A couple of weeks ago my family and I had the great pleasure of visiting Iberia Parish, Louisiana. I, too, for the first time, saw the "long gray Southern moss" in its natural habitat, as well as...alligators! I was able to appreciate how Unions soldiers, especially - a thousand or more miles from home - were exposed for the first time to a wide variety of plants and animals they had never seen before. I also wondered what some plants - such as the palmetto I saw on nearby Avery Island - were used for.
Fortunately, I had the answers to those questions - and more - in an exceptional book by Mr. Kelby Ouchley, Flora and Fauna of the Civil War: An Environmental Reference Guide (LSU Press, 2010).
In Flora and Fauna, he discusses the effects of the war on the environment ("as soldiers and refugees tramped across the landscape foraging and waging war," p. 1), the effect of the environment on the conduct of the war (as "barriers, disease vectors, medicines, food, shelter, and raw products..." p. 1) and highlights - in two different sections, one for flora and one for fauna - the role that dozens of species of animals and plants had in the Civil War, and - most interesting - soldier accounts of their encounters with and impressions of their environment.
Mr. Ouchley was a biologist and manager of national wildlife refuges for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for more than thirty years. He and his wife, Amy, live in the woods near Rocky Branch, Louisiana, in a cypress house surrounded by white oaks and black hickories and writes often on matters of local wildlife at his "Bayou Diversity" blog.
He was kind enough to answer some questions about himself and the book:
JIM: Please tell me a little about yourself, your education, and your career…why did you pursue wildlife/ecology as a vocation?
KELBY: I am originally from north Louisiana and grew up spending most of my free time outdoors hunting, fishing, camping and prowling about the many swamps, bayous and rivers of this region. My love of these activities naturally led me toward my vocation.
I have a B.S. degree in Wildlife Biology from what is now the Univ. of Louisiana at Monroe and a M.S. degree in Wildlife & Fisheries Science from Texas A&M.
During most of my 30+ years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service I was a biologist and manager of National Wildlife Refuges in Arkansas and Louisiana.
I have a particular interest in historical ecology and spent a good bit of my career trying to restore historical landscapes (such as reforesting vast expanses of bottomland hardwood swamps that had been unwisely cleared for agriculture).
"When they [Union soldiers] fell back to their main line our boys began dropping like corn before a hail storm, and we never did succeed in reaching the main line, for about fifty yards in front of it they had cut down a lot of thorny locust bushes and it was impossible in face of the hot fire to get through them." - Lt. Henry W. Riddick (Kelby Ouchley's ancestor), 1st Florida Infantry, writing of the Battle of Franklin (TN), Nov. 30, 1864 (p. 57 of Flora/Fauna)
JIM: You dedicated your book to your Civil War ancestors. When did you first learn about them? What do they mean to you? Seventy-Seven Years in Dixie (his great-great-grandfather's privately published memoir) must be a treasure for your family!
KELBY: I learned of my g.g. grandfather Reddick’s book, Seventy-Seven Years, when I was about 10 and given a mimeographed copy of the book by my aunt. This no doubt fired my interest in the Civil War. Many years later while doing family genealogical work, I discovered my g.g. grandfather Ouchley’s role in the war. To me this was more exciting than finding a pirate’s treasure.JIM: How long have you worked on the book and collected ecological soldier/civilian anecdotes?
KELBY: I started collecting the anecdotes about four years ago because of my interest in historical ecology and because I am enthralled by first person accounts in letters, diaries and journals. At the time I had no plans to write this book. As the collection grew and when I determined that environmental perspectives of the Civil War were rare, the book idea evolved.
JIM: Do you have a “favorite” Civil War-related animal and/or plant?
KELBY: Blackberries and bats for reasons discussed in the book would be my answer. (Blackberries - a member of the rose family(!) - of which there are hundreds of species (!!) have been used for thousands of years for food and for medicine. There are more than 1,200 species of bats; the cave-dwelling mammals produced large quantities of nitre-rich guano (aka "bat poop") which was collected and used for gunpowder production in the Confederate states.)
JIM: Having recently visited south-central Louisiana and seen some plants (palmetto, Spanish moss, bamboo) and animals (alligators!) in their natural habitat for the first time, I can appreciate how Union soldiers must have felt seeing these plants and animals for the first time. In your mind, what is special about the environment of the coastal south?
