“A Sensory History of the Civil War,” by Mark M. Smith

Mark M. Smith

Mark M. Smith

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

There’s an online collection now providing access to over 7,000 different photographic views and portraits made during the American Civil War.  The images represent the original glass plate negatives photographed under the supervision of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. The images are powerful: the dead about to be interred at Antietam by a burial party or, following the war, as a result of the country’s obligation to account for the dead, the excavation of graves and the reinterring the decaying corpses.

Many of the photographs of the newly dead on battlefields are not only grisly but show clothing in disarray, the wounded frantically searching to see whether their wound is fatal.

Do the photos honor the dead and are the dead gallant?

Likely not, and to say that the sight is unpleasant lacks understanding.

And yet there’s a need historically to recover the experience.  There’s a burgeoning field in historiography attempting to publish works full of both social and cultural contexts, but also in perceiving historical experience in sensory terms.  One can, in other words, flip through Civil War photographs, but in our “refrigerator age,” our understanding of what was photographed is impoverished.  We can see the photograph but we can’t “smell” what was photographed; nor can we taste the experience, touch the experience, or hear the experience in which over 600,000 soldiers lost their lives.  If we wish an analogy, we need only imagine that the equivalent proportion of today’s population would be carnage wreaked on six million; the piles of amputated limbs, or dead mules and horses, would be as unmanageable now as it was then.

Mark Smith asks his reader, then, to visit Gettysburg and to wander the battlefield, but in wandering to imagine the stench of decay that lingered for months after those days in 1863.  Combine the smell with the pervasive silence as if every living thing had become muted.

It’s a new field in history especially as it applies to the Civil War.

The problem?

How to put into words the various sensations to make a sensory history and thus create an accurate impression of how people experienced the war?

Consider December 26, 1860, on an evening in Charleston, at that time a quiet place without today’s constant drone of white noise.  Gaslights would splash “dollops of light.”  On Fort Moultrie, there was no wind, but the rolling waters of the harbor would sound an incessant chopping.  The city itself was a thing of beauty, a holy city of churches, but regulated with a population of 70,000, of which 40,000 or more were either slaves or free blacks.  Smith writes that that the “‘peculiar institution’ seeped into the very fabric of the city.” A visitor would have to note that order had been written into every crevice of the city.  Slaves walked in the road instead of on sidewalks and by rule tipped their hats to every white person passing by.

Regulated by sight and regulated by sound.  Voices were calibrated to be sober and calm.  “Raucous behavior, noise, undisciplined shouts—all indicated transgressions and affronts to order.” Nothing should break upon the “charm of quietness . . . except the musical chime of the distant bells as they signal the passing hours.”

Smith writes that, with the election of Lincoln, within the precincts of Charleston, an “auditory revolution” began.

What had been muted changed beginning with the December 1860 secession convention with emboldened secessionists in the streets, martial music, all of which became in time a “mounting crescendo.”  And across the state, South Carolina’s politicians now filled public venues “with vocal, loud, boisterous talk, at a decibel level not heard in generations.” The noise spilled . . . deluging the land . . . with the force of hurricane-driven waters.” The negroes overheard what was being said; the news spread like a wildfire among them, but for now, “they knew to remain quiet,” having “learned that skill only too well.”

Smith paints an impressionistic portrait of 4:30 in the early morning, April 12, 1861:  “…as gray streaks of morning struggled to subdue the waning light, the signal came . . . . As lightning precedes thunder, so ‘the great volcanic crater . . . was illuminated with a line of twinkling lights; the clustering shells illuminated the sky above [Fort Sumter].”

There were flashes as of distant lightning followed by the dull roar of mortar.  And against the sky, one could trace the flight of the shell as it mounted the stars, then “descended with increasing velocity, until it landed inside the fort and burst.”

Smith writes, then, in this “sensory history,” that the bombardment continued for 34 hours, “accompanied” by shrill cheering from Charlestonian Confederate onlookers.  What’s metaphorically extraordinary at this moment is how that social, cultural and political decorous silence in the still United States became punctuated by the cacophonous, disordered sounds of secession; it was, Smith writes, “all-enveloping, all penetrating.”  Appalling sounds and vivid flashes, which, over the hours, began to take on a “syncopated feel,” later took on a “subliminal air” even as the walls inside Fort Sumter stood blackened, fire-whipped by the wind, with soldiers lying close to the ground with handkerchiefs over their mouths, suffocation imminent, solid masonry falling in every direction.

If the effect inside Fort Sumter became in time “numbing,” the effect is equally so on the reader as Smith piles detail upon dizzying detail.  It’s likely true this initial chapter is designed to create the kind of sensory overload experienced by the Charleston population and the men at Fort Sumter.  There’s no diversion, in other words, in this “total war” that becomes an assault on the senses.

