The Forgotten Casualty
Considering the Civil War and the Environment at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
Michael Aubrecht, Marstel-Day LLC
In the 150 years since the end of the American Civil War there have been countless studies conducted by historians on the military, political, social, and psychological effects of the conflict on the region. One topic that rarely receives consideration is the environmental scarring inflicted on the land during the war. While the repercussions of battle on the ecological system are obvious and apparent, the vast majority of environmental damage was caused by the occupying armies who spread over the landscape like a swarm of locusts, devouring crops, killing wildlife, and leveling timber. The natural resources required to feed and shelter an army, coupled with the deplorable sanitation and disease that accompanied them, wreaked havoc on both the landscape and its inhabitants. In most cases, healing nature from these man-made disasters took longer than curing the physical and emotional wounds they inflicted on one another. Eventually the landscape recovered. Today it remains as the war’s only survivor.
While visiting one of the nations’ picturesque battlefields or military parks, it becomes easy to understand why this facet of Civil War history is overlooked. Modern battlefields are magnificent sites of natural beauty. In the effort to maintain these sites, park custodians have inadvertently created an illusion of peace and tranquility. Visitors may fail to recall the scenes of horrific bloodshed that took place on the very ground where they stand. Therefore, in order to truly appreciate these sacred landscapes in the proper context one must also consider the extensive post-war rehabilitation and subsequent conservation of these hallowed grounds. This can only be accomplished by first, comprehending what the environment endured during the Civil War and second, understanding how the recovery of these resilient lands has resulted in preserving not only a historical record, but also a protected natural resource that will prosper and endure for generations.
The Central Virginia region is a perfect candidate for this kind of assessment. This is due to its unique geographic circumstance. Not surprisingly the 100-mile area between the capital of the Union in Washington DC and the capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, experienced a substantial portion of fighting and occupation during the four-year Eastern Campaign. The City of Fredericksburg and the adjacent Spotsylvania and Stafford counties sit nearly at the center-point, 50 miles in distance from each city, where they bore the brunt of fierce environmental damage from both transient armies.
Often referred to as the “Crossroads of the Civil War,” Spotsylvania County witnessed some of the most intense and horrific fighting during the course of the war. The nearby City of Fredericksburg and neighboring counties of Stafford, Orange and Caroline also hosted a myriad of historically significant events during the conflict that separated the nation. Four major engagements took place in this region, including the Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House and The Wilderness. Similarly, from 1861 to 1865, hundreds of thousands of troops from both sides of the conflict marched through, fought at, and encamped in the woods and fields of Spotsylvania and the surrounding area.
Over 144,000 Union Troops occupied Stafford County during the Civil War and both the Confederate’s Army of Northern Virginia and Federal’s Army of the Potomac traded occupation of the City of Fredericksburg multiple times. Today, the hallowed grounds that make up the cherished Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park are the second largest of their kind in the country. Dozens of monuments and over 70 VA Roadside Markers dot the landscape, and more than 500,000 tourists visit the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania region each year. These numbers have grown exponentially during the recent four year celebration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial (2011-2014).
Even with a casual glance at the statistics, it is understandable why the National Park Service christened this region as “the Bloodiest Landscape in North America.” Over a four-year period more than eighty-five thousand men were wounded and over fifteen thousand were killed. This does not take into account the untold herds of military horses and teamster-driven livestock that were also lost. The traumatic impact on the area’s citizens, as well as the economic damage to the infrastructure was almost insurmountable. Although collateral damage was spread throughout the entire country, this particular area experienced an exceptional level of death and destruction from the Civil War. Local historian Jan Conner has proposed that it took over 40 years for Stafford’s natural habitats to begin to resemble their pre-war appearance.
It has been estimated that well over 600,000 men died while serving in the military during the Civil War. Surprisingly, two-thirds of recorded deaths were due to rampant disease and dysentery. Therefore, the majority of the soldiers who did not come home from the battlefield were actually sick, not shot, when they passed away. Army camps were literally breeding grounds for all kinds of disease, and both young and old men died by the thousands from measles, smallpox, pneumonia and malaria. Poor hygiene, the lack of adequate sanitation facilities, infected drinking water and the proximity of animals helped to rapidly spread germs. Exposure to the elements also made simple illnesses deadly. At the time of the Civil War, even a severe case of diarrhea and dehydration could be fatal.
Although a soldier in the field would come under the threat of fire infrequently, he would be in mortal peril every day from the invisible enemies that sprung from the filth of army camps. As thousands of soldiers gathered together in tent cities, many of them were exposed to different communicable diseases for the first time. Hundreds of country recruits immediately fell prey to these viruses. Their city-dwelling compatriots, however, were more likely to be immune to these diseases. Measles was considered one of the worst diagnoses, and this illness quickly made its mark on the Confederate army. One officer, Surgeon L.J. Wilson of the 42nd Mississippi, recalled a major epidemic that broke out in his camp in 1861. He stated that the rampant disease was “something that astonished everyone, even the surgeons.” Within three months, 204 men from three different regiments died. Dr. Wilson was left with over 100 more patients who were crammed into an old tobacco warehouse. Within several weeks, a new regiment could lose half its numbers to the germ.
