Landmarks of American Nature Writing

15. The Civil War

Jay Hubbell gives some sense of the way the Civil War changed perceptions of nature in the South when he tells of a farmer he knew who insisted that the sap in the sugar maple would never be as sweet as it was before the war. Like Hubbell's farmer, the writers below all discuss the landscape of western Virginia as an active participant in the War Between the States.


Walt Whitman. Specimen Days and Collect. Philadelphia: Rees Welsh and Co., 1882-83. Signed by the author. McGregor Library. Shown: "Virginia."

A native of New York, Walt Whitman traveled to Virginia in December 1862, seeking his brother George, who had been wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Finding him, Whitman remained in Washington, D.C., for the rest of the war, caring for wounded soldiers. This entry on "Virginia" was written in February 1864, during Whitman's visit to the battlefront, near Culpeper, and first published in 1875 in his Memoranda During the War.

Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass. 4th ed. New York: Printed by W. E. Chapin, 1867. With this are bound Whitman's Drum-Taps (1865); Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-66); and Songs Before Parting (n.d.). Presentation inscription from the author to J. B. Marvin. Shown: "As toilsome I wander'd Virginia's woods," from Drum-Taps.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman's magnum opus, was published in nine editions between 1855 and 1892. This fourth edition was the first to incorporate the Civil War poems of Drum-Taps, although they appear only as an annex and were not integrated into the structure of Leaves until the fifth edition (1871-72). Drum-Taps features Whitman's poetic account of his experience "wandering Virginia's woods" during the war, in which he contrasts "the music of rustling leaves, kick'd by my feet" to the language of love and loss.

Walt Whitman. Photograph, 29 June 1865.

This photograph of Whitman, signed by the poet, was one of many gifts--along with fruits, sweets, and writing paper--he distributed to wounded soldiers during his service as a Civil War nurse. It reads: "Walt Whitman 1865; born May 31, 1819" (recto); "Given to a Comrade as a Momento in Washington City, June 29, 1865" (verso).

Robert Hugh Martin. A Boy of Old Shenandoah. Ed. Carolyn Martin Rutherford. Parsons, W.Va.: McClain Printing Co., 1977.

Written around 1928 but unpublished until 1977, Robert Hugh Martin's memoir of his youth in Mount Jackson, Virginia, contains a vivid first-person account of Gen. Philip Sheridan's burning of the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. U. S. Grant described the objective of the Union troops in a famous 11 July 1864 letter to Maj.-Gen. Henry W. Halleck: "to eat out Virginia clear and clean as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of this season will have to carry their provender with them."

Unidentified resident of Lantz Mills, Shenandoah County, Va. Diary. Manuscript, June-July 1863. Shown: Entry for 22 July 1863.

Private diaries illuminate the subtle ways in which the war entered into the fabric of everyday life in western Virginia, mingling with such common activities as farming and courting. The author of this diary, an unidentified young man from Shenandoah County, describes in it his letter-writing, reading, farming, fishing, visiting, and encountering soldiers on the march. He employs code throughout its pages and also uses the diary as a commonplace book for recipes, poetry, and traveling directions. A sample entry is that of 22 July 1863:

Morning fair though cool. Fine breeze stirring.

Started for Stovers & on way fell in with soldier. Went by Forestville & reached Stovers at 1 PM. Helped haul in rye, until 4 PM then threshed wheat until supper, then helped Will take horses to field & then went to Dingledines & teased Katie awhile. Borrowed Literary Messenger & went to Stovers & read til 10 oclock. Lay down on sheep skin & slept well. Midday warm.

PM Very warm.

McHenry Howard. Recollections of a Maryland Confederate Soldier and Staff Officer under Johnston, Jackson and Lee. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins Co., 1914. Manuscript notes and marginal annotation of the author. Shown: Chapter X: "Valley Campaign--Battle of McDowell," with marginal illustration of the author.

Unlike many writers of Civil War memoirs, McHenry Howard comments throughout his Recollections on the mountains, valleys, rivers, and streams of the landscape, as well as the wildflowers, trees, and other botanical specimens he encounters. Riding over a battlefield near McDowell on 9 May 1862, Howard discovers "numerous white-thorn bushes" scattered over it, only to have the reality of war disrupt his expectations of nature's cycles. "I was astonished to observe, as I thought, that these thorns were in bloom thus [sic] early in the season, but on investigation found that this appearance of bloom was the white wood of the branches and twigs splintered by the enemy's bullets, many of the bushes being about the height of a man."

George M. Neese. Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery. New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1911. Shown: Chapter IV: "Shenandoah Valley Campaign."