Early July, then, 1861, Virginia, Fairfax Station, and maps that were much like aerial views, “almost predictable.” Talk also by generals, whose confidence was contagious, about what routes and movements and topographical features were best for placing gun batteries and earthworks.

It was the veracity of these generals’ sight, Smith notes, and trust in the human eye to locate and guide, that enabled the construction of battle lines, ordering of columns, and framing of engagements.

And it was exciting, this first engagement of the war, this magnificent panorama.  But plunging down from the ridges and onto the field of battle something very different engaged the senses.  How to tell friend from foe with eyes filled with sweat and the whole a combination of sensory overload and irritation when bullets kicked up puffs of dirt: “Bodies reacted to sound involuntarily.”

But of all the senses, sound not excluded, sight “was the main casualty.” According to the maps, seeing should be a certainty, but maps do not illustrate dust and smoke, sometimes so thick that it was impossible for someone to see more than a few feet ahead.  Colors became murky, blue looking gray and gray looking blue.  Trees and brush hid Confederates from Unionists.  And for many soldiers, the decision to squeeze the trigger was complicated when the “enemy” could not be detected by the color of a uniform; from that confusion came a different kind of slaughter, Unionists killing Unionists, mistaking their friends for the enemy, and Confederates killing Confederates for the same reason.

Standardization had not yet become an issue since most of the soldiers in the build-up to Bull Run were from different states with different uniforms; even within regiments soldiers hardly looked the same.  When dark came, troubles mounted as soldiers had trouble forming a line; they groped their way along, visually disoriented.  The careful orchestration prior to Bull Run was now scattered like confetti.

In the following days, sight began to be eclipsed by another sense, one “produced by the mangled bodies and bloating horses baking in the sun. . .  ‘the most horrid of odors’ . . .  bodies . . . lay unburied, creating a stench that  ‘is insufferable and taints the air for miles around.'”  “War,” Smith writes, concluding this chapter on Bull Run, “was revealing its true colors.”

The remaining three chapters continue to foreground and conceptualize the war, focusing on the “senses,” with “smell” the most pungent in his chapter on Gettysburg.  Decomposing bodies, he notes, left an olfactory pall over the place that lingered in memory for as long as the soldiers and civilians who were there lived.  Young Gettysburg children whose lives had been sheltered saw men with eyes blown from their sockets, soldiers crawling, doctors and nurses with clothing filthy with the blood and intestines of dead soldiers of both armies.  If Civil War enactors believe they are bringing glory to a battlefield, well, the true sensory experience with its deadly and nauseating atmosphere quickly gives the truth to the enactors’ belief

Smith asks us to imagine, in other words, that the war itself was not just a disturbance or an ideological battled.  It created a new sensual universe of rot and stench on the felt experience of history itself.  Sherman’s March to the Sea, for example, began with a sensory rumble of demonic chaos, bringing suffering to Georgians and South Carolinians with the sounds of animals being driven before the army and the smell of burning buildings and carcasses left behind.  Sherman’s 60,000 soldiers cut a swath up to sixty miles wide; rumors of arrival circulated long before the “swath” came.  Word had it that rampaging Union troops cut fingers off to get rings.  Men and women ran around madly when the sound and smell of Sherman’s march began to be “felt.”  Dogs howled and mules yelped when the sheer vibration announced the approach.

With Vicksburg the sense is taste, beginning with the abundance of fine “victuals” before the siege; the prosperity soon falls into a devastating plague of demoralization and starvation.  It’s less a reduction in diet and more a descent into filth and humiliation when the “ruling class” is forced to live in trenches and caves, high society crunching and rustling in the dirt.

Edmund Wilson’s 1961 Patriotic Gore offers the reader excellent pocket biographies of a pantheon of Civil War figures including Lincoln and Lee, Sherman, Mosby, Grant, and even Harriet Beecher Stowe.  It’s a decent analysis of men and women who saw the war firsthand and wrote about what they saw.  It’s patriotic in its survey of the war’s trauma, but there’s little in the way of gore.  Smith, on the other hand, brings to the reader the same kind of engaging accounts from diaries, letters, and journals; but the prism of experience is the five senses.

The Hunley launched a successful attack and became a precursor to submarine warfare.  The fact is interesting but becomes more interesting when one reads about the smothering atmosphere inside the submarine, and its final moments after sinking the Houstonic; eight men died together in this closest of worlds, still at their stations when the Hunley was raised and brought to Charleston in 2000, revealing waterlogged skeletons untouched by human hands for 136 years.

Georgia and the Carolinas were eviscerated; Sherman understood that to destroy the Southern will to fight “meant depriving civilians of their customary experience of the world.” This also meant stunning their senses, making them “feel” the war.  Sherman’s men, drenched and blistered, their skin hardening, hardened emotionally.

Such total war, Smith concludes, denoted the overwhelming crash of the Southern world order.

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