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Now Available on Video: “Battle Logs: Visualizing the Destruction of Forests in the American Civil War”

Posted on 07/14/2015

With her Civil War expertise, passion for environmental history, and quick wit, Megan Kate Nelson, author of Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War, offered a compelling presentation at the Readex-hosted breakfast during the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in San Francisco.


The acclaimed historian shared her journey through thousands of images created during the Civil War, including sketches, photographs, newspaper illustrations, and engravings. Through these visuals, Nelson unlocked the story of war held in trees. By the end of the hour, her passion for injured landscapes had convinced the audience that trees are, in their own way, veterans of war. They played a critical role in the “destructive creation” by both Union and Confederate soldiers. By the end of the war in 1865, more than 4 million trees had been consumed.

But, the destruction of trees only tells half the story. During the Civil War, trees played a crucial role in construction, providing the necessary material to create sturdy housing structures, critical for soldiers’ survival, especially through cold winter months. These simple buildings gave soldiers a sense of place and community, a small inkling of security in unfamiliar territory hundreds of miles from home. Through her research, Nelson uncovered evidence that soldiers even gave their homes addresses.

In one particularly unique find, Nelson discovered a letter written in 1863 by Massachusetts solider Charles Morse to his father, which included a sketch of the soldier’s log house in the middle of the page. Further evidence of Morse’s pride in his work appeared in a letter he wrote a few months later to his mother—which included a floor plan of the one-room structure. See these letters and learn more about the communities Civil War soldiers created in the full video of Nelson’s talk.

Charles Morse to his father, from Fairfax Station, January 10/11, 1863, Charles F. Morse Civil War Letters, Folder 6, Box 1, Charles F. Morse Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS)

We hope to see you at a future Readex presentation. For previous filmed lectures hosted by Readex, please see our Event Talks page.

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