Earlier this week Oxford University Press sent me a review copy of Mark Smith’s new book, The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War. It’s a short book so I decided to jump right in and although I enjoyed Listening to Nineteenth-Century America, this one fell short in places. Each chapter is organized around a different sense: “The Sounds of Secession,” “Eyeing Bull Run,” and “Cornelia Hancock’s Sense of Smell” and so on.
There is certainly the potential for gaining a new understanding of important subjects during the war through a cultural analysis of changing sensory patterns. For example, Smith does a very good job of analyzing both the content and rising level of noise in Charleston leading up to and through Lincoln’s election and the secession vote. He explores how these changing patterns may have influenced slaves, the concerns of slaveowners and even Major Robert Anderson and his men as he planned their move from Fort Moultrie to Sumter. The strongest chapter focuses on the impact of Grant’s siege of Vicksburg on the quantity and type of food available to Southern civilians trapped in the town. Smith makes some very perceptive points about the sharp contrast between the menus in town restaurants and the overall diet of civilians before the war with what they were forced to eat during the siege and the threat such a drastic change posed to the community’s social and racial hierarchy, not to mention their own sense of self-identity. Continue reading →