THE SMELL OF BATTLE, THE TASTE OF SIEGE :A Sensory History of the Civil War
Reviewed by Harold Holzer
The field of “sensory history” is rather new as it applies to Civil War studies, but it could hardly boast a better advocate than Mr. Smith. In the case of Charleston, he seems to have unearthed every last reminiscence testifying to both the decorous silence that preceded the Civil War there and the unleashing of the almost unbearable noise that accompanied the war’s outbreak. In subsequent chapters on battles and incidents from throughout the war, Mr. Smith demonstrates that he is a veritable thesaurus of synonyms for the various senses he explores: sight, smell, taste and touch.
Consider the visual confusion of the first Battle of Bull Run, which emerges through the eyes of both alert and utterly confused raw soldiers on both sides of the fray, most of them disoriented by smoke and perplexed by the unidentifiable colors of enemy uniforms. (The July 1861 battle occurred before Union and Confederate troops settled into their defining hues of blue and gray.) This disorienting spectacle, Mr. Smith argues, was at least partly responsible for the Union defeat there, since seasoned Confederate officers had a superior knowledge of the terrain and a surer sense of how to take advantage of the disorder of battle.
A revolution in taste (as in food) informs the author’s retelling of the otherwise familiar story of the Union siege of Vicksburg, Miss. After a mouth-watering prelude that dwells on the prewar city’s famous restaurants and menus, Mr. Smith draws hunger-inducing contrasts with the deprivations caused by Ulysses S. Grant ’s 1863 bombardment. In its wake, the gourmet epicenter was reduced to a city of famished cave dwellers “scurrying in a sedimentary past” and abandoning the old “gustatory hierarchy” for a new social order in which rich and poor, black and white, forced themselves to consume unpalatable scraps of mule or rat meat—or else starve. “If there had been any salt left” in Vicksburg, writes Mr. Smith, “Grant would have rubbed it in Confederate wounds.”
The sleepy town of Gettysburg was similarly transformed during the first three days of July 1863 (around the same time Grant took Vicksburg). But in Mr. Smith’s take on the most famous of all Civil War battles, he emphasizes its assault on the nostrils: specifically, the putrid stench that polluted the town for months thereafter, odors “as violent as the action that had caused them.” Modern readers may recoil at the gruesome descriptions of rotting human and animal corpses decomposing in the summer heat, along with the stink of the wounded and dying festering inside makeshift hospitals outside of which amputated limbs pile up in rotting heaps. For relief, Mr. Smith introduces us to noble, seemingly stench-immune Cornelia Hancock, who departs her peaceful New Jersey farm (the author sends her on her way amid nose-tingling descriptions of ripening fruit trees and freshly mowed grass) to nurse the gravely injured of Gettysburg.
No less gripping, a chapter on the doomed Confederate submersible vessel Hunley proves a bit less convincing than the others. It focuses primarily on the smell of sweat and the unavoidable, repulsive touching of flesh that the Hunley’s cramped crew endured in 1864 as they hand-cranked their craft under Charleston harbor in order to torpedo the Union blockading ship Housatonic—in the process destroying their own ship. Mr. Smith may view the episode as an example of bravery trumping delicacy, but the real story of the Hunley remains one of technological innovation, not claustrophobia. The author does make a stunningly ironic point when he compares the cheek-by-jowl interior of the Rebel submarine to the horrifically cramped slave ships that had once entered these same harbors carrying maltreated captives from Africa—populating the institution that eventually caused the war.
Mr. Smith concludes his survey with an account of Gen. William T. Sherman ’s March to the Sea, conquest of Savannah and savage thrust into the Carolinas. Sherman’s scorched-earth invasion stuns all the senses at once, reducing a once-defiant white ruling class to a new kind of silence: that which comes with complete subjugation. Even Charleston’s once-pealing church bells had been melted down for cannon. The “terrible roar” of fire had replaced “songs” of celebration. Sherman’s troops were so vast in number, and so filthy, that villagers in their path could allegedly smell them from miles away.
Even for jaded Civil War readers who think they have explored the war from every conceivable angle, this is fresh material compellingly explored. Mr. Smith’s only fault is an occasional lapse into purple prose (he begins his account of the Sumter attack by describing the “gray streaks of morning [that] struggled to subdue the waning night”). Perhaps such excesses are inevitable in a book designed, after all, to make us dizzy from sensory overload. Sensory history has its limits—it inevitably elevates first-person experience at the expense of political and military history. But Mr. Smith is onto something original and important, and his relentless intensity, rigorous attention to detail and dazzling vocabulary make for a beguiling, if occasionally numbing, read.
If one finishes the narrative desperate for an antidote of Tylenol, Pepcid and air freshener—and perhaps the blissful diversion of a televised golf match with the sound turned off—then the author has done his job. Mr. Smith’s book is a genuine assault on the senses—as indeed was the deafening, unsightly, malodorous, repulsive Civil War that may have upended a people’s long-cherished traditions regarding sight, sound, taste and smell but in the process remade America.
—Mr. Holzer is the author, most recently, of “Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion.”
(Book Review Courtesy: Wall Street Journal)