Welcome, H-CivWar Subscribers, to our next installment of the Graduate Student Interview series.
Today we welcome Chris Slocombe, a postgraduate student in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, where he studies under Dr. David Silkenat. His research interests center on Western theater military history, Southern environmental history, and battlefield preservation. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @slocombe_t.
Hi, Chris! Welcome to our interview series. I wonder if you could briefly explain your research topic and how you became interested with the Siege of Corinth, Mississippi in 1862?
Thank you for this opportunity, John.
My project is a study of the 1862 Siege of Corinth. I aim to complicate the campaign’s conventional narrative by offering a fresh perspective which blends environmental and medical approaches with traditional military history. The siege has never received its own full-length treatment, nor has a dedicated campaign study been written from an environmental perspective.
Contemporaries recognized the importance of Corinth in 1862, yet it became clear in my reading that within Civil War literature the siege existed – and still exists – in the shadow of Shiloh. The siege is treated largely as an afterthought or even a topic of derision. The Siege of Corinth had essentially become a lesson in what not to do as a field commander. But what I found in the archives revealed a more complex story, one that deserved its own telling and that could problematize some traditional interpretations while contributing to a growing environmental influence in Civil War military history.
I wonder if you could delve into the importance to looking at the Siege at Corinth through the lens of the environment and health? What sort of conditions were found in Corinth during and after the siege?
Recent research has shown that Civil War armies pursued their objectives within a nature that was consistently interacting with human bodies biologically while simultaneously frustrating human strategic and tactical designs. I contend that if we locate these challenges at the heart of the siege’s story, it alters our interpretations of the campaign’s course and consequences.
In remote northeast Mississippi fevers and bowel ailments ran rampant through the contending armies as they altered the face of the countryside in what was the first widespread use of field fortifications in the western theater. Steady spring rains turned roads to quagmires, and wagons could not keep pace, compelling soldiers to sleep in the rain. Exposure, alongside the area’s notoriously wretched water, resulted in long sick lists. Poor sanitary discipline fouled water sources with excrement and other camp garbage. Roads flooded regularly as weather affected the timeliness of operations. Large percentages of soldiers at Corinth were absent sick from their regiments, while those who were in the ranks were often just as sick. Only when we understand the challenges of moving large bodies of sickly men through a countryside filled with flooded, muddy roads requiring corduroying and bridging can we begin to assess military events clearly. Of course, we should not absolve leaders for their deficiencies. But they should be assessed fairly and with an appreciation of on-the-ground realities.
My research suggests that for many of the rank-and-file in the Federal army, a type of environmental trauma borne from exertion, fear, and especially from illness amplified feelings of anger and disappointment when the Confederate army escaped without a decisive battle. Western Federals initially considered Shiloh the beginning of the end. But when the Confederate army escaped Corinth and the war in the region ground on, opinion about what was required to defeat the Confederacy changed. The sickly Siege of Corinth was a key component in this evolution.
Both sides’ medical systems were woefully underprepared to deal with the casualties at Shiloh and the seriously ill soldiers which filled hospitals during the Siege of Corinth. The level of sickness strained underdeveloped medical systems and compelled leaders to expand and streamline health care operations. Individual northern states chartered relief vessels and essentially bailed out the Federal military, while the Confederate sick and wounded were often sent into the countryside to be treated at newer post hospitals or by civilians in private homes. April, May, and June of 1862 saw additional medical appointments made, new hospitals built, and medical transportation streamlined. Federal medical brass attempted to reorganize relief procedures to avoid what they saw as disorganized state meddling in army affairs. These are critical developments in early-war health care that can provide insights into how modern medical structures and processes formed amidst severe trial.
You say that “the Union and the Confederate militaries faced widespread criticism for their handling of the campaign.” Could you delve more into that by talking about source materials and who exactly was criticizing these armies?
I gauge reaction to the campaign by examining newspapers, soldier letters and diaries, and official correspondence. Many northern editors criticized Halleck for letting Beauregard evacuate Corinth without dealing him a decisive blow. The northern public, like many of Halleck’s own soldiers, believed that success at Corinth might end the war in the western theater. Americans by-and-large sought a “Decisive Battle Victory” despite its rarity. This informed reactions to the Siege of Corinth at the time and, I argue, has slanted assessments since. Confederates saw Corinth as yet another defeat suffered since the new year. The weeks and months following the siege was a time where many on both sides had to come to grips with the prospect that the war was not unfolding quite as they envisioned.
Another thing I’ll say about sources, if I may – with disease being such a major part of the siege, my focus on health prompted me to attempt to assemble a count of casualties from battle and from disease. I’d seen only estimates, and I recognized that my arguments needed quantitative data. I investigate disease etiology and type while tracking the flow of sick soldiers from Corinth to hospitals and homes. Digging through regimental books, official rosters, Compiled Service Records, newspaper sick lists, and state Adjutant General’s records has illuminated dark corners and helped me begin to understand the scope and scale of the medical mess.
How can your study on Corinth translate to other battles and campaigns during the Civil War?
My hope is that every campaign gets a similar environmental treatment because an environmental lens can challenge us to reconsider why things occurred in the manner they did and why it matters. For example, environmental approaches allow us to situate individual campaigns within developing strategic considerations and logistical initiatives which have been explored fruitfully by historians like Lisa Brady, Joan Cashin, Earl Hess, and Ken Noe. Part of the Siege of Corinth’s importance lies in its establishing a logistical network in the mid-south with which the U.S. Army could support incursions into the cotton states. Corinth’s siege helped solidify Federal control and increased pressure on the Confederate slave-based economy and the morale of its citizenry through a mastery of resources.
The military overcame environmental challenges related to terrain, health, and supply, and this had consequences militarily, politically, and socially. From the conflict’s earliest days Federal commanders sought to deny the Confederacy the essential resources to sustain a war effort – especially food and transportation. If we think about the military struggle as a contest to control space and resources that necessitated the physical occupation or backwater relegation of vast stretches of southern territory - including logistically important cities and railroads – we develop an appreciation for seemingly “barren” victories like the Siege of Corinth and a more precise understanding of the course of Civil War military history.
What are the challenges to studying a Civil War topic abroad?
Though I’m a student at Edinburgh, I have easier access to sources because I’m based in the US. Part of what brought me to Edinburgh was the flexibility of study, David Silkenat’s presence on faculty, and the breadth of American history offerings. There is a vibrant Civil War community in the UK. See more at the sites for British American Nineteenth Century Historians and the Scottish Association for the Study of America.
Thanks so much for joining us at H-CivWar, Chris. We look forward to seeing your project continue to grow over the next few years.
As a reminder, if you're interested in participating in the Graduate Student Interview series, please reach out to John R. Legg <firstname.lastname@example.org> for more information.