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Look to the Earth: Historical Archaeology…

Look to the Earth: Historical Archaeology and the American Civil War (1994)

by Clarence R. Geier

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1121,230,628 (3.5)None
"Look to the Earth is the first compilation of historical archaeology research devoted solely to Civil War-period sites. Bringing together twelve essays, the book demonstrates how the material remains of the past can illuminate aspects of the war that have previously lain outside the traditional methods of historical inquiry." "As the editors point out, archaeological research can be used alongside historical documentation to verify or discount events referred to in the printed record; it can also provide physical details of events that may not be available in written reports. In some cases, historical archaeology may provide the only documentation of particular events and effects of the war. This is especially true with regard to those segments of society - freed slaves, poor whites, farmers, and rural millers, among others - whose voices have been lost in the filtering process of history. By recovering the material vestiges of their lives, archaeology can help us reconstruct the fabric of the communities that were ravaged by, or that benefited from, the dynamics of war." "Among the purposes of this volume are to look beyond the Civil War as a strictly military event and to consider its impact upon the larger cultural landscape. Thus the book includes research that departs from traditional studies of battlefield tactics and military histories. The wide range of sites and topics it encompasses - from shipwrecks to cannon foundries to midwestern farms - reflects this perspective." "Representing a variety of theoretical backgrounds and approaches, the essays in Look to the Earth mark first steps in an exciting new area of Civil War research."--BOOK JACKET.Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved… (more)



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I think I already mentioned I usually don’t care for books that are collections of scholarly papers rather than by a single author. However, I seem to be reading a lot of those collections lately. Look to the Earth is a collection of papers about the archaeology of the American Civil War; they are of uneven quality but mostly good.

Three had items of particular interest. “When the Shooting Stopped, the War Began” by William B. Lee (no relation, I assume) discusses the battle of Mine Run in Kansas. The state had purchased the putative battlefield based on investigation by amateur historians; when archaeologists did a quick survey of the site using volunteers with metal detectors, it was found that only about half the battlefield was in the state reservation. Apparently the historians had misidentified a ford. The metal detector investigation found mostly bullets and metallic cartridges; it was possible to identify successive Union and Confederate positions during the battle because the Union troops involved had mostly breechloaders while the Confederates were still using muzzleloaders. Thus dropped or ejected metallic cartridges indicated Union positions, while bullets from those cartridges showed Confederate positions, and vice versa. This technique had been used with great success at the site of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and worked well here, but the author commented that it had failed at the Battle of Perryville since the site had been extensively used by Civil War re-enactment groups. This put an interesting perspective on Civil War re-enactment; there are re-enactment groups in both England and Australia. What will future archaeologists think when they find uniform buttons or other equipment belonging to the Louisiana Tigers or the First Minnesota Volunteers in Oxfordshire or New South Wales?

“Excavation Data for Civil War Era Military Sites in Middle Tennessee” by Samuel D. Smith covers research on the Battle of Franklin. An interesting datum her was the discovery of many unfired “Williams Cleaner Bullets”. The “Williams Cleaner Bullet” had a zinc disc at the base of the Minie ball that was supposed to expand and scour the barrel on firing. Three cartridges out of every ten had “Williams Cleaner Bullets”; however, more than half of the bullets recovered at the excavation were Williams Cleaners. Historic documentation shows that the troops didn’t like these bullets – for no apparent reason, since tests showed they did clean the barrel as advertised and were no less accurate than conventional bullets. However, based on the number found, many riflemen just discarded them.

A really interesting paper was “The Role of Espionage and Foreign Intelligence in the Development of Heavy Ordnance at the West Point Foundry, Cold Springs, New York”. First of all, the foundry had been buried under an industrial waste landfill and was now a Superfund site, so all the archaeological work had to be done in PPE (the author, Joel W. Grossman, doesn’t mention what level; I’m assuming Level C, since anything else would be prohibitively expensive) and in the presence of unexploded Civil War era ordnance. I, of course, would jump at the chance to do this and I suspect many of the Trash Talkers would as well, but it is a little different from ordinary archaeological investigation. Second was the discovery mentioned in the paper title. The famous Parrott Rifle was developed at the West Point Foundry and was supposedly entirely the invention of Robert Parrot. However, documentary evidence showed that the United States had an active industrial espionage program attempting to obtain cannon-making secrets from overseas. In particular, the US had made two recruiting expeditions to England and Ireland; both times passenger manifests listed poor Irish or English immigrants but when they got to the US they turned out to be skilled foundry and ordnance workers. The US also obtained a complete set of detailed manufacturing drawings for a British Armstrong cannon from a Russian officer; the Tsar, of course, had recently been defeated in the Crimea and possibly had an interest in seeing the US as a counterbalance to other European powers. At any rate, the archaeology confirmed the documentary data in surprising fashion. A set of buildings at the foundry which had always been identified as small cottages for manual laborers turned out to be something else entirely. Artifacts recovered included microscopes, drafting implements, gunner’s quadrants, and a variety of European domestic goods, all unlikely to belong to poor workers. The conclusion is that the “cottages” actually housed the various foreign specialists the US had recruited over the years, and were disguised as lower-class housing to keep visiting European intelligence agents in the dark.

The other papers are readable but pedestrian; the only bad one is a discussion of corn-belt “archaeology” from a Marxist perspective. I put “archaeology” in quotes there because no actual field work gets discussed; it’s all various statements about class and social distinctions.

Specialized but worthwhile if the period interests you. The Mine Run battlefield isn’t too far away (by local standards); I’ll have to bring this book along for reference if I ever visit it. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 15, 2017 |
Interesting topic, but I wished most of the articles were better, or at least more engagingly, written. The next to the last article, on weapons technology espionage, was the most interesting to a casual reader. ( )
  jjlangel | Sep 5, 2010 |
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