Civil War Soldiers’ Encounters with Nature (in Their Own Words)
Between camping, marching and battle, Civil War soldiers had plenty of contact with the natural world. Military service often meant trekking to unfamiliar parts of the country and almost always meant long periods of time outdoors.
Many soldiers captured their experiences in diaries and letters. These make up the bulk of the first-person accounts biologist Kelby Ouchley mined for Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide. Ouchley’s collection inspired these 5 head-tilting ways the natural world touched soldiers lives’ during the Civil War.
It tempted them.
At best, Civil War rations were modest and monotonous; at worst, they were scarce. It’s no surprise then that soldiers would go to great lengths to supplement their diets, sometimes with harrowing and/or comical results.
Sergeant Rice Bull, 123rd New York Volunteer Infantry, in the trenches of north Georgia on June 21, 1864:
Lieutenant Charles B. Haydon, 2nd Michigan Infantry, near Washington, on Sept. 23, 1861:
Lieutenant John P. Sheffey, 8th Virginia Cavalry, in a letter to his future wife from Fayette County, Virginia, on Nov. 3, 1861:
It attacked them.
Nature had much to offer Civil War soldiers, but it wasn’t always benevolent. From alligator attacks to infections, both armies fought on many fronts, against enemies big and small.
Captain Charles B. Haydon, 2nd Michigan Infantry, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on June 27, 1863:
Lieutenant John G. Earnest, 79th Tennessee Infantry, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on May 5, 1863:
Corporal Rufus Kinsley, a lieutenant in the Second Corps d’Afrique, writing to his father from Ship Island, Mississippi, on May 29, 1864:
It entertained them.
From tree-planting to louse racing, Civil War soldiers looked to the natural world for both mundane and creative ways to entertain themselves during long stretches of downtime far from home.
Private Theodore F. Upson, 100th Indiana Infantry Volunteers, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 27, 1863:
Private John King, 40th Georgia Infantry, at Camp Chase Prison in Columbus, Ohio:
It sustained them.
During the upheaval of the Civil War, plants and animals were indispensible for shelter, food, and even stashing large sums of cash now and then.
Charles T. Quintard, chaplain, 1st Tennessee Infantry, at Columbus, Georgia, on April 22, 1865:
Lieutenant Edmund D. Patterson, 9th Alabama Infantry, as a prisoner of war on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, Ohio, on Sept. 17, 1864:
It moved them.
Then as today, the natural world inspired soldiers to wonder and contemplation.
General Robert E. Lee, CSA, in a letter to his wife from Pocahontas County, present-day West Virginia, on Aug. 4, 1861:
Private William R. Stilwell, 53rd Georgia Volunteers, in a letter to his wife from near Fredericksburg, Virginia, on March 15, 1863:
Union Brigadier General Alpheus S. Williams describing the night before the beginning of the battle of Chancellorsville in a letter to his daughter from Stafford Court House, Virginia, on May 18, 1863:
For even more wartime reflections on the natural world, we recommend reading Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide for yourself. For more history and analysis about the Civil War, we’ve got you covered.