Stith on Hess, 'Animal Histories of the Civil War Era'

Earl J. Hess, ed.
Matthew M. Stith

Earl J. Hess, ed. Animal Histories of the Civil War Era. Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War Series. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. 280 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-7691-7

Reviewed by Matthew M. Stith (University of Texas at Tyler) Published on H-CivWar (January, 2023) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version:

In the past decade, a growing body of work has explored how the natural and built environments both shaped and were shaped by the Civil War, creating what is now a well-established field.[1] To this flourishing historical and historiographical conversation, the prolific Civil War historian Earl J. Hess has added an edited volume that considers the environmental underpinnings of the conflict through the lens of nonhuman animals, wild and domestic. Hess brings together eleven scholars to collectively help fill what he calls “a gaping hole” in animal-centered Civil War-era studies through thirteen essays—three of which are authored by Hess himself (p. 1). He also intends for the collection to bridge the noticeable Civil War gap in the otherwise thriving field of animal studies. But Animal Histories of the Civil War Era is much more. While the volume’s unifying theme focuses on the integral role of animals through the Civil War era, the implicit—and often explicit—arguments in each essay center on the decisive role nonhuman animals of all kinds played in the conflict and its aftermath as agents of military necessity and racial violence as well as emblems of cultural identity.

The volume’s first of six parts contains a single essay that investigates the camel question in antebellum America. Here, Michael E. Woods analyzes the seemingly far-fetched political and diplomatic attempts to seed the Desert Southwest with camels. First conceived as a military experiment in antebellum America, the importation and use of camels in the arid Southwest became a symbol of the Slave Power’s quest to expand into the region. Woods reveals that recognizing the multifaceted antebellum camel debates “underscores proslavery advocates’ bold vision for western expansion, demonstrates the breadth of southern agricultural reform, and suggests a new way to think about the Slave Power” (p. 24). Woods, in sum, uses the camel craze to show how animals and the idea of animals reflected the most pressing political issue in the antebellum era and the most important political crises in American history.

While prewar camels kick off the volume, the second section comprises three essays that illuminate the pivotal role mules and horses played once the conflict began. In the first essay, David J. Gerleman examines the complex and critically important business of supplying armies with the creatures necessary to move men, armies, and supplies and, in short, win the war. The logistics involved in keeping equines, or “engines of war,” operational in the numerous massive and ever-shifting armies were, Gerleman shows, “a key military factor that weighed heavily in deciding battlefield defeat or victory” (p. 46). Horses not only moved cavalry and pulled wagons, but Earl J. Hess shows in the next essay that over 250,000 of them towed artillery—an arduous and deadly job. Strong, experienced artillery horses who resisted spooking amid explosions and general carnage became essential factors in tactical maneuvers on the battlefield much as they helped dictate the speed and efficacy of field armies on the march. They were, in Hess’s words, “indispensable to the modern artillery arm of the mid-nineteenth century” (p. 80). Abraham Gibson’s chapter pushes the equine conversation into a more Southern perspective. The Confederacy did not contain as many horses as the United States, but it relied heavily on those it did have—both physically and culturally. This fact, Gibson shows, made the wounds hurt worse when horse shortages plagued the Confederacy by 1863, playing no small role in the erosion of the Confederate war effort.

Part 3 includes two chapters on wildlife during the Civil War. Hess begins the section with his second contribution, this time analyzing in general terms how we might rethink the evolving and fascinating interplay between wildlife (including insects) and soldiers. It is perhaps clear that roving armies and violent conflict wreaked havoc on most wild animals in the vicinity, but Hess, who relies heavily on Kelby Ouchley’s Flora and Fauna of the Civil War (2010), shows that these stories are nevertheless both overlooked and significant. It is true as well that some wildlife thrived in the newly built environments comprised of thousands of humans and livestock. Rodents, lice, mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, mites, and myriad other parasitic or otherwise scavenging creatures benefited from the masses of human and nonhuman flesh, alive or dead. But there is more to the story, of course. Cultural perceptions of wildlife—positive and negative—helped define their wartime experiences and, as Hess posits, may have played some role in the postwar movement toward conservation. Known for his work on the sensory nature of war, Mark Smith rounds out the wildlife section with an essay on what he considers to be the intersectionality of humans and bees. Smith contends that the human-bee relationship “shaped the way Confederate and Union participants experienced and made sense” of the war (p. 121). For Smith, bees’ wartime importance resided in the cultural and metaphorical framework they offered for soldiers on both sides to understand and describe their war. Buzzing bullets, swarming soldiers, and the organized chaos of camp life, drills, and maneuvers, all found metaphorical ties to the real insects in the minds and expressions of combatants and others who struggled to explain the confusing nature of war.