In retrospect, the effects of the environment on man paled in comparison to the effects of man on the environment. In an essay written for the University of Virginia by J. Harrison Powell the author proposes that “Spotsylvania County in Virginia, a region whose involvement in the war, according to one economic study, ‘was as intense, if not more so, than Germany’s involvement in World War II.’” This statement is not at all dramatic and can be supported by simply comparing photographs of both Fredericksburg and Berlin following their respective bombardments. He also notes that the continuous depletion of the region’s woodlands resulted in a “wide-scale environmental holocaust.”
In addition to hosting millions of intrusive troops over the course of the war, each of the area’s four engagements experienced unique environmental-repercussions. The Battle of Fredericksburg (1862) took place in a city and on a river which both bore the brunt of the battle. The downtown area of Fredericksburg was ransacked and left in ruins and the adjacent Rappahannock River endured pollutants from both man and military implements of destruction. Although a year apart, the battles of Chancellorsville (1863) and The Wilderness (1864) took place in the same dense, wooded area. Both engagements witnessed the unthinkable horrors of men being burned alive in brush fires caused by artillery strikes. The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (1864) took place in more open-country but raged on for weeks in the mud and rain while permanently distorting the lay of the land beneath it.
In order to analyze the environmental impact of the Civil War on the Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford area one must look at it from the two perspectives which are apparent in any war zone. The first is the residual effects on the environment from the transitory and/or occupying armies. Captain David Thomas, 27th Connecticut Regiment U.S.A. recorded that, “The boys here have been ’stumping’ Virginia pretty well…The fact is the woods have all been cut down, and fuel is very scarce. We now are gathering what we call the second crop, that is, we cut off the stumps even with the ground…If the former residents ever return to this portion of Virginia, they won’t find a piece of timber large enough to make a respectable souvenir.”
An article in a February 22, 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly echoed this sentiment when it reported that, “The large amount of fuel required by the army has caused the woods to disappear with magical rapidity. This, and the destruction of the fences, the demolition of houses, and construction of new military roads, will render it rather difficult for the absconding secessionists to recognize their ancient boundaries, if they ever return.”
The second perspective to consider is the residual effects on the environment from the proliferation of warfare. James Bumgardner of the 52nd Virginia Infantry wrote of his own participation in the fight, “A space of perhaps forty yards in width in front of the works was cleared of brush. At my suggestion, trees along the edge of the clearing were blazed, to guide the men in the elevation of their guns, and the men were instructed to aim below the blazed marks.” A Confederate Surgeon of the 13th South Carolina Regiment later recalled the after effects of such actions: “The part of Virginia through which we have fought or marched has been totally devastated. It is now nothing but one vast track of desolation, without a fence or a planted field of any kind.”
In addition to the aesthetic damage inflicted on the region, there was also a major economic wounding that took place. According to historian Cynthia Musselman, “The economic loss to the Spotsylvania County… and the City of Fredericksburg area was huge as a result of the Civil War and undoubtedly had a far-reaching and traumatic effect on the area.” According to her study, the net worth per head of household in this region decreased by 72.9% between 1860 and 1870. Personal property value in the area also saw a tremendous drop-84.9% between 1860 and 1870. This could be attributed to the loss of crops, livestock and any other numbers of natural resources which were highly depended on by local citizens prior to the war. During the summer of 1862 as many as ten thousand slaves escaped their bondage in the Spotsylvania region and made their way to freedom. Over the course of the war thousands more joined them. The area’s heavy dependence on manual labor, including the abysmal practice of slave labor to work and maintain the land, meant that economic and to some extent ecological recovery were impacted.
As presented by eyewitness accounts, environmental damage and deforestation during the Civil War due to encampments and combat was a very real crisis, having severe consequences both during and after the conflict. Over 20 years passed before the trees grew back to the point where they could be used to replace destroyed fence rails and a destroyed lumber industry. More decades would pass before the balance of agriculture and wildlife could be returned. With a limited number of revenue-generating resources, coupled with the post-war trauma and physical devastation, the area’s citizens dwindled. Many left never to return. This further inhibited the region from fully recovering during the Reconstruction Era.
Despite these dire circumstances, the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania region did manage to persevere. Within 15 years following the war, crop production returned closer to its former output levels. By then, returning or newly arriving citizens had rebuilt much of the area’s industry and infrastructure. Railroad, shipping and manufacturing efforts also expanded and the environment continued to heal along with its inhabitants. One may conclude that this post-war “rebirth” is the true legacy of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Stafford. Perhaps their heritage is not found in the historical events of which they witnessed, but more importantly, in their ability to rise from the ashes and reestablish themselves as vital communities.
In 1927, portions of the area’s battlefields were established as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park. Today the property includes over 8,000 acres and hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. Despite periodic encroachment issues plaguing the city the park’s boundaries remain untouched and encompass four major Civil War battlefields. Each of these sites feature a variety of tour stops that offer visitors more than just accounts of military-action. In many cases they also present a diverse landscape for local wildlife observation. Thanks to the efforts of the local National Park Service, a number of walking trails have been established. During a typical day, hikers are likely to see a variety of indigenous animals and birds living among the fields and forests. In some cases these protected areas offer the only unobstructed habitat available for certain species.