KELBY: Southern swamps define the environment of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Extremely diverse, they host a plethora of wild plants and animals that evolved with the cyclic pulses of natural annual floods. A given spot on the forested landscape could be powder dry in October and twenty feet deep in March. All life in such areas has to be adaptable.
JIM: In the book, you mention the decline of the chestnut tree due to chestnut blight and the post-war harvesting of cypress; are there other species that we do not see as much as the soldiers and civilians of the Civil War era did?
KELBY: In many areas of the Civil War arena there have been drastic losses in biodiversity. Consider the millions of acres in the South owned by industrial timber companies. Diverse upland hardwood forests have been converted to loblolly pine plantations comparatively sterile in species richness. The same thing has happened to millions of acres of historic longleaf pine forests.
JIM: You mentioned your role in habitat restoration as a "historical ecologist." Have you ever been consulted by battlefields that are trying to restore their appearance to the 1860s? Is that even a good idea?
KELBY: I have not been consulted for this type restoration. My personal opinion is that battlefields should be restored to the ecological conditions at the time of the battle to the degree possible and practical. Such restoration would greatly facilitate visitors’ accurate understanding of the event.
"These bayous and swamps abound with allgators and snakes of the most venomous description. I saw many of the latter swimming about exposed to a heavy fire of six-shooters; but the alligators were frightened away by the leading boat." - British Lt. Col. Arthur Freemantle at Lake Concordia, LA, May 14, 1863 (p. 176 of Flora/Fauna)
JIM: In terms of encounters with “spiders and snakes,” you mention the rarity of snake bites (and certainly, deaths) among the ranks in the war; however, were snake bites (and deaths) common among people in the era, esp. among pioneers, enslaved African-Americans working in fields and paddies, or among Native Americans?
KELBY: My thoughts here are based solely on anecdotal information that I have come across during research. I don’t think that poisonous snakebites have ever been common in North America. I do think that the mortality rate of those bitten was likely higher prior to the development of modern medical treatments. I also think that the fear of snakebite compared to the actual risk was just as disproportionate then as now.
"Upon reaching the hedges it was utterly impracticable to pass them except through the few openings left for convenience by the planter. In doing this the order of battle was necessarily broken...Owing to these frequent interruptions in [our] advance...the ensemble of the movement upon the enemy's position was necessarily broken." - Confederate Maj Gen. J. G. Walker, Battle of Millken's Bend (LA), June 7, 1863 (pp. 197-98 of Flora/Fauna)
JIM: I think people can easily imagine the disruption that battles, camps, and marching armies had on the environment but you also make an interesting point on the reverse: the impact of the environment on the conduct of the war…the “Osage Orange” debacle you mention in the book was very interesting and is reminiscent of the bocage in Normandy in WWII! Geology has rec’d attention in Civil War scholarship recently; do you see an opening for a closer look at Civil War terrain studies more closely tied to forest and plants?
KELBY: This seems to be an area of Civil War research that has received very little attention. Even if efforts are made, I don’t anticipate an abundance of information to come forth at the species level simply because that information does not exist (i.e. we don’t have period floristic surveys of battlefields). There is certainly room for new looks at events based on broader environmental conditions that can be inferred from a variety of sources.
JIM: For my part, the medicinal uses of plants (and animals) was especially interesting. You conclude (p. 198) that – apart from non-native quinine – most plants in the pharmacopeia “had no beneficial effects on diseased or injured patients…” Still, traditional remedies (and pharmaco-mining of fields and forests) remain popular to this day, including some of the ones mentioned in your book (e.g., black cohash is still prescribed by MDs for older women). After quinine, what do you see as the most beneficial medical plant/herb?
KELBY: In Civil War diaries, journals and letters one of the most often mentioned plants was blackberry. It was mentioned a great many times in all regions of the conflict by both soldiers and non-combatants. It was always mentioned in the context of food, but the frequency of blackberry consumption was so extensive that it surely had positive medical benefits in the form of seasonal doses of Vitamin C (the values of which were unknown in that era).
JIM: How do you hope people will use your book?
KELBY: I hope it will stimulate other historians, professional and avocational, to consider the environmental aspects of historical events and in doing so further the understanding of the connectivity of all living things.
You can learn more about Kelby and his interests at his Bayou Diversity blog and obtain signed copies of his book by contacting him by e-mail.
Disclosure: A complimentary review copy of the book was provided by LSU Press, for which I thank them.