In rhetoric and substance, wars are generally fought for ideals that are noble, dignified, and lofty. Leaders justify waging war—and endeavor to inspire those who fight them—by appealing to powerful abstractions: liberty, self-determination, and national identity. In turn, these ideals become sepia-toned memories veining the national consciousness of future generations.
This was certainly true of the American Civil War. At various times, noble ideals were used to frame the war, ideals that soldiers and heads of state alike could embrace. Depending on whether one fought for the Union or Confederacy, this war was about advancing the liberty of 4 million enslaved people; preserving the freedom of Southern white people; promoting the sovereignty of a new Confederate nation; or securing the authority and integrity of an older American one. People on both sides believed their cause righteous and virtuous. To realize these ideals, sacrifice was necessary and essential.
The idea of sacrifice in war is common in American history. The tariffs of war can be excruciatingly high, from death to horrible dismemberment. This was certainly the case with the Civil War. But there was something new about this war in what it asked Americans—not just soldiers but also civilians—to sacrifice. That sacrifice had everything to do with the senses of smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight. Up until that point, no war in American history had taxed the senses of soldiers and civilians so powerfully, so insistently, or on such a scale.
At the time it was fought, Americans had been lulled into a comfortable sense of mastery over their environment, and believed they exercised some degree of control over their senses. The mid-19th century was a time when many Americans were beginning to try to control noise through ordinances and architecture. They were also implementing rudimentary sewage systems and deodorizing their own bodies in an effort to control smell. The sheer scale of this war called this sense of control into question and demanded new sacrifices. Wars had been fought on American soil before. The Revolutionary War, with its roughly 25,000 combat deaths (11 deaths per day), produced its own sounds and sensory signatures. But the Civil War was new in terms of scale of engagement and in using new, efficient technologies of death, such as the repeating rifle. Almost 3 million soldiers fought in the war, and the death toll was staggering: about 750,000 in all (over 400 deaths per day). It raged over a good deal of the vast continent and at sea, dragging in civilians, including families and children.
The Civil War was, up until that point, the loudest moment in American history. Civilians and soldiers alike who heard the opening salvos at Fort Sumter, South Carolina in 1861 were stunned by the extent of the noise. As one anxious reporter put it: “Then the batteries opened on all sides, and shot and shell went screaming over Sumter as if an army of devils were swooping around it.”
From the very beginning, this war was hellish. The war’s technology also meant the introduction of gruesome registers, qualities of sound people were wholly unaccustomed to hearing before. Cannons literally roared, artillery shells boomed, rifles and muskets whistled grimly. And then there was the chilling sound of injured men screaming and dying men gurgling their way to death.
If the ears were assaulted in this war, so too were the eyes. The sight of tens of thousands of men marching to battle was eye-opening; seeing the results of those battles was painful, even numbing. Bodies were disfigured, limbs were lost, and there was so much blood at times that soil turned red. Even for a time when it was common to see grisly sights such as slavery and whipping, no one could get used to these images.
War tested the limits of taste. Food riots in the Confederacy were not uncommon, and people used to bountiful pantries found themselves eating things hereto unimaginable. During the almost 50-day Union siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, white Southerners, who subscribed to the idea that what they ate said a lot about their aesthetic taste and standing, ate food typically consumed by slaves—and worse. By siege’s end, some happily paid to eat rat and dog. Protocols of touch were also affected: elite whites used to standing proud now burrowed, crablike and stooped, in caves dug into the hillsides around the city. White men crammed themselves into submarines to fight in quarters so close, confining, and contorting, that they in some ways resembled the spaces endured by slaves in the unspeakable misery of the Middle Passage.
And yet nestled in these experiences of the war was a noble quality that had less to do with the abstractions of liberty and freedom than with a willingness to endure a gritty and almost unbearable sensory assault. Witness the experience of Cornelia Hancock, a young Union nurse, following the slaughter at Gettysburg in July 1863. Bodies, thousands of them, lay so thick on the field that nurses like Hancock had to tiptoe through the carnage. As if this wasn’t enough, the days following the end of the battle took a truly stunning toll not just on the eyes but also on defenseless noses. To simply breathe, everyone in and around Gettysburg had to inhale the growing stench of thousands of unburied dead bodies. Hancock wrote in a letter:
A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead upon which the July sun was mercilessly shining and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife …
Hancock could have left. Indeed, in the absence of nose lids, the only way she could have escaped the stench of death—and the disease people at the time associated with it—was by removing herself from the scene. But she didn’t leave. Neither did dozens of other nurses and doctors. They stayed not only because they were motivated by the noble ideals of this war, but also because they had personal missions to save those who could be saved, to help those who could be helped, and to close gently the eyelids of those whose death was imminent. And to do so, at every turn, they had to inhale the rank stench of decay and death.
In some ways, the sensory experience of the Civil War helped Americans internalize Sherman’s claim that war is, indeed, hell. It was, perhaps, from that common sensory experience of this hellish war and the nature of the sensory sacrifices it demanded that Americans—white ones at least—were able to find common ground and effect a sentimental reunion of sorts after the war came to a close.
The Civil War overwhelmed the senses and exposed the idea of sensory mastery as a flimsy conceit. But in that sensory revolution were a thousand stories of sensory endurance and sensory sacrifice in which all Americans shared, regardless of their side, during this most righteous and stinking war.
Mark M. Smith is Carolina distinguished professor of history at the University of South Carolina and author of The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War. He wrote this for for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.
*Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.