Human nature and the Civil War: justification, comprehension, and reconciliation through environmental rhetoric

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Tamara Luikart (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Karen Kilcup

Abstract: The American Civil War confused the nation in unprecedented ways and challenged established Americans’ identities more than any previous conflict. While some combatants’ previous military experience made them familiar with warfare, no one was prepared for the physical and emotional destruction that the war would wreak in their own front yards, pitting brothers against one another in horrifically violent combat. I argue that during this period of extreme upheaval, individuals deployed their natural landscape to provide a justification for their lives, to comprehend the turmoil, and to pray for national reconciliation. This study identifies three chronological, though overlapping, phases that demonstrate how the human relationship with nature becomes paramount during periods of physical and emotional instability such as war. Essays, letters, novels, memoirs, and poems from the mid-to-late nineteenth century demonstrate that Americans before, during, and after the war relied upon their physical landscapes to make sense of their lives. I investigate publications from well-known Northern white men, such as Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Herman Melville, as well as works by less-familiar Southern white men, such as Sidney Lanier and Samuel Watkins. I also consider women writers, including Confederate author Eliza Frances Andrews, African American autobiographers Susie King Taylor and Elizabeth Keckley, Union teen Matilda Pierce, and conflicted Southern poet Sarah Piatt. Including authors who have racially and regionally diverse affiliations enriches the breadth of this project which, though by no means exhaustive, attempts to encompass multiple perspectives. The Civil War provides a unique period in American history that best demonstrates how people on all sides of the conflict experienced complete upheaval yet used their physical environment to ground themselves. Military conflict presents specific challenges in that warfare changes the terrain on which it is fought, thus making human understanding of the landscape shifting and problematic. My project first establishes how human associations with the landscape often defy definition because the environment is constantly changing and situationally dependent. Thus, while authors attempt to capture the relationship’s foundation, they ultimately succeed only in establishing that the human/nature construct is fraught. I call this phase justification, because it demonstrates the multiple ways that humans can justify behavior by “naturalizing” it. Once the war begins to damage the natural environment, humans shift to the second phase, which I term comprehension. Here, they understand battlefield violence through the damage they see. Often, visible (and sometimes tangible) destruction to their landscape is the only way that humans can comprehend warfare. Lastly, Americans enter the reconciliation phase, where they look to natural death/growth cycles to engender a natural renewal that may lead to national unification. Throughout these phases, humans’ dependence on their natural landscape remains constant. Their view of the landscape and the reasons they depend on it may change, but my study suggests that connection to the natural world informs human identity through all situations. Once we acknowledge the significance of the human/nature connection, we can accept responsibility for the human element of that relationship. Ultimately, this study contributes to scholarship that investigates human participation in the local ecology and expands discussions of human responsibility to nature. Additionally, I conduct valuable recovery work, investigating previously unstudied texts for their ecocritical and cultural implications.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2018
Civil War, Environment, Environmental rhetoric, Nature
United States $x History $y Civil War, 1861-1865 $x Literature and the war
United States $x History $y Civil War, 1861-1865 $x Environmental aspects
Human beings $x Effect of environment on
Human ecology

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