CRM Journal

Book Review

Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War

Edited by Clarence R. Geier and Stephen R. Potter. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003; 363 pp., illustrations, notes; cloth $59.95, paper $27.95.


Rather than focusing on "great men," the focus should shift to include the men and women of both sides who fought and feared, died or survived, benefited or lost everything as they participated, often through no choice of their own, in an event which they did not necessarily understand or support.

—From Archaeological Perspectives

The American Civil War is one of the most extensively studied and debated subjects among both academics and the public. Interest in the Civil War has soared due to a number of factors, including Ken Burns' documentary series, the increasing numbers of battle reenactments, and increased visitation to Civil War sites across the country. Despite such popularity, many scholars in the field of archeology have ignored the Civil War, passing it over as having "no intellectual future."

Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War smashes this myth with a powerful collection of 18 original and insightful essays that illustrate that the archeology of the Civil War is not just about finding bullets and buttons; it is about real people. The essays collected by Geier and Potter are highly relevant to all fields associated with heritage stewardship.

Archaeological Perspectives is divided into three sections: Tactics and the Conduct of Battles, The Home Front and Military Life, and New Methods and Techniques. The five essays in the first section include work on battles such as Second Manassas, Antietam, and Cool Spring; research on the recently discovered Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley; and surveys of extant fortifications surrounding the city of Atlanta.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing essays is a joint effort between Potter and Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist Douglas W. Owsley to recover four partial sets of human remains at Antietam. Besides discussing individual artifacts that were recovered with each burial, Potter and Owsley are able to make a reasonable case for the identification of one of the fallen soldiers. In another fine essay, Steven D. Smith uses the recovery of the H.L. Hunley to demonstrate that archeology can be highly political. Smith provides a well-presented controversial argument about the perception of Confederate symbols in modern America.

The second and largest portion of the book consists of essays relating individuals' experiences during the Civil War. The nine essays fall into four groups: the life of the common soldier in settings such as camp or prison, the study of domestic life during the Civil War, the lives of African Americans and how they were affected by the war, and agriculture and agrarian landscapes during the Civil War. The experiences of the common soldier are detailed in essays about Fort C. F. Smith, Sheridan Field Hospital, and Andersonville Prison. Each provides excellent primary source material to support the archeological evidence at these sites. Domestic life during the Civil War is detailed using examples from the Owens' House/Post Office Complex at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. In both of these essays, archeological evidence is used to explore how the functions of domestic structures may have changed during the Civil War and how the individuals in these settings may have dealt with conditions brought upon by a sudden influx of military personnel.

The African-American experience is clearly essential to understanding the Civil War, and the three essays devoted to this topic are outstanding. Kenneth E. Koons presents a seemingly limitless amount of data on the numbers and occupations of African Americans in the Shenandoah Valley, while Erika K. Martin Seibert and Mia Parsons explore how the lives of a free African-American family were affected by the battles at Manassas. Elise Manning-Sterling looks at how the devastation of the Civil War impacted both agricultural output and the agrarian landscape.

The final section is devoted to the Civil War archeologist's biggest threat and best ally, the metal detector. Of the four essays in this chapter, one details work on the Battle of Chickamauga while the remainder address the Battle of Antietam. Each of these essays demonstrates that systematic metal detector surveys are simply the only manner in which Civil War militaria can be effectively recovered over a large area. John E. Cornelison Jr.'s essay emphasizes that the overall value of these surveys depends entirely on the accuracy with which the recovered artifacts are mapped. Bruce B. Sterling and Bernard W. Slaughter follow with an essay that sets the standard for conducting metal detector surveys. Through an exhaustive, multiyear survey at Antietam, the authors detail the most- and least-effective methods for recovering military artifacts through metal detector surveys.

While the final section is extremely useful as a guide for conducting large-scale battlefield surveys, all of the chapters tend to ignore an important issue: archeological surveys depend on volunteer relic hunters. While volunteer services are invaluable, relic hunters often use skills learned as project volunteers to loot and destroy sensitive archeological sites. Future work on metal detector surveys must address this controversial issue.

Archaeological Perspectives on the American Civil War is a must-read for students of the Civil War. Although some scholars may be surprised that this book focuses almost entirely on the eastern theater of the Civil War, they will be rewarded in that many of these essays succeed in presenting a unique understanding of the role of the common individual during this crucial time in American history. It is a valuable resource for anyone interested in African-American studies, agricultural history, and domestic life in the 19th century.

Brandon S. Bies
University of Maryland