All history is a string of sense perceptions linked together by individual minds in meaningful patterns we call moments, minutes, hours, days, months, years, wars, eras, periods, ages, and so on. History is sensation, and all sensation is done by the fundamental units of the human species; the individual. In this episode, we explore the Civil War through sensor history in order to fully understand what it was actually like on the battlefield and at home from the perspective of all 5 senses.
What is sensory history? Is sensory history important to understand the depth of the human experience? Should history be hyper individualized? How can sensory history help us learn more about what we believe we already know? Can sound be revolutionary?
The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, written by Mark Smith
Looking Back: The explosion of sensory history, written by Mark Smith
[The Confederacy and Liberty](https://www.libertarianism.org/blog/confederacy-liberty](https://www.libertarianism.org/blog/confederacy-liberty), written by Jason Kuznicki
Why “Libertarian” Defenses of the Confederacy and “States’ Rights” are Incoherent, written by Jonathan Blanks
Conflicts Among Peace Advocates During the Civil War, written by George H. Smith
00:00 Anthony Comegna: Confession time, liberty chroniclers. I really don’t like military history. I find the subject wholly distasteful. None of it smells quite right to me. I’m much more comfortable handling the ideas that lead to war than picturing the actual battles. And then I recently visited New Orleans for a Liberty Fund conference, where I heard a most unusual approach to this wearisome subject. Mark Smith holds a PhD in American History from the University of South Carolina, where he is the Carolina distinguished Professor of History. He’s a leading figure in what’s called sensory history, and he joins me now in my attempt to give you the grittiest military history I can, you know, without actually having to do the nasty business myself.
00:56 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. So first off, Professor Smith can you tell us what exactly is this field of sensory history and why is it important?
01:15 Mark Smith: Well, even the deployment of the term field can be a bit misleading. I think of it more as a habit of writing history. I don’t think that it’s a particular field in so far as virtually every historian from every period, from ancient Rome to modern Germany, of gender, race, class, intellectual historians, cultural historians, even economic historians. They can all deploy sensory history because it’s a way of looking at very familiar sources and teasing out the sensate that’s embedded and contained in those sources. I don’t really think of it as a field as much. Certainly some people would refer to it as such, but I think it’s more of a habit. It’s a kind of re-training of your eye in an effort to harvest the nose and ears because it doesn’t limit itself to one particular area of inquiry. So that would be the first point I’d make.
02:24 Mark Smith: And obviously, it’s effort is to tell us something about the way that people in the past not only saw the world, which we know a great deal about, of course, but heard it, smelled it, tasted it and touched it, and how those senses intermingled, how they were inter-sensory, sometimes in a singular sense. And this is important because if we were to imagine our understanding of ourselves, at this very moment in time, simply through the eyes, we’ll have a very impoverished experience and understanding of that moment, of that place. And it’s not a presenters conceit, but it is a human one in so far as we do process information, we do make judgments, we do construct categories through multiple senses. And to think that our ancestors, wherever they may have been and when, didn’t, I think is a almost sort of an arrogant assumption about the nature of the past. So why is it important? Well, it’s important because it restores something about the depth and the texture of human experience. That was a very long-winded answer to your very good question Antony.
03:51 Anthony Comegna: Well, so it strikes me as being very similar to a couple other different approaches, either methods or full methodologies, like history from below. Now, it’s not necessarily about working people or marginalized people, but it does build up the human experience from the very base materials of sense experience. It seems similar to a lot of world history that you might read. And yet it’s also, like I was indicating, sort of hyper-individualized; that it’s always individuals experiencing with their senses. So could you comment on does this fit in as sort of a… Do you think of it as a type of history from below or a type of world history, a type of liberal history?
04:38 Mark Smith: That’s a very good question because years ago, when I started thinking about the senses, I did a bit of interrogation of earlier historians, which I think is always very important and probably not done enough. We seem to often fall into the trap of thinking that we’ve invented something when in fact they have been important antecedents. So I rummaged around in the old social history, and I found that social historians had done a great deal to attend to the senses. The Annales School in particular was very important for that, and some very history, in fact, from the 19th, early 19th century, had at least attended to or noted the importance of things other than eyes.
