This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com. This is the fourth in a series.
On many Civil War battlefields, all that is left is the land. For battlefield enthusiasts, just looking at the terrain can evoke the battle, the movement of the units, the decisions of the commanders, and the experience of the soldiers, and perhaps even the war’s greater meaning.
But for a lot of us, it’s just a bunch of grass.
The Petersburg battlefield, in contrast, provides an education in what all that terrain means. There is of course the Crater, one of Kevin’s areas of expertise. To me, the stories came to life at the entrance to the mine shaft and in the depth of the hole, something very hard to judge 150 years later and from the trail along its edge. The other batteries of the Eastern Front—especially Battery 5, which you can walk through, around, and “under,” along the trail to the Union mortar—gave me the best sense of the power of these earthworks, the size and scope of the battle lines they were part of for months, stretched out for miles around the city. (It also helped that I could hear the yells and chants from nearby Fort Lee during my visit, breaking the silence of a sunset otherwise dominated by bird chirps and insect buzzing.)
Petersburg’s siege encampment exhibit gives a better sense of what is missing from the landscape. Then you add the historic photographs, showing all the men, black and white, who filled these positions, and you can begin to see it: the men creating earthworks, digging tunnels, maneuvering artillery, shaping the land to participate in the battle.
At many eastern battlefields, National Park Service has left some grass tall and mowed open areas short, in order to show where earthworks once stood. This is an effective (and inexpensive) way to create a shadow of the battle’s landscape. Such a subtle element can help us visualize the battlefield, but it can also educate us about the importance of earthworks and landscape to understanding Civil War battlefields. It is not just terrain, but crucial terrain—ridges and hills, strategic lookouts and river fords.
As the armies hunkered down in sieges, what was increasingly important is what we might now call environmental design—altering the landscape, changing the access points, even moving streams to provide the food and water and make encampments easier to protect. My book starts with the destruction of the Mounds around St. Louis, as the city expanded; our 21st-century knowledge about pre-Columbian mounds, ditches, knolls, and ridges has altered our understanding of the civilizations of the Americas. A landscape and environmental history of the Civil War could deepen our understanding of the war’s experience, recovering that which busy soldiers and civilians failed to remark upon.
The late Jack Temple Kirby called for such “an environmental view” of the war, considering flows of animals and plants as well as the landscape, and Mark Fiege has written about the importance of environment at Gettysburg, and other turning points throughout U.S. history. Lisa M. Brady has written a dissertation that considers the Union Army’s use of the landscape at Vicksburg, in the Shenandoah, and marching through Georgia and the Carolinas. Brady has argued (in Environmental History) that “the landscape was not simply a backdrop to the events of the war—a place where battles took place—but a powerful military resource and an important factor in military decision making.”
These articles provide just a start—more, both from these scholars and others, can help us understand the landscape of the Civil War. And Petersburg is a place where everyone can start to feel its importance.