In This Review

The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War
The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War
By Mark M. Smith
Oxford University Press, 2014, 216 pp

Historians often ask readers to imagine the intense sights, sounds, and smells of battle. Smith goes one step further and explores how such sensory assaults affect the conduct of war itself. Soldiers become disoriented; their skin is irritated by scrapes and infections; their mouths are left dry by dust. They drink unclean water and eat unclean fruit. Smith gets into these gritty details by narrating some of the most important encounters of the American Civil War: the noise of the shelling of Fort Sumter; the confusion caused by the proliferation of different uniforms and badges at the First Battle of Bull Run; the stench of death at Gettysburg, which lingered from July to October; the hunger caused by the siege of Vicksburg; and the claustrophobic conditions faced by the crew of a crude Confederate submarine. A leitmotif of the book is the way the aristocrats of the antebellum South took pride in their refined tastes and how that particular sense of superiority was undermined by the sheer brutality of the war’s violence.