05:25 Mark Smith: But I came to the conclusion that it’s not strictly a social history project basically because I don’t think it’s just about history from the bottom up. If you think of some of the most impressive work on the history of the senses, it’s largely an intellectual history. We have the history of religion as understood through the senses. We have the history of the enlightenment as understood through the senses. These projects aren’t necessarily indexed exclusively or even especially heavily from the bottom up. They attempt to understand the full range of sensory perceptions, deployments, from elites, from all sorts of classes. And as an intellectual history project, these things do work.
06:19 Mark Smith: So I’m not sure if it’s just that is it global history? Well, certainly, it lends itself to a kind of roving itinerant quality. Any place, any time is obviously subject to the senses simply because people do process information through the senses. They might do it differently at different points in time. They might have different ratios, if you will. And I think it’s really a global history in that sense, it’s not trying to make necessarily of transnational connections, although it could do and some work has done. Is it hyper-individualized? Well, to the extent that all history is, to some extent, hyper-individualized because it’s contingent on the sources that you’re reading. So if somebody says in a diary, “Well, Paris smelt like this or London sounded like this,” well, obviously to that person’s ears and nose, that’s what that meant.
07:15 Mark Smith: But like with all history, it’s an attempt to find pattern and recurrence and theme and identifiable coordinates that repeat themselves so you can get a sense of a more general understanding of what an age rather than just an individual understood. And if you do enough of it, you can get beyond a hyper-individualized history to a sense of what a particular class felt or what a particular gender felt in a particular moment in time in a particular place. So there is a particularity to it, and an important one of that. I think this has to be highly contextualized because the senses, in my estimation, are not transcendent; they’re not universal. What smells in 1600 doesn’t smell the same way or have the same meaning as it does in 1950, for example, because constituents change, habits or faction change, and judgments change, and of course, places change.
08:16 Mark Smith: So I’m not sure if that’s any of those things really, which is why I think of it as a habit rather than a field. I don’t think it fits very tidally or neatly into the field category, and I think that’s a good thing. I think of it more of a somatic way of understanding history, a bit like, say, economic history which could conceivably be applied to all times and places. Right? It’s political history. It’s intellectual history. It’s more along those lines than a particular geography or temporal designation.
08:51 Anthony Comegna: Now, I did promise my listeners, sort of my excuse for military history ‘cause it’s not my field at all. And I loved your early comment in the book, that historians debate, “Oh, was the American Civil War the first, or was it a total war in the sense of the Napoleonic wars, or something, World War II? Is the whole society mobilized to fight this war and win it.” And you make the excellent point that, “As far as the senses are concerned, all war is total war.” And then you spend the book going through five or six key events scattered across the war, each highlighting a different sort of sensory experience. And by the end, I think readers will certainly agree that, for the senses, all war is definitely total war. So I wanna to spend the rest of the interview going through those moments of great sensory experience and overload. And let’s go ahead and start with the whoop and the holler raised in Charleston, after the Declaration of Secession in December 1860. Can you describe the scene to us?
10:04 Mark Smith: Yeah. So [chuckle] by way of full disclosure, I don’t fancy myself a military historian either. [chuckle] Not least because it’s actually very difficult. I mean, there is a great deal of detail involved in these things that required me to rely very much on my colleagues in military history who do fabulous work, often on unheralded, but nonetheless, terribly important for what I was doing. This isn’t just a straightforward cultural or social history project. This required me to really get to grips with how troops marched, what they did in battle, when they did it, and why it mattered. So the book begins, and of course, I selected, really, the most famous instances and events of the Civil War, really to make a point that these are the most well-known events in the Civil War: Secession, Gettysburg, Vicksburg. People know about these things, but do they really know about them? And so I chose things that are very obvious, for the most part, in an effort to retell a story that is so familiar that we slip into an assumption that we know it already.