Part 4 features two chapters that consider domesticated animals as a wartime food source. Jason Phillips evaluates the paramount importance of pigs to the Civil War-era South. Phillips contends that analyzing the role of hogs as a source of Confederate food and culture yields insight into “slavery, western expansion, sectionalism, secession, Civil War, emancipation, memorialization, and Reconstruction” (p. 136). This is a tall order for rebel pigs, but Phillips bears it out through his investigation of hogs as food for Confederate and US soldiers in the South as well as for both enslaved and freed people during and after the war. Pigs came to symbolize diverse Souths before, during, and after the conflict. Earl Hess’s third essay takes a vegetarian turn. He asserts that “carnism,” or a preponderance of meat in the diet, ultimately hurt Civil War armies who relied too heavily on pork and beef and suffered from a lack of vegetable and fruit supplements. At its core, the essay evaluates the nutritional issues that underscored a predominately meat diet, but it also seems to advocate for vegetarianism then and now.

Dogs, perhaps the most popular nonhuman animals, are the focus in part 5. Joan E. Cashin’s essay explores canines throughout the war—as pets, weapons, and targets. Like other nonhuman animals enmeshed in the human war, dogs suffered and died in large numbers. Cashin concludes that they had been exploited “to the limit” during the conflict and reflect the reality that roving armies of men “deployed almost every resource in a total war” (p. 180). More than simply showing how humans used dogs, Cashin gives canines a level of agency, speculating about their own perceptions and psychological trauma. In one of the volume’s most valuable essays, Lorien Foote offers a state-level study in which she examines how dogs were used in Civil War-era South Carolina as weapons “to maintain white supremacy” against both enslaved people in the state and those freedmen who came back in United States uniforms to fight (p. 187). After the war, state authorities continued to use canines. “When it came to keeping Black people in their place,” Foote concludes, “dogs remained a weapon of choice” (p. 203). The essay reminds us that animals can be leveraged as integral agents of larger human forces, in this case race, war, and violence.

The final section of the edited collection contains three essays that together evaluate the role animals played after the war. Brian Matthew Jordan shows how regimental animal mascots—dogs, racoons, eagles, and more—became “full members” of their respective regiments during and after the war. Much of Jordan’s chapter uses the 8th Wisconsin’s bald eagle mascot “Old Abe” as an example with keen analysis about how the eagle’s legacy shaped regimental commemoration and memory after the conflict. Daniel Vandersommers moves the conversation to the National Zoo from 1888 to 1891 when the US government debated zoo animals from a semi-comical sectional perspective decades after the war had ended. Zoo animals served as foils for Congress to process and debate the lingering meanings of sectionalism. In the volume’s final essay, Paula Tarankow returns the focus to horses by evaluating the role of the show horse named Beautiful Jim Key, who stole much of the nation’s attention at the turn of the twentieth century. Tarankow tells the story of William Key, who cared for and showed the horse across the country. In their own small way, Key and Beautiful Jim Key represented a distinctive human and nonhuman element to help bridge racial divisions that racked the nation.

There remain plenty of avenues for new and rewarding research in Civil War environmental history. Animal Histories of the Civil War is a fine example. The thirteen brief essays each stand alone as worthy examinations that focus our attention on the many integral roles animals played in the course and consequences of the conflict. Together, and more broadly, the volume’s essays help realign the centrality of the natural environment to all human events, including and especially the Civil War. Perhaps the collection’s most valuable contribution is the direction it provides for future work at the confluence of Civil War, environmental, and animal history. In this way, it is an excellent starting point from which more thorough work might emerge.


[1]. See, for example, Judkin Browning and Timothy Silver, An Environmental History of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Citation: Matthew M. Stith. Review of Hess, Earl J., ed., Animal Histories of the Civil War Era. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL:

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