you want to know about pine trees, for example, you look in the flora section under “Pine.” “From the cradle, where the umbilical cords of infants were dabbled with turpentine, to the grave no group of wild plants were more utilized by humans during the Civil War than pines,” Ouchley writes. “Thirteen species of pines grow in the eastern United States in a variety of habitats.” He then goes into greater detail about several species, discussing their characteristics, their typical uses, and some of the cultural history surrounding them. Sprinkled throughout are primary source quotes he’s compiled that mention pines in various contexts.

As a work of natural history, then, the book is filled with all sorts of interesting information. As a work of Civil War history, the book is equally successful. In surprising and, frankly, delightful ways, Ouchley connects the natural history with the war history.

“Bats may have prolonged the Civil War,” he writes, as an example. He goes on to explain the role of saltpeter as a principle component of gunpowder, and how bat guano was a principle source of that saltpeter. “Accordingly, the Confederacy was able to maintain the war effort by exploiting virtually every known bat cave in the South,” he says, explaining the role of the Niter and Mining Bureau within the Confederate government, charged with procuring the guano. The men who carried out the work were considered so valuable, they were exempt from the draft.

In the intersection of military and natural history, Ouchley tosses around fascinating cultural history, too. When talking about “Pines,” for instance, he explains various uses of pine products and by-products. “Tar and pitch were vital to the construction and maintenance of merchant fleets and navies of the era,” he offers. “At the beginning of the Civil War, North Carolina was the largest producer of naval stores in the world. The term tar heel is alleged to have originated when, during a battle, a group of North Carolina soldiers failed to hold a hill and retreated in disarray. A Mississippi unit chided them for forgetting to tar their heels that morning.”

For as often as Ouchley offers great tidbit after great tidbit, his book can be dry at times, reading like an encyclopedia filled with fantastic information that lacks a narrative to organize and drive it. Also, his collection of primary sources often lacks organization. The eleven people who write about “Frogs,” for instance, come from geographically and chronologically diverse sources, but they aren’t organized by geography or chronology. A more explicit through-thread among the quotes could create useful context for readers.

If read in small chunks, Flora and Fauna of the Civil War has enough cool material to keep a reader going for weeks. Reading from start to finish over a single, short period would be a disservice to the book, which wisely bills itself as a “reference guide” as a way to frame expectations for savvy readers. Read—and used—in that context, Ouchley’s book is a long-overdue compendium.

Ouchley avoids any explicit environmentalist message, either for the Civil War era or for today. This is science and history, not political activism (as well intentioned as that often is).

Still, it’s clear after reading Flora and Fauna, that the Civil War was as much a war on the natural world as anything else, and that “green” suffered as much as blue and gray.

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