11:18 Mark Smith: So the book begins with a listening, a listening to how people heard the extraordinary event of secession from the Union, beginning in December 1860. And I just had to go a bit back before that to give you a sense of what a normal soundscape in Charleston sounded like. And to do that, I have to listen to other people listening, and to recreate some of these sounds and the listening habits of people at the time. But essentially, what happens when South Carolina secedes from the union is an extraordinary, if you will, turning up of the volume. We have, what are ordinarily kind of bustling but probably quiet streets, suddenly explode in this cacophonous shout that South Carolina has left the union. And these sounds reverberate between December 1860 and the firing on Fort Sumter. There are obviously quiet moments, but it is my belief that, for the most part, the city experienced this is turning up of the volume in which listening habits changed, volume changed, sounds were new. I mean, nobody had heard the sound of the firing in Fort Sumter or anything like it’s acoustic register, it’s decibels, in their lifetimes.
12:56 Mark Smith: This was a new sound, and this was something that was both exciting and shocking, disturbing, and people commented on this at great length. And of course, I’m not excluding the way that the event looked, but to get a full understanding of the kind of emotional landscape, you have to understand how people heard their environment as well as saw their environment And of course, we’re talking about multiple environments there too. So we have Union Federal forces on Fort Moultrie who have to make it to Fort Sumter and they do so, by not being noisy, by deploying stealth, by quietening their oars, by camping down the sounds of their makings. So we have a bunch of new soundscapes, a bunch of new registers that kind of mark the war, the beginning of the war, and in a way, foretell what the war is going to sound like for the next four years. This is a very loud event in American history. Not constantly, of course, but an event that, nonetheless, changes the soundscape of the places where the war is fought.
14:12 Anthony Comegna: I love this idea that you have a revolutionary sound accompanying this revolutionary moment of the Confederacy forming, at least in its nascent form, with South Carolina. And it really… They say they’re doing it for conservative reasons, but it really truly does become a revolutionary experiment, right down to socialism and everything. And a common sort of neo-Confederate trope about seccession is that if it did have anything to do with slavery, most Southerners really didn’t support slavery, so they kinda had nothing to do with this. They were being led into it by the political class, the great planters, and it was really their failure. But then, again, if this revolutionary sound of hollering in praise of seccession from the streets of Charleston, if that has anything to do with it, well, we might start thinking a little differently. And I find that idea of a revolutionary sound very compelling. It reflects something real.
15:20 Mark Smith: Well, the voices on non-slave holders [chuckle] were absolutely necessary to making that chorus heard, simply because the slave holders were in a numerical majority. So if it were only their voices calling for secession, it would have been a quieter event. Now, what these voices are calling for precisely varies, depending on who obviously, but nonetheless, this is a revolutionary moment, you’re right, Anthony, and is a revolutionary moment acoustically as well as ideologically.
15:56 Anthony Comegna: Now, your visual chapter on First Bull Run, I think is your most straightforwardly military history, At least it has…
16:04 Mark Smith: It is.
16:04 Anthony Comegna: It seems to have the most to do with the actual course of a battle, and the kinds of things that commanders have to consider when they’re directing troops. And to me, the most compelling set of discussions in there was how the different participants or observers of the battle occupied different visual spaces in the battleground, and they went away from it with very different perspectives and outlooks on the war. Could you comment on the levels of perspective at First Bull Run?
16:36 Mark Smith: Yes. So one of the important things I think about writing this book, for me at least, was to contextualize what was happening. And to do that, you have to understand something about the way that the senses functioned in a almost banal everyday way prior to the Civil War. So like most people in the West at the time, just before the Civil War broke out, most people believed that the eye was the pre-eminent sense. There’s a reason why people said that seeing was believing, and not smelling was believing or hearing was believing. And we can talk about why that was, if you’d like, but essentially, when Americans go into the Civil War, they do believe that seeing is believing, that their eyes are the arbiters of truth, that they are the sense of perspective. It is the sense that conveys reliably information. And of course, there was a lot of truth to that, and there remains a lot of truth to that. But it’s precisely that faith, that almost fetish in the power of the eye to reveal truth, that shapes the outcome of the first major battle of the Civil War, First Bull Run or First Manassas, depending where you’re from.