According to the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania NPS website, “Many different vegetative types provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife in the park. Open land wildlife includes rabbits, groundhogs, quail, mourning dove, hawks, owls, field sparrows and several other bird species normally found in cropland, pasture, and meadows. Woodland wildlife includes white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, woodpeckers and warblers. Wetland wildlife includes beaver, mink, muskrat, ducks, geese, and other water birds that live along streams, in ponds, marshes, and swamps. There is also a wide variety of reptiles and amphibians.”
Additional benefits of these protected landscapes can be found in their inherent contributions to the broader ecological-system. Battlefields often have unimpeded tree and plant growth which establish strong root systems and prevent soil erosion. Battlefield woodlands also deliver clean air and serve as a riparian habitat providing food, nesting spots, canopy cover, and migration corridors. They also act as climate buffers which retain precious water sources, moderate local climates, and maintain biodiversity.
If not for the dedication of national organizations and local preservationist groups, these lands and many of the unique plants and wildlife that populate them would be but a distant memory.
The Civil War Trust has been exceptionally successful in preserving these vital local landscapes. To date, the CWT has saved 222 acres at Fredericksburg, 211 acres at The Wilderness, 316 acres at Chancellorsville, and is currently targeting 208 acres at the Slaughter Pen Farm.
There is an irony to Civil War battlefield conservancy. If not for the blunt carnage of war, these picturesque landscapes would have been paved over long ago. Therefore, it was the destruction of the land that ultimately led to its preservation. Just as the nation was reborn, so too was its bloody soil that now springs forth life, year after year.
As the public’s interest in conservation continues to expand, so do opportunities for incorporating the environment’s perspective into our historical analysis. National Battlefields present a perfect venue for presenting the legacy of the land. In addition to the staggering cost of human life, the massive destruction of natural resources must also be considered when examining the ill-effects of the Civil War. The literal landscape, as in any war, played an active role in the execution of military strategy and tactics. It also fell victim to the fight and much like the soldiers, suffered irreparable scarring. It is not only understandable, but imperative that the toll levied upon it be appreciated.
Just as the conservation of natural resources is vital for future generations, so is the preservation and presentation of its environmental history. America’s narrative on the Civil War stretches far beyond free and slave states and it is the responsibility of its citizens to ensure that the pages required to tell its story remain intact. This includes the experiences of the environment that not only hosted the carnage, but also bled along with it. By appreciating and nurturing these landscapes we not only secure the historical footprints of our forefathers, we also preserve the very grass they tread upon.
Aubrecht, Michael, The Civil War in Spotsylvania County: Campfires at the Crossroads (The History Press, 2010).
Bumgardner, James, 52nd Virginia Infantry, article in an unnamed paper, Bound Volume 405, FSNMP.
Conner, Jan, Lincoln in Stafford (Parker Publishing LLC, 2006).
Kirby, Jack T., “The American Civil War: An Environmental View,” National Humanities Center, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntuseland/essays/amcwar.htm.
Musselman, Cynthia, “The Economic Impact of the Civil War on the City of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania County, and Stafford County” (unpublished study, 1987), FSNMP, BV 25.
National Park Service, “Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields,” http://www.nps.gov/frsp/index.htm.
Powell, J. Harrison, “Seven Year Locusts”: The Deforestation of Spotsylvania County during the American Civil War” (Essays in History, University of Virginia, 2011).
AUTHOR BIO: Michael Aubrecht is a local historian, battlefield preservationist, and editor for Marstel-Day. In addition to writing multiple books on the Civil War in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County, Michael also produced the documentary “The Angel of Marye’s Heights” and is the personal copywriter for renowned Civil War painter Mort Kunstler. He has been an active battlefield guide and media advocate of the Civil War Trust since 2008.
Promoting Preservation through Conservation
“Our company’s way of connecting to its conservation mission is in a fundamental, down-to earth kind of way.” – Rebecca R. Rubin
With a main office located within a 120 year-old building in historic downtown Fredericksburg, Marstel-Day LLC is an environmental consultation firm specializing in variety of services including land conservation and restoration, climate adaptation and water resources, smart growth and sustainability and program management and analysis. Possessing a degree in history from Harvard University, Marstel-Day’s President, Rebecca R. Rubin fully recognizes the value of preserving the nation’s natural resources. Her company operates on the philosophy that the world is at a crossroads, one in which choices must be made that will ensure the sustainability of an increasingly fragile natural resource base. The firm’s diverse staff of thinkers, planners and strategists skillfully combine strong analytical techniques with stakeholder outreach and engagement, to devise solutions to seemingly intractable issues for clients at the federal, state and local levels and in the private sector. In addition to operating within green standards, Marstel-Day employees also participate in local, Earth Day conservation activities which have included the roadside clean-up of Lee Drive on the Fredericksburg National Battlefield. For more information, visit www.marstel-day.com.