USC history professor studies Civil War experience through the senses

Published: Nov. 17, 2014 at 5:12 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 5, 2014 at 12:08 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Experiencing war envelops all the human senses, even taste.

The sensory experience of the Civil War is the subject of a new book written by University of South Carolina Distinguished Professor Mark Smith. It's titled The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege.

"My aim to add texture to the experience of war," he said. "What did it mean? How did it feel?"

From the first shots at Fort Sumter, to the Hunley submarine and the burning of Columbia, South Carolina is featured throughout the book.

"My thinking was to identify a very well-known event during the Civil War and then look at the sources. What do the sources say about the sensory experience of that event?" he said.

Each sense is related to an incident in the Civil War. It opens with the sense of sound related to the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861.

"The war literally began with a bang in South Carolina...This was the first time that people had heard the sound of war, for many, many years at least. That's what they commented on."

The first battle of Bull Run represents the sense of sight.

"First Bull Run was principally a conversation and an event about confusion. Visual confusion," he said. "Troops at this point in time had not adopted gray or blue, so there were Confederate troops wearing blue. There were Union forces wearing gray. This caused enormous confusion on the battlefield."

Smith used the battle of Gettysburg to represent the sense of smell.

"More people died in those hills than any other battle. So many, in fact, that the technology of death outpaced the technology of burial," said Smith. "They couldn't bury the corpses fast enough. And, as a result, on those hot July days, those dead bodies started to reek.

"Death could be smelled for miles. Death could be smelled for weeks."

The Union siege of Vicksburg represents the sense of taste.

"The siege was simply designed to starve people into submission and that's precisely what Grant did at Vicksburg," Smith said. "At the beginning of the siege Southerners -- white Southerners at least -- ate well. Ate plentifully. By the end of the siege, there had been in revolution in their palate. They ate anything they could find. Once proud, they were reduced to eating morsels, scraps fit only for animals."

The sense of touch was represented by the C.S.S. Hunley.

"Poignantly, the eight men who died in that submarine died at their posts," he said. "They didn't try to clamber out of their seats and they died alone. They died without human touch and it took over a hundred years for them to be touched again by another human being."

Smith wraps all the senses into the Union Army's occupation of Columbia and the city's subsequent burning.

"Their presence changed the sensory landscape of Columbia. The noises were unprecedented. The smells of thousands of troops--their garbage. Their refuse. And then the smell of a burning city and civilization evaporating on a cloud. And then they left and the city didn't even look the same any longer."

Smith is a leading expert in Civil War History and the senses. The History Channel has requested an interview with him regarding the subject.

"If you don't pay attention to the role of smell, the role of touch, the role of sound, taste, including visual, then you come away with a very antiseptic view of war,"Smith said. "Almost a...a view of war that suggest it wasn't painful. That somehow it was simply an honorable act."

The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege is available via or directly through the publisher.

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