I nose this is hard-OR-Interpreting scents in Civil War camps and on battlefields

Interpreters of war face numerous challenges in interpreting past military events such as interpreting violence which was the subject of some posts by John Hennessy which you can read here and here (If you care where I stand on the subject of interpreting violence-I believe is essential to understanding that the romantic visions Civil War soldiers left home with were dramatically altered between 1861 and 1865. Unfortunately, in the post-war period, romanticized versions of battle reappeared and these notions often guide modern thought processes on the Civil War.)

Similar problems have gripped our historical sense of smell. In most American and European households of the 21st century, we have fairly contained spaces for excrement, cooking, and bathing. Likewise, most of us do not have animals living around us or with us and even so they are typically pets such as birds, cats, dogs, and fish and not animals for work or food supply. We cologne and perfume our bodies, deodorize fridges with baking soda, and even add floral and fruit scents to cleaning agents and candles. In short: our noses are highly sensitive to smells while simultaneously becoming desensitized to the odors of the past which were often common place even if not welcome.

In our day-to-day lives as human beings we generally converse using a limited number of words. I think this really can help separate those who, I think, sometimes can use obscure words just for the sake of their use and public historians. We should find a way to connect people to the historical past through a sense of smell; but how when those smells are not present?

While some historic sites have opted to use scents to portray the past this is not always an option to a historic site. We should aim to connect visitors’ consciousness to a smell with its presence in the past and really to aid in portraying the multitude of smells that combined which impacted people. Take for example the scents of the Civil War.

In the midst of the battle the most obvious scent is the sulfur smell in black gunpowder. Living history demonstrations often feature groups of folks firing reproduction Civil War weapons which are described in detail. This is a chance to get visitors to imagine on a large scale the smell of tens of thousands of muskets going off along with dozens if not a hundred plus cannon. Men and animals were sweating as well producing a wide range of body odors.

When the battle was over, the odors only magnified. Bodies continued perspiring, depending on the situation men may not have bathed in days or longer already and may have no opportunity to do so following. When I do my soldier life at Petersburg program, I try to encourage people to think about the smell. As a Union chaplain wrote “you smell dust.” In the Union trenches of the Ninth Corps the men urinated and defecated where they were instead of use the latrines located in the rear of the line, out of fear that they may be shot by Confederates. A similar situation developed within the Second Corps’ sector of the trenches. When the rain came to alleviate the summer heat and dust, the trenches filled with water. Vermin bred in that water which produced diseases but it was also stagnant water which many of us have smelled from a mud puddle but I encourage people to magnify that scent across a 37 mile front stretching from around Richmond to south and west of Petersburg.

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Fort Sedgwick, Petersburg, Va., 1865. Image shows the trapped water which can be used to think about smelling the turbid water and damp earth. Library of Congress, LC-B811- 3194.

Another place where I typically encourage people to think about the use of their nose and scents is in discussing the aftermath of the Battle of the Crater. For readers who do not know, after a month of digging in the summer of 1864, a mine was exploded underneath Confederate troops outside Petersburg on the morning of July 30, 1864. After a sustained combat from about 5AM until approximately 2-2:30 P.M. Confederate troops won delivering a punishing defeat to Union troops and especially to United States Colored Troops engaged that day. Anyway, for many visitors to Petersburg National Battlefield, this is the biggest draw. I have some themes that I hope are take away messages for people and one of those themes incorporates the aftermath of the carnage beyond a gaping hole in the ground.

The wounded lay on the battlefield in the no-man’s land until August 1, 1864. However, so too did the dead. Those in good physical health remained behind earthworks but a putrid, fetid stench permeated the noses of Union and Confederate troops. The 35th Massachusetts’ historian wrote that this smell “penetrated the clothing and impressed the senses.”[1]William H. Stewart recalled years later refusing to eat for a period after the battle due to the smell. Theodore Lyman, a staff member of Major General George Meade wrote on August 1, 1864 that on that battlefield “rose a sickly stench.”[2] The weather was hot on July 30, 31, and August 1. The grotesque smell of rotting human beings did impact the soldiers and officers who viewed this scene and in no small part helped contribute to Union soldiers’ morose view of their ultimate success in the late summer of 1864.

So what are some methods of interpreting loss smells of the camps and battlefields? In part this can be done through images. The images around taken around Petersburg can be used in a multitude of ways but in the context of this post, the stagnant water and mud in the trenches can connect people to how the soldiers experienced Petersburg. Luckily, we also have reconstructed a composite earthwork at Tour Stop 3 in the Eastern Front of the battlefield. After a hard rain, visitors can at that moment be encouraged to take in a deep whiff of foul smelling water and mud and contemplate how soldiers may have felt when living in conditions that included the offensive odors but also sharpshooting, mortars and cannons blasting off, issues regarding food, etc.

