Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New and Noteworthy---Eyes, Ears, Nose, Mouth, Skin During the Civil War: A Michigan War Studies Book Review

The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, Mark M. Smith, Oxford Univ. Press, 2014. pp. 197, 19 b/w photographs and maps, bibliographic notes, index, $26.95.

Review by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University for Michigan War Studies  Review. Volume 2014. [Below are the first two paragraphs of Lateiner's review; at the bottom is the link to the entire review.]

The first historian to mention smells, in battle and beyond, was the first historian of war and polities—Herodotus. He notes the intoxicating hashish of the Massagetai , the sweet smell of perfumed Arabia, a smellscape, an "Ethiopian" spring of water redolent of violets, and the most foul smelling thing—the beard of he-goats from which the Arabs concoct a perfume. In a military context, he writes that, when Croesus’s Lydian cavalry attacked Cyrus’s Persian forces before Sardis, Cyrus, on the advice of a Mede Harpagos, had set his baggage camels in front of them as a stratagem, because horses are frightened by camels’ odor and appearance . Thucydides has less to say about sensory impressions, but does mention the unendurable stench of the quarries where Athenian POWS were penned by their Syracusan captors . Prisoner of war camps were no better in the American Civil war, as photographs of maltreated and emaciated Union prisoners at Andersonville prove. But The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege is the first work to examine sensory perceptions in war in a sustained fashion .

Historian Mark Smith (Univ. of South Carolina) aims to provide "a sensory history" of the US Civil War; he explores not only the war’s smells (gunpowder, decomposing corpses, etc.) and tastes of (e.g., the cooked mules and rats in besieged Vicksburg, spoiled army rations), but also its horrific sights (wrecked homes and towns and broken bodies), sounds (booming cannons), and tactile sensations (e.g., the unwashed, lice-ridden bodies of the men turning the crankshaft in the cramped spaces of the CSS Hunley). Mid-nineteenth-century Americans had passed noise regulations, started to develop urban sewer systems, segregated certain offensive industries, and rushed to be photographed, eternalizing the sight. But how we in the era of jets and jackhammers and processed foods perceive loudness or freshness and taste differs from the nineteenth century’s experience of sensory data. Can one even aspire to write a history of the senses? Smith has explored this conundrum before, and the "sensory turn" has become a trendy methodology.

Lateiner's Review Continues at Michigan War Studies Volume 2014-127.

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