A Sensory History Of The Civil War

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Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Larry Meiller visits with the author of a book that looks at the US Civil War through the five senses, and what people of the time experienced.

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  • Historian: Living Through Civil War Meant An Assault On The Senses

    The U.S. Civil War is one of the most-researched and written-about periods in the nation’s history. But, it’s the rare book that really takes readers into the very personal experiences of the people of that time, whether generals or civilians, soldiers or slaves.

    Even more unusual or unlikely, is being able to recreate the sensory experience of people living at the time. Mark Smith’s book, “The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War,” doesn’t come with audio clips or fabric samples, nor is it a “scratch and sniff” book. But in it, Smith attempts to convey not only what surrounded people of that era, but also how their perception was different from that of today.

    Smith, the Carolina distinguished professor of history at the University of South Carolina, has written other books that approach history from a sensory perspective.

    “The difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘experiencing’ is probably the central historical question,” Smith said.

    Smith said that there are certainly aspects of Civil War events that can be recreated, like logistical details, props and troop maneuvers, but those re-enactments aren’t able to convey what is sometimes at the heart of those happenings. Look at the horrific Battle of Gettysburg, for example, said Smith.

    “For me, that battle was about the stench of death,” he said.

    Smith added that smell is in some ways the most visceral of the senses, saying that “smell is insistent. You have no ‘nose lids.’ And you have to breathe. Just to be there, in that sea of bodies, you have to inhale.”

    Smith said that even if certain elements can be recreated in a sensory way, the sense of a Civil War-era person would have been much different from the way that a 21st century human’s senses work.

    “It’s my contention that a good deal of the sensory experience of people in, say, 1863, cannot be exported in an experiential fashion to us living now. We live in a very deodorized age, in a refrigerated age. We live in a world in which there are new smells, and new protocols that define what is defined as stench, or a good smell,” Smith said.

    How the senses interpret an event can also differ between different people who are contemporaries. One example of that is the siege of Vicksburg, Miss., which Smith uses to illustrate the sense of taste.

    “At some level, a siege by definition is about taste because it’s about reducing a population, civilian and military, to a level of starvation,” Smith said.

    Prior to the Civil War, Smith said, Vicksburg was a trading hub and so was “inundated with foods from around the country.” As a result, the tastes of the slaveholding elite in particular ran to luxury and access to fresh and plentiful food — “a gustatory paradise.”

    One only needs to look at the phrase “to have good taste” to understand that the sense of taste, then and now, is more than a simple way of experiencing the world. It’s also a statement of refinement, standing and social class.

    The nearly two-month siege of Vicksburg in the middle of the Civil War, however, had a leveling effect on the population and their plates.

    “It was a radical denigration of the palate, so that people who were used to fine wines and fresh food in abundance suddenly found themselves reduced to a different kind of diet,” Smith said.

    According to Smith, it’s hard to imagine the speed and severity of the changes in diet, especially for those so recently at the top of the social and economic order.

    “We have very powerful former or current slaveholders paying $1 for a rat. We have children eating their pet birds. We have dogs going ‘missing.’ We have horses becoming scarce. And this is sort of a moment of de-civilization because it attacks both the palate, but also the sense of aesthetic, and also the sense of social standing,” Smith said.

    Everyone in Vicksburg was affected, Smith said. But ironically, slaves and others at the bottom of the social scale were more adept at making ends meet in challenging circumstances, so had better survival skills. They also had access to networks through which they could obtain goods, which the wealthy residents didn’t.

    Even if the sensory experiences of smelling the battlefield at Gettysburg or tasting the barely edible materials that passed for food in Vicksburg can’t be recreated for a modern audience, Smith said he thinks that it’s still important to try, whether as a historian and author or as a Civil War re-enactor.

    “I think what we’re trying to convey is that essential experience of war for lots of people. Not just the average soldier, but civilians, too, as well as for officers,” Smith said.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Mark Smith Guest

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