Ruin Nation tells the story of the devastating impact of the Civil War on the American landscape and the transformation of the United States. Nelson outlines the destruction in four broad classifications of ruins made by the Civil War: urban ruins, of cities ruined by armies during battle; domestic ruins, of homes, and especially private spaces and possessions within them, ruined by soldiers demonstrating their power over civilians; natural ruins, of forests, stands of trees, and even individual trees, ruined by armies building roads and camps or during battle; and human ruins, of soldiers killed by bullets or shells. Soldiers with limbs, organs, and nerves shattered or gone, and with their families often devastated as well. She describes how and why this destruction is created, examines their immediate effects on divided Americans and their landscape, and employs wartime and postwar writings and photographs or engravings in popular weeklies to make ruination more tangible. Nelson deftly gauges the impact the process had on Americans’ hearts and minds as well as on their popular culture, for years and even generations after 1865. The ruins created by the war did not end when the shooting stopped. A physical and psychological reconstruction, one in many ways more critical to the survival of the nation as a whole than political Reconstruction, was necessary but did not take place quickly or easily.
No American in the spring of 1861, Northerner or Southerner,free or slave, could have imagined the destruction and long term effects of the war that would soon take over their lives. Antebellum and early-war the fear of seeing one’s homeland in ruins and at the mercy of an enemy, or on the other hand the of reducing one’s enemy to ruins. It became clear soon enough, however, that the Civil War would create countless physical ruins accompanied by just as many psychological ones, both types affecting everyone in the country at the time. Perhaps most disturbing of all, these ruins were made by Americans killing each other.
Hundreds of cities and towns, fields and forests, and houses, plantations, and farms suffered as armies marched, cut, dug, fought, and burglarized their way through the landscape, creating ruins in the very process of determining whether the country could remain as one or split. Soldiers were the most of the human cost of that process, with many thousands dead and many thousands more wounded, some of them disfigured.
Nelson identified four broad classifications of ruins made by the Civil War: urban ruins, of cities ruined by armies for various military and political reasons; domestic ruins, of homes, and especially private spaces and possessions within them, ruined by soldiers demonstrating their power over civilians; natural ruins, of forests, stands of trees, and even individual trees, ruined by armies building roads and camps or in battle; and human ruins, of soldiers hit by bullets or shells, dead or with limbs, organs, and bones shattered or gone, and with their families often devastated as well. She describes how and why such ruins were created, and goes into their immediate effects on Americans and their landscape. The armies that wrecked forests building roads or clearing spaces for camps viewed such work as accomplishing something worthwhile rather than destructive. digging trenches or erecting wooden obstructions to fortify themselves, then fought battles in which flying metal shredded or splintered leaves, limbs, and trees. There was, even before the war ended, a fascination with forests—especially individual trees with bullets or shell fragments visibly lodged in them—as witnesses to history and relics of remembrance, and a feeling that as nature regenerated itself with new growth in forests and as grass grew up over the raw earth, the country might heal its own wounds with enough time.
Nelson describes the impact the war had on Americans’ hearts and minds as well as on their popular culture, for years and even generations after 1865. The ruins created by and ruination wrought by the war did not end when the shooting stopped. A physical and psychological reconstruction, one in many ways more critical to the survival of the nation as a whole than political Reconstruction, was necessary but did not take place quickly or easily.
From the first few months of the war to the end, and for years afterward, the destruction of urban and domestic spaces inspired a debate over causes and responsibilities. The argument over what was and what was not civilized warfare was unclear especially over the plundering and burglary of private property. For civilians unfortunate enough to be in ruined cities or landscapes, already broken by the destruction of business districts and public institutions were often torn apart by what they believed was a destruction of their homes and their lives.
Nelson speaks on the confrontations between soldiers and civilians, especially Union soldiers and southern women, were “as much acts of war as were artillery duels on the battlefield' (78). Because soldiers usually treated white and black, free and slave, all the same, civilians were utterly helpless when faced by soldiers. Soldiers felt that they are superior to civilians for whatever reason. Such behavior created a bitterness among many victims lasted long past the war. They passed down memories, stories, and mementos to their descendants and their descendants’ descendants.
If cities, homes, and landscapes are clear examples of places that were once intact but reduced to ruins, Nelson points out that human beings who were once intact could also be reduced to ruins themselves. “As minié balls whizzed through the air and shells exploded into hundreds of fragments,' she observes, “the war’s technologies unmade men' (161). In no previous American war did the numbers of participants, or the combination by which largely outdated close-range tactics, more modern weapons, and woefully inadequate medicine killed or maimed them, cause so much suffering. Nineteenth-century Americans were all too familiar with death, but not on such a scale or with results so spectacularly violent. The sight of, or even the thought of, bodies without limbs and limbs without bodies, of men unrecognizable to friends and family or unrecognizable even as human beings, was something unfamiliar, shocking, and deeply disturbing. Many of the wounded, so ruined that they viewed themselves, and were often viewed by others, as no longer men, might have wished they had died instead. “War promised to make both white and black soldiers into men,' Nelson reminds us. “However, wounds and amputations threatened the nature of that manhood in their assault on individual identity, humanity, and citizenship' (185). The ways in which veterans, their families, and their communities adjusted to, and gave or denied them praise and material aid for, such devastating personal losses, would be among the most significant responses to the human cost of the war for years to come.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below