A native of the northern Shenandoah Valley, George Neese includes in this account of his Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery a description of his visit to Weyer's Cave, "the most beautiful hole in the ground I ever was in":

Our camp being in the immediate vicinity of one of Virginia's most beautiful curiosities, Weyer's Cave, some eight or ten of our battery and some thirty or forty cavalrymen visited the caverns to-day. It certainly is the most beautiful hole in the ground I ever was in, and the environments on the outside are strikingly picturesque. Here nature was lavish in bestowing its wild charming beauties on the flower-bedecked wooded hillside, as well as its sparkling gems that glow and so profusely adorn the caverns inside, where the mystic goddess has been weaving her brightest jewels in silent gloom for thousands of years and is still at work putting delicate touches of lace-work as white as the virgin snow on every glowing ornament.

Aldace Freeman Walker. The Vermont Brigade in the Shenandoah Valley. Burlington: Vermont Free Press Association, 1869. Shown: List of members of the Vermont Brigade who "Died of Wounds Received in Action, in the Shenandoah Campaign, 1864."

After helping to defend Washington, D.C., against Gen. Jubal Early's attack in the summer of 1864, Aldace Freeman Walker's Vermont brigade crossed the Potomac at Conrad's Ferry, providing Walker with a memorable baptismal image, as he recounts in his discussion of the events of 16 July 1864:

The scene at the ford was new and exhilarating; the river is quite wide at this point and about thigh deep: the horses were loaded double or treble, and most of the footmen, not having fear of women before their eyes, carried their clothing upon their shoulders; brigades were crossing in several places for a mile up and down the river; every one greeted the unusual sensation of the slippery rocks and the gurgling water with shouts and laughter; the burdened men were here and there overthrown by the swift current, and occasionally one would slip from a staggering horse and be buried for an instant in the stream, to the intense amusement of all but the unfortunate: in such a gleeful humor we re-entered Virginia, and laid ourselves out to dry upon her sacred soil.

George T. Stevens. Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to the Close of the Rebellion, April, 1865. New York: D. Van Nostrand, Publisher, 1870. Shown: Frontispiece, "Maj.-Gen. John Sedgwick," opposite illustrated half-title.

Surgeon of the 77th regiment of New York volunteers, George Stevens also served as medical inspector of the 6th Corps, taking part in all its campaigns and battles. In Three Years in the Sixth Corps, his memoir of these years, Stevens recalls his service in the Shenandoah Valley, during which the mountains on either side of the Valley appeared to his eyes as "breastworks for opposing forces."

Lucy Rebecca Buck. Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck. N.p.: n.p., 1940.

Lucy Rebecca Buck. Sad Earth, Sweet Heaven: The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck during the War Between the States, Front Royal, Virginia, December 25, 1861-April 15, 1865. Birmingham, Ala.: Cornerstone, 1973.

One of eleven children, Lucy Rebecca Buck lived with her family in Front Royal, Virginia, throughout the Civil War, keeping a diary of the events she witnessed from 25 December 1861 to 15 April 1865. Over the course of the years, Buck found the beauty of the natural prospects before her shattered by the presence of war. The library owns both a typescript version of the diary and a printed version, published in 1973 as Sad Earth, Sweet Heaven and reissued by Buck Publishing in 1992.

Cornelia Peake McDonald. A Diary with Reminiscences of the War and Refugee Life in the Shenandoah Valley, 1860-1865. Typescript, 1934. Shown: Title page.

Cornelia Peake McDonald. A Diary with Reminiscences of the War and Refugee Life in the Shenandoah Valley, 1860-1865. Nashville: Cullom and Ghertner Co., 1935. Presentation inscription from the editor to his niece. Shown: Frontispiece, "The Sunset of the Confederacy," opposite half-title with inscription.

Cornelia Peake McDonald began her Civil War diary at the request of her husband, who, as she notes in her preface, "wished to be informed of each day's events as they took place during his absence." From March 1862 to August 1863 she faithfully kept her diary (often between the lines of printed books), but when she and her children fled their home in Winchester, Virginia, a portion of the diary from March through November 1862 was lost. Later, she reconstructed this missing section in diary form, added her recollections of the years before and after those previously recorded, and made eight identical handwritten copies of the nearly 500-page volume for her remaining children. Featured here is the typescript transcription of McDonald's diary, as well as its printed version, first published in 1935. Rich in natural description, the entries from 1862 were republished in 1992 by the University of Wisconsin Press as A Woman's Civil War: A Diary, with Reminiscences of the War from March 1862.

Jedediah Hotchkiss. Map of Augusta County, Virginia. Philadelphia: Worley and Bracher, 1870.

Stonewall Jackson's topographer, Jedediah Hotchkiss played a critical role in the success of Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign. The basis of this map is the Confederate Surveys made under the direction of Major A. H. Campbell, by Lieut. P. W. O. Koerner, and party.


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