18:03 Mark Smith: And the reason why is… There were a lot of perspectives at Bull Run. Think about the topography, you have people on the ridges looking down at a panorama. You have people on the field and their vision is obviously is much different; they have smoke, they have trees, there are things, barriers in the way to clear vision. But the most important misreading or mis-seeing occurred on the charge for Henry House Hill, which was a very important moment, not just in the Battle of First Bull Run, but, arguably, the Civil War, because think about the proximity of Manassas to Richmond. We’re not that far away. And had the Federals taken Henry House Hill, there is a good chance that they would have gone on to Richmond and this war would have turned out either very differently, or a lot shorter, but they didn’t. They didn’t take that hill because as they were running up the hill in an effort to take it, it wasn’t that just that Stonewall Jackson appears at the top, but that he’s heading a regiment to hold the hill that is wearing blue; blue uniforms.
19:25 Mark Smith: And because seeing was believing, because sight was the avatar of truth, for those Federal troops running up the hill, started and they stopped, and they slowed down because they saw blue uniforms. And they thought, reasonably, “My eyes are telling me the truth. These are federal troops.” And so their march, their attempt to take the hill was paused, quite literally. It was stopped. And they were, of course, wrong; the eyes had betrayed them. As Stonewall Jackson well knew, these were militia uniforms from a Virginia regiment that wore blue. This is… The full uniforms were standardized, at least in any broad sense, but there was a belief among soldiers that Confederates wore grey and Union forces wore blue. And because they stopped and started, Jackson’s forces were able to pretty much mow them down and the retreat back to Washington DC began in earnest, and the hill was saved, and the battle was won by Confederates. I know with interest that Stonewall Jackson knew full well what he was doing, or at least I think he did.
20:46 Mark Smith: He knew that there would be a visual stuttering, a visual confusion because he had his own troops wear cotton arm bands to distinguish them from real Federal uniforms. And so there was lots of play here with the eye, there was lots of belief in the eye on the part of some Federal troops, and lots of playing on that belief in the eye by Confederate troops in an effort to gain a tactical and strategic advantage. So they’re marching in with an assumption, a visual conceit, and that conceit ultimately, at least in my opinion, helps lead to a Confederate victory at First Bull Run. So that’s where that’s coming from, Anthony. It’s a kind of deeper reading of the history of seeing and the instability of vision in the context of war.
21:40 Anthony Comegna: Now, like you said, we sort of privilege sight, and there’s this kind of tyranny of the scene that takes over our rendition of people’s sensory experiences, but all sorts of senses come into play all the time, and the Battle of Gettysburg is the smell chapter. And I don’t want to dwell too much on the smells of Gettysburg themselves, but I do wanna tease out this thread of the tyranny of the scene, because as you say in the chapter, the pictures, the photographs taken of the dead at Gettysburg were not actually dead. Could you tell us a bit about this phenomenon of the photographs at Gettysburg?
22:25 Mark Smith: It’s tricky, isn’t it? Because we all bring our certain conceits to our writing, and there’s a certain artificiality to the way I’ve divided those chapters up because plainly, Gettysburg wasn’t just about smell, it was about lots of other senses too. But I’m looking for a signature, something that kind of captures the essence of the experience. And if we simply view Gettysburg as an optic, as a visual event, through the lens, quite literally, of photographs, not all of which, but some of which were contrived and staged and full of artifice, then you walk away with an understanding that this was a very big battle, and that lots of people died. But there’s a kind of nobility attached to it, I think, in the still photograph. It doesn’t capture the full extent and depth of the experience of what it must have been like to be on the battlefield in those days of 1863. So what I try to do is marry the photographs, whether or not they were contrived, ‘cause some of them were, plainly the pictures of the dead horses, which also mattered a great deal, were not contrived. But I tried to marry what the sights of that event were, the tyranny of the eye, and I dilute it with the authenticity of the nose.
