Coming to My Senses: A Review of Mark Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War

Smell of Battle CaptureSmith, Mark M. The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

A “Sensory History?” What is a “Sensory” history? The title certainly catches your attention and leaves you wondering. In his introduction, Smith explains that a sensory historian goes beyond a simple description of sensory phenomenon to “historicize the senses (5).” No reenactor or author, no matter how elegant the “poetry of the description (5),” can provide the historical context necessary but a historian of the senses. Moreover, one does not need new evidence to produce sensory history. Using well-known evidence, but sorting it for the sensory element, a new history can be written about even the most studied events.

I have to admit that after reading the introduction I was skeptical. After all, I have spent many hours studying what Civil War reenactors do. Their goal is to recreate, as much as possible, what it would have been like to live and fight at the time. That seems closer to recovering the sensory experience than one might in writing. Smith acknowledges the power of reenacting and clearly admires what reenactors try to do, but he also points out that recovering the authentic experience is impossible. “Events and developments have changed our sensory habits,” Smith argues, “the ways we hear, smell, and taste – sense generally – and the meanings we attach to those sensations (3).” In matters of taste, we do not experience sweat and sour the same way.

Of course, reeanctors do not actually shed blood in large amounts when they recreate a battle. The smell of the moment – gun powder, sweat, and blood combined with the smell of the air generally create a sensory experience that cannot be reproduced. So, I get what Smith is saying and as I read on in his book, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I would let him persuade me that sensory history can be effective.

Smith divided his short work into five main areas. Each area would focus on one particular sense: chapter one – “the Sounds of Secession,” chapter two – “Eyeing First Bull Run,” chapter three – “Cornelia Hancock’s Sense of Smell,” chapter four – “the Hollowing of Vicksburg,” and chapter five – “the Hunley’s Impact (ix).” There is also an epilogue.

In the opening chapter Smith argued “that what was heard was indicative of peace, love, danger; that sounds located people and events; that who made which sounds and when revealed their standing, their character and told of their nobility or betrayed their vice; that the sounds and silences around them marked their degree of civilization or their slip into barbarism (14).” Charlestonians were active listeners always aware of their environment.

Smith does a good job contextualizing the sounds of Charleston. As he points out, the sounds differ by season, by class of people and by occasion. Quiet and calm were the ideals; noise and tumult marked disorder. But “the slaveholders had succeeded too well , or rather, their slaves had taken their insistence on quiet so literally that they had turned it into a weapon (17-18).” Fear of insurrection ruled Charleston, especially at night. The quiet they thought they wanted only served to heighten their concern and allowed their imaginations to contemplate bloody scenarios.

Such was the soundscape as secession approached. As the political landscape grew more excited, the buzz in Charleston built until “a mounting crescendo, the volume increasingly turned up until eardrums almost shattered. After April 1861, the city’s soundscape would never be the same (18).”

Another southern city that would never be the same was Vicksburg, Mississippi. The site of a protracted Union siege led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Vicksburg would witness the near starvation of its citizens and the soldiers there to defend them. Prior to the siege, “the essential character of this slaveholding city,” Smith says, “can by gauged by what it ate (86).” Water and rail combined to provide the city with a rich variety of foods “to create a range of distinctive Southern cuisines, heavily influenced with pork, rice, and cornbread (86).”

Smith does a nice job of outlining the “tastescape” of Vicksburg, according to season, class, and visitor. He also observes, interestingly, “Food choices in the antebellum South were not simply about nutrition. In fact, the choice of what to consume reflected refinement and civilization, the two touchstones of the South’s social order. In this sense, “taste” bestowed status, interlacing consumption with aesthetic worth (89).”

The siege of Vicksburg would rewrite all the rules of taste and status, as Smith demonstrates. “There was no gainsaying the most fundamental effect of the siege…Underwriting the profound sense of shame was a feeling even more disturbing. The scale of the siege, the way it served to rearrange behavior and bend instincts, generated a sense of hollowness, a feeling that those who had endured the siege had lost their decency (113).”

The “Hollowing of Vicksburg” may be Smith’s most effective chapter. The focus on the sense of taste is effective to the point of producing hunger pangs in this writer. Moreover, he draws on other senses quite as effectively through thick description of the cave dwellings of Vicksburg’s inhabitants, and the incessant sounds produced by the shelling of the city. Undoubtedly, Smith makes his point in this chapter that sensory history in the hands of an skilled historian, with a talent for creative description, is powerful and educational.

“The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege” is a thoroughly engaging little book that is sure to capture many a reader, holding him prisoner to the end. It is one of those rare books that you cannot put down, when once you begin. The skepticism that I experienced in the beginning quickly gave way to admiration for Smith’s scholarship and talent for writing with color. Though now I find myself with a new problem: I am longing for Smith to use his technique to chronicle Sherman’s March to the Sea and Grant’s siege of Petersburg.



3 Responses to Coming to My Senses: A Review of Mark Smith’s The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War

  1. I read this book earlier in the year and enjoyed it as well. It is a welcome change from yet another battlefield analysis. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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