85th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History
Landscapes of War and Peace
April 5 - 8, 2018, Louisville, Kentucky
Title: Civil War Landscapes
Earl Hess, Lincoln Memorial University
Adam Petty, University of Alabama
Participant's Paper Title: The Wilderness Myth
Participant's Paper Abstract: This paper reconsiders the myth surrounding the Wilderness, a forest in Virginia, which played host to three Civil War campaigns. This Wilderness myth has several components. First, the Wilderness was a battlefield unlike any other and created unique battle conditions. Second, these conditions favored the Confederates who tried to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. Third, there was a mystique surrounding the Wilderness, which associated it with woe, gloom, death, destruction, hell, fire, and the supernatural among other things. While evocative, this traditional interpretation reflects a distorted understanding of the forest as well as what actually took place within its bounds. This paper argues that the Wilderness myth was the product of hindsight and of a desire to explain away Union failures and highlight Robert E. Lee's generalship. While the Wilderness truly was a very difficult battlefield that created trying combat conditions, I contend that many of the claims of Wilderness exceptionalism are unfounded, and that the Wilderness did not give the Confederates a special advantage, nor did they try to trap the Union army there. The Wilderness's threatening mystique, however, did set it apart from any other battlefield of the war. By producing a new understanding of the role of environmental factors in these Wilderness campaigns, my dissertation not only provides an important corrective to prevailing understandings of some of the Civil War's most seminal campaigns, but also contributes to emerging trends in the study of the intersection of war and the environment in American history.
J. McCarley, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)
Participant's Paper Title: The Landscape of War: Preserving and Interpreting the 1862 Siege of Yorktown
Participant's Paper Abstract: There were two sieges of Yorktown, one in 1781 and another in 1862. The first, by far the most famous, was arguably the last major clash of arms in the American War of Independence. The second, by comparison virtually unknown, was one of the key events leading President Lincoln's administration to the policy discussion that eventually produced the Emancipation Proclamation. Since early May 1862, when the Union and Confederate armies left the Yorktown, Virginia, area and headed west toward the Confederate capital of Richmond to engage in the famous Seven Days' Battles, the landscape along the Peninsula's Warwick River faded into relative obscurity during the Federal occupation that lasted throughout the remainder of the American Civil War and into its postwar Reconstruction period. The proposed paper will explore how the physical geography of Virginia's historic Peninsula (bounded on the north by the York River, bordered on the south by the James River, and the locale of the founding of British North America at Jamestown in 1607) definitively shaped both the Confederate plan of defense for Richmond and the Union plan of campaign for quickly capturing the Southern capital and bringing the Civil War to an early and economical end. With nearly a year to plan and prepare, the Confederates devised multiple lines of defense that used the layout of land and rivers to offset their scarcity of soldiers. In sharp contrast, the numerically superior Federals fundamentally misread the ground and had to settle for a month-long 'siege' of the Lower Peninsula along the Warwick River Line. The siege was an important factor in tarnishing the reputations of both Union General G.B. McClellan and Confederate General J.E. Johnston. Finally, the paper will also consider the area's post-siege free-black communities and how the siege's sites have been preserved and interpreted over time.
Michael Burns, Texas Christian University
Participant's Paper Title: The Liquid Landscape: A Water History of the Second Manassas Campaign
Participant's Paper Abstract: When looking at a map of the United States during the U.S. Civil War, one feature stands out among the many lines and features: rivers. The waterways of the United States continually played a role in the expansion of government power and the transportation of the military throughout the nation in the nineteenth century. During the four years of strife between the northern and southern states, the rivers of North America became even more vital routes of movement and power. A number of Civil War officers recognized the influence waterways had on their campaigns. While most well-known in the role of rivers as a central part of military transportation, water, in the shape of rain, creeks, and rivers among other forms, could completely derail or reverse the outcome of a military campaign in the Civil War. During the Second Manassas Campaign, water in northern Virginia directly influenced the experiences of the soldiers and officers involved in the operation. The prominence of water in the region indicated the direct influence the physical environment had on Civil War campaigning. Water directly caused soldiers to suffer from illnesses while also forcing officers to improvise their plans. Yet, the men in the two armies attempted to overcome these natural barriers by adjusting to the natural situation. Officers incorporated the steep banks and flooding of the local rivers into their larger strategic visions as well as recognized their limits. The presence of armies larger than most cities throughout the U.S. South at the time, however, led to the contamination of local water sources that the soldiers and officers consumed while on the move directly impacting their energy distribution. Examining water's role during Second Manassas reveals that while humans tried to control their environment, nature had its input on human action during the Civil War.