24:02 Mark Smith: Because, as people understood at the time, you have eyelids, eyelids frame, they deflect, they deny, they open. Vision is a highly selective exercise, whereas there are no such things as nose lids. Smell is transgressive. It punches it’s way in. You have to smell if you are going to breathe. And when you begin a kind of olfactory history Gettysburg, you really realize the scale of this thing, the thousands of deaths. The technology of death outstrip the technology of burial. They simply couldn’t bury the horses, the men, quickly enough. And as a result, in those very hot days, not just the entire arena of Gettysburg stank, but it moved beyond it’s geography. It went into places that were removed from the battlefield, punching its way into noses far removed from the original site.
25:14 Mark Smith: I mean, it might be a pocketful, but I wouldn’t be surprised, but Lincoln, during the Gettysburg Address, is said to have commented that he could still smell the death of this event. And there is no choice but to smell it. And it’s not that there are lots of different subtle smells. There were some variations of smells, medical smells, smells of death, and what have you, smells of horse versus smells of man, but what we’re really talking about here is the sheer scale and it’s utter insistence on kind of personalizing the experience. Because everybody who was there had to smell death. And while people in 1863, certainly had different olfactory expectations and aesthetics than we would do today, for example, nobody had experienced death on that scale before. Very, very rarely had anyone smelled so many thousands of rotting carcasses in a very hot environment or a humid environment, for so long.
26:19 Mark Smith: And it’s interesting to me because this also speaks to this question of historical memory and historical authenticity when it comes to recreating battles from the Civil War. So if we look at what veterans from Gettysburg said upon revisiting the fields in 1912, they said, “Well, it looks the same, in many ways. This is where we were, but the big difference is that I can’t smell the battle. I can’t smell a gunpowder, and I can’t smell the death.” And this raises an important question, I think, for historical reenactment. If we want authentic reenactment of Civil War battles, such as Gettysburg, we’re gonna have to rethink about what authenticity is and whether or not it’s achievable and whether or not it’s desirable to be achievable. Because you cannot recreate that stench, and you probably shouldn’t want to.
27:26 Mark Smith: And so that’s one of the reasons or the motivations behind this book too. It’s a cautionary tale about a usable history, I suppose, simply because the senses, the way they’re produced and the way they’re consumed, are very much hostage to their own moment and don’t really travel or transcend time. There’s not a universality. There might be a universality to the act of smelling, but the meaning of smell changes quite significantly, depending upon where you are and when you are. So that’s really what’s going on with that chapter. It’s a kind of obvious point, at a certain level, that battle smell. But what I was trying to get to was just how meaningful that experience was and how sight alone limits our access to understanding the depth and scope of that meaning.
28:25 Anthony Comegna: Now, I hope that maybe we could treat the next two chapters together, ‘cause I think these are the two where I learned the most new material. Your chapter on Vicksburg is about taste, or hunger, and your chapter on the Hunley Submarine is about touch. And in the Vicksburg chapter, we have the city under siege, besieged by Grant, and you tell us about how the South’s proudest planters, and all of their families, were ultimately reduced to living in caves, and some of them even eating grass like cattle. And they had built Southern civilization on the backs of slaves, but it all melted away during the siege. And the way you put it is basically they receded back about 10,000 years into the pre-agricultural days of human past. And then, in the Hunley, we have this great comparison of men packed into this first submarine, just as their ancestors had packed slaves into ships for the Middle Passage, and they’re on this suicide mission to achieve some sort of independence for their country, putting themselves in the exact same kinds of conditions for the slaves that they expected to remain enslaved.
29:49 Mark Smith: Yeah, there’s a lot going on on those two chapters, but ultimately, I think you’re entirely right. The thread is a contemporary recognition that slavery inflects pretty much everything. This is a slave society, not a society with slaves, but a slave society. And it’s deeply embedded in the way that people understand their experiences, their sense of progress, their sense of activism, their sacrifices. Slavery haunts human experience in the Civil War in the South in a very powerful way. So Vicksburg is a good illustration of this because I begin that chapter with a fairly clumsy, but nonetheless, I think, accurate overview of what people ate before Vicksburg, or before the siege.