Speaking of food, Civil War living history programs often feature soldiers cooking army rations. What if, appropriate to your site, there was a special diet kitchen in a hospital scenario? Replace the hardtack and salt pork with oyster soup, pies, and pickles which inherently will draw some interest about “Did Civil War soldiers eat that?” You could then discuss army rations versus general kitchens and special diet kitchens.

Do not forget to include animals in your discussion of camp and battle. With thousands of cattle, horses, and mules along with scatterings of fowl and mascots these animals were sweating, urinating, defecating just as well as the troops on the field.

Alfred R. Waud, a Civil War artist, drew this picture of a dead horse during the Civil War. What the drawing fails to illustrate is the noxious fumes that would have developed due to the horse's decay. Approximately 3,000 dead horses were left on the Gettysburg battlefield after the end of the July 1-3, 1863 battle. Library of Congress, DRWG/US - Waud, no. 468.

Words are powerful, particularly when derived from those who experienced the camps and battlefields. Often I let visitors read selections from soldiers who were on the battlefield. I admit that I have not done this much with the sense of smell but I aim to improve that. Your own vocabulary may be increased through looking up synonyms for words and perhaps reading a little fiction from time to time, which often encourages the reader to use all his/her senses.

Some campaigns of the war have unique smells. Consider fires which destroyed homes and businesses and some have large numbers of rotting horse carcasses left behind alongside dead soldiers.

The odors of war ultimately do not change their results but they did impact the people who were participating in the war. Connie Y. Chang explores the sense of smell in history in her article “The Nose Knows: The Sense of Smell in American History,” Journal of American History, 95 (2): 405-416.


[1] Earl Hess, Into the Crater: The Mine Attack at Petersburg (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 208.

[2] David W. Lowe, ed., Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2007), 244.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “I nose this is hard-OR-Interpreting scents in Civil War camps and on battlefields

  1. Cookie

    interesting points- one has to tread lightly in the realm of ‘how realistic is too realistic’ for some audiences with certain odors- not to mention heath and safety issues.

  2. Thanks Cookie. I assume your comment was in relationship to museums that use fragrances to create ambiance?

    Those are concerns but I do not know of any museum that uses these fragrances such as burning wood in a kitchen (fragrance or real) to have run into violations of health and safety.

    It is, as I understand, expensive to have these fragrances set up to some sort of pump to continue to produce the odor.

  3. Last weekend historic Ellicott City Maryland citizens and visitors got to experience one of the olfactory pleasures that permeated the town in the mid 19th century, especially during the boom times of the war. As a volunteer at the local B&O museum, it was interesting to walk up and down the quiet streets (the roads were closed by police) in period clothing, close the eyes and smell the town as it once was.

    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2011-09-18/news/bs-md-ho-manure-20110918_1_liquid-manure-spill-pure-wine-cafe

  4. All very true, but did you have to rub our noses in it?

    Seriously, the stench after the Crater must have been awful.

    • James,

      I agree and it was replicated many times on the battlefields of many wars. Another example that popped into my mind was Port Hudson in July 1863.

      I was very pleased that someone who was on a Crater tour with me yesterday said “I could literally feel and smell the battle around me.” Admittedly, I was very excited to hear this since I had just made this post.

  5. The romanticism of the Civil War–and the trauma experienced by the soldiers–was a favorite topic with two of our undergrad professors, including Dr. Jeff McClurken, who is an avid blogger (you may want to share this post with him!). In Public History and Memory we really delved into this working with the Civil War-era graveyards in town….

    Your post is a powerful reminder of how limited our thinking often is. As much as “Please Touch” exhibits and museums have gotten attention, they are still the exception. The physical feeling of wood (with splinters) on tools that needed to be gripped adds an important dimension to understanding, just as smells do. Sensations associated with temperature are also often lacking in this age of central air.

    This really also compliments a book/lesson from one of my grad school classes, Mark M. Smith’s Hearing History (http://www.amazon.com/Hearing-History-Mark-M-Smith/dp/082032583X), which draws attention to how limited our interpretations and studies are, and how important communication often happened through sounds. I think there’s even a chapter in there (although I could be mistaken about which book I’m thinking of) referencing Civil War battles and the role of music in signaling logistics. My class spent some time listening to sound recordings and trying to recognize sounds, and many of my classmates didn’t have a clue what half the noises they heard were, which was funny since I’d come to depend on noises in a city to help me figure out when to speed up and when to slow down (car horns, approaching subways, etc.).
    Developing more multi-sensory interpretation would also compliment some of the ADA requirements…

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