Bookworm: New book moves Civil War story in a different direction

A bumper crop of trivia books and books filled with little-known facts

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“An Environmental History of the Civil War”

  • By Judkin Browning & Timothy Silver
  • c. 2020, The University of North Carolina Press
  • $30, higher in Canada; 260 pages

Save the Earth! You'd agree to that. Who doesn't want to enjoy a bright, airy afternoon with cotton-ball clouds? Of course, you'd happily leave your grandchildren those shirt-sleeve kinds of days, thunderstorm evenings, clean air and water. That's what you'd choose if you could – though, as you'll see in "An Environmental History of the Civil War" by Judkin Browning & Timothy Silver, things weren't always so sunny.

“An Environmental History of the Civil War” by Judkin Browning & Timothy Silver.

In all the battles that occurred in the Civil War, just one campaign – the Mud March of January 1863 – was named after the weather in which it happened. It was the result of not having accurate weather information, leading to poor planning. And it was not the only time that unforeseen forces affected the war.

The war, say Browning and Silver, had barely begun when measles outbreaks hit the newly-formed ranks especially hard. The average soldiers were boys from rural areas and "rural folk ... lacked the immunity that some city folk enjoyed," so thousands fell ill. Bacterial infections followed, as did insect-carried and water-borne diseases; syphilis and gonorrhea spread, too, their effects lingering well past wars' end.

Hunger was a near-constant issue that affected soldiers' stamina; on or off the battlefield, they were not always well-fed. At least one general ordered his troops "not to confiscate private property," but hunger was stronger than a need to obey and food stores were regularly raided, leaving civilians to starve. Troops dealt with floods or drought but, unaccustomed to local weather or ill-prepared by suppliers, soldiers suffered from heat stroke or severe dehydration exacerbated by dysentery from drinking water contaminated by debris, human and animal waste, or by corpses dumped in water sources or inadequate graves.

These are but a few issues of environment that happened to soldiers, but the authors also write about the effects on the environment from soldiers: fields left stripped and barren, cattle populations that took decades to recover, entire forests destroyed, alterations to the land, and countless graves and trenches dug for those who never went home ...

Chances are, if you're a student of Civil War history, you own shelves and shelves filled with battle dates and biographies. "An Environmental History of the Civil War" moves the story in a totally different direction.

Here, authors Browning and Silver take a no-holds-barred approach that goes deep into parts of the war that affected men on an individual basis, with a focus that's less on Generals and more on general troops, and a narrative that extends to both Black and white. Overall, that information is factual as well as matter-of-fact, but it can be horrifyingly gruesome, too, with vivid descriptions of wounds and dispassionate images of violent death.

This, in other words, probably isn't a book you'd want to take to dinner.

That aside, Civil War buffs and anyone who's curious about day-to-day details of history won't be able to resist this thorough, non-sensational, very fascinating book. "An Environmental History of the Civil War" shows that it was a war between the North and the South, and the Earth, too.

“A Walk Around the Corner”

  • By Spike Carlsen
  • c.2 020, HarperOne
  • $24, $31 Canada; 328 pages

“The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design”

  • By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt
  • c. 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • $30, $43 Canada; 400 pages

“Plasticus Maritimus: An Invasive Species”

  • By Ana Pȇgo, Bernardo P. Carvalho, and Isabel Minhós Martins
  • c. 2020, Greystone
  • $19.95, $34.95 Canada; 170 pages

“Cursed Objects”

  • By J.W. Ocker
  • c. 2020, Quirk Books
  • $19.99, $25.99 Canada; 272 pages

Well, whaddaya know? Whatever it is, you can't wait to tell somebody because what's the fun in having something juicy on your mind and not sharing it? It's on the tip of your tongue, tickling your brain, ready to be told. Whaddaya know? Plenty, when you have this season's best trivia books.

"A Walk Around the Corner" by Spike Carlsen.

Since you probably can't go far this winter, two of this years' fun-fact books are must-haves.

First, "A Walk Around the Block" by Spike Carlsen will make you look at the little things that surround you on your evening stroll tonight. From pigeons to lawns to telephone polls to your street and your own two feet, this book offers hidden-in-plain-sight surprises behind things in your neighborhood that you've seen dozens and dozens of times but probably never really noticed before. This book is going to make you observe your world differently, which will lessen your stuck-at-home boredom.

“The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design” by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

And while you're on the subject, look for "The 99% Invisible City" by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt, which takes things deeper. Here, Mars and Kohlstedt take a look at why cities are designed as they are, in subject matters as widely diverse as drinking fountains and how they came to be, who invented the lines in the middle of roads, why we keep trying to perfect the lock, and why some large cities have "zero markers."

The Carlsen book will make you start paying attention; the Mars-Kohlstedt book will make you know more about what you're looking at.

“Plasticus Maritimus: An Invasive Species” by Ana Pȇgo, Bernardo P. Carvalho, and Isabel Minhós Martins.

On a side-subject, "Plasticus Maritimus" by Ana Pȇgo, Bernardo P. Carvalho, and Isabel Minhós Martins is a different kind of place-book, set in the ocean. Here, you'll learn about the solid pollutants that float in our waters – biologist Pȇgo has named it Plasticus maritmus" – where it came from, how it affects the environment, how long each kind of pollutant will take to degrade (if it even can degrade), and what can be done about it at a personal level. This is a lively, informative, but also rather scary book that you can absolutely share with your 12-year-old, as well as with a like-minded friend or parent.

“Cursed Objects” by J.W. Ocker

Speaking of scary, fans of the little-known must check out "Cursed Objects" by J.W. Ocker. It's for the trivia lover who craves creepy-cool stories, like the one about the curse of Tutankhamen, reasons why you shouldn't do anything knuckleheaded in a graveyard, creepy doll tales, why you shouldn't plop your behind in just any old chair, and why you should never wear old jewelry if you don't know its backstory. There's also a chapter on surprising things that aren't cursed, and why. This is more than just ghost stories, more interesting than hair-raising.

The time between now and the holidays always brings on a bumper crop of trivia books and books filled with little-known facts, and the best part is that they're very much browse-able, meant for opening and closing with ease, and picking and choosing your topics on the fly. So whaddaya know?

You know you need these books.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.