30:39 Mark Smith: And given it’s location on the Mississippi, it’s cuisine was quite remarkable, especially for elites. So elites had access to all sorts of food, fish and meat, vegetables, that were couriered up and down the Mississippi River, and harvested from their local plantations. So if you look at menus, you’d want to eat in Vicksburg in 1860, if you were an elite southerner. If you were a poor white, you ate less well, which was typical throughout the entire South. And if you were enslaved, you ate less well than that. So the question is, what does a siege do to the palate? And this is essentially why this is total war. [chuckle] This isn’t about shooting people necessarily, although certainly people are shot and bombarded during the siege. This is about reducing people to their core essence, and you can do that through starvation and radically altering their diet.
31:47 Mark Smith: But the people who were used to using diet as both a gustatory, as well aesthetic way of tasting, that is to say they ate and they ate well, and therefore they were better, and it was tightly indexed to their sense of social class and standing. To have the pallet reduced radically, and very quickly in this 30-day siege, was psychologically quite devastating as well as physically quite devastating. Because ultimately, what these planters had to do was end up like slaves. Their palates were reduced to those of slaves, their consumption was reduced to those of slaves. Here we have people buying rat meat and mule meat and dog meat. This was not something that elites were accustomed to. Not just planters, but merchants and bankers, and people of elite status in Vicksburg. And, yes, they are eating grass and gnawing on shoe leather.
32:43 Mark Smith: So, in a way, this is a radical devolution for them in terms of class because they are now engaging in a kind of gustatory experience that they had always reserved for people of lesser of status; poor white and the enslaved, and this is something that they had used to demarcate themselves. It’s also an activism, temporally, because this has kind of medieval quality to it where the sense of progress is challenged by having to ferret out morsels of unsavory food. And even the sentinel of the nose is not enough to stop them from eating. The nose tells them how rancid and dangerous this food is, which is one of it’s functions, and yet the starvation is so great that they consume it and become ill through it.
33:41 Mark Smith: And then, of course, the literally dig through time when they build their caves to defend themselves against the bombardment and the siege, and they’re literally cutting through and digging through historical time. They’re going back in time into the caves. And there’s a kind of radical sense of devolution, for these people, which is why when the siege finishes, Vicksburg doesn’t celebrate July the 4th, which is when the siege ends. For years, the city simply refuses to celebrate it because rather than enact a day of independence, to them, this was the culmination of utter dependence. And dependency was honor, and honor was rooted in the ownership of slaves and the ability to make choices, gustatory and otherwise. And a similar development occurs with the Hunley.
34:38 Mark Smith: The HL Hunley submarine was one of those remarkable Confederate inventions that gives life to the idea that the South was some pre-modern institution. Slavery was obviously an ancient institution, but it didn’t necessarily mean that it was devoid of any scientific acumen. And my own earlier work on the history of slavery suggests that plantations are very much like factories, at least in terms of the productive capacity and punctuality and temporality. And do you see this during the war with this HL Hunley submarine, which worried the Union forces, and rightly so, because this was an invisible craft, and it turned out to be the world’s first successful combat submarine when it sinks USS Housatonic in February 1864 in Charleston Harbor.
35:37 Mark Smith: The thing that interests me about it was it’s physicality. On a very small submarine, you have eight white men crammed in there, and their job is to propel this craft forward. And at the front of the submarine is a very long kind of spear, if you will, with a charge attached to the front, and the idea is to ram it into the hull of the Housatonic and then back out and ignite the charge, if you will.
36:12 Mark Smith: It was a hand-crank machine. If you look at the way that the crank was formed and designed, is very much like a cotton gin. You turn it and you turn it fast, and this was the kind of labor ordinarily reserved for the enslaved. And you’re right to make the comparison between the middle passage and the tightness of the Hunley because they were both extraordinary tight. But here you had free white men voluntary surrendering their sense of physical space; their arms rubbed against one another, against the iron hull. There were knuckle marks throughout the submarine and the wood. This was an abuse of the skin that white men ordinarily weren’t used to. This was something that was typically reserved for the enslaved skin, which was presumed to be tougher and thicker and more durable, which was one of the conceits of the pro-slavery ideologues about why slavery was appropriate for African-American people.
37:23 Mark Smith: So you have this very odd circumstance in which the desire to win, the desire to participate in this very modern piece of technology, the desire to persecute the Confederate war effort to sink this ship led essentially free white men to voluntarily put themselves in the circumstance, a tactile circumstance, a haptic circumstance that was ordinarily reserved for enslaved people. As you know, it did sink the Housatonic, but the Hunley sunk too. And a lot of my work was based on and indebted to the folks that run the the Hunley Museum down in Charleston, who’ve done tremendous work, not only in recovering the submarine, but telling us something about the men who were in that submarine. There was really only one elite person there, that was the Captain, George Dickson. The others were of more humble origin; some immigrants, one merchant perhaps, but they weren’t rich men. They were average poor white men or middling sorts, who were willing to put themselves in an extraordinarily frightening position, in a way, but also in a position that most white people never found themselves in.
38:55 Anthony Comegna: Now, I suppose, just to close this out here, I wonder if I could get your comment. Because, again, I think that these two chapters especially, and your last chapter on Sherman’s March to the Sea, [chuckle] to borrow a phrase from the English Revolution, they all illustrate that the world was totally turned upside down. And the this conflict, the Civil War, Secession, the existence of the Confederacy, all of these moments were really, truly revolutionary, and they turn society inside out and upside down like relatively few events throughout history actually do.
39:37 Mark Smith: It does. This is arguably the defining moment of the 19th Century for Americans and possibly the history outside of the American Revolution. I think all wars, at a certain level, are extraordinary sensory because some of the technologies deployed to prosecute war are designed and inevitably affect the senses. But when Sherman marches through the South, places that had remained peripheral to the sensory experience of war suddenly found themselves in the midst of it. And this is what makes it a total war, in a sense, because there was no longer any home front once the front had come to the home. And my reading of the sources on this was that people who were in Sherman’s field, within his marching field, experienced kind of battle-like conditions in a sensory way.
40:44 Mark Smith: For example, they often heard him a long time before they saw him. We were talking about thousands of men marching through the southern countryside and they literally create the sound of a tramp on march, and you hear them, and that had to be quite terrifying for people. And then of course, you saw them, which was a visual novelty too. Nobody who had been there, for example, in Columbia, South Carolina, where I live, nobody, unless they’ve been to a battle front, had seen so many Union troops before, and then once they descended upon your town or your plantation, there was the same kind of taste deprivation that people in Pittsburgh had experienced, because these troops had to be fed and they took the food from plantations in towns, and people were left with a very impoverished diet.
41:37 Mark Smith: And then of course, there’s also the question of smell, and the smell was from the sheer numbers of troops involved, garbage rotting, but also the idea that there was a fire and fire always produced a kind of lingering stench that people recognized, and it was the smell of the destruction of their own civilization. So when Sherman left, he didn’t really leave. He was still lingering in the air. And so in that sense, there was a very multi-sensory component to Sherman’s March, and that’s really what I was trying to show in that chapter, is a kind of total multi-sensory, inter-sensory experience that capped the civil war and kind of concluded it in some ways.
42:31 Mark Smith: There’s lots I don’t say in that book, of course, and I don’t really talk about the laws or reconstruction. This book was really an invitation to open up something of a conversation, but that’s why I elected to end it, because it seemed darkly poetic.
42:56 Anthony Comegna: All history is a string of sense perceptions linked together by individual minds in meaningful patterns we call moments, minutes, hours, days, months, years, wars, eras, periods, ages, and so on. And it’s more than just the familiar senses. What about the sense of the word sense in which we sense new ideas in the air? We feel that we make choices and change our world along the way.
43:25 Anthony Comegna: History is sensation, and all sensation is done by the fundamental units of the human species; the individual. I’m not saying that sensory history is some sort of proof for methodological individualism, but it is certainly suggestive. So our greatest thanks, once again, to Professor Mark Smith for joining us and for his book, “The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War.”
43:54 Anthony Comegna: Thanks for listening. Liberty Chronicles is produced by Test Terrible. If you enjoy Liberty Chronicles, please subscribe to us on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.