Day pleasant and we drilled twice. Shall like the artillery service well. Ground more or less covered with fragments of flint and limestone: contains fossils, shells, coral and trilobites. (Reluctant Cannoneer: The Diary of Robert T. McMahan of the Twenty-fifth Independent Ohio Light Artillery, edited by Michael E. Banasik, 2000, p. 78)More than two weeks later, on a cold November 21st, even as his unit expected an attack by Confederate forces to the south, McMahan spent time fossil hunting, a pastime he called “geologizing.” It was a most productive day because, in his exploring, he scrambled down to a creek running through a small valley and came upon rocks rich in fossils. From among the many shards of what he called “flint” littering the creek bed, he collected “beautiful specimens” of shells, coral, and trilobites. But his most prized find was something he identified as a “siliceous eel . . . certainly the most beautiful fossil I have seen as yet in this rock.” Striations ran longitudinally along the exterior of the three-quarter-inch-long specimen, while the interior was composed of many “chambers . . . separated by partitions.” (p. 81-82) It was, he concluded later, a “Silurian eel.” (p. 82)
With regard to this find, he was wrong about many things: it was certainly not Silurian (443 to 419 million years ago) because the vertebrate group of which eels are a member only appear in the Early Cretaceous Period (145 to 100 million years ago) and the likely age of the formation in which he was collecting is Mississippian (some 359 to 323 million years ago). In fact, I think he had found a section of a fossilized straight nautiloid, a mollusk. The time and place fit. An example of this type of fossil is pictured below.
(This image was cropped from a fossil “poster” prepared by the Arkansas Geological Survey.)
What was just so right about this find was that McMahan made it at all. The most wonderful aspect of his riveting diary is the frequent intersection of soldiering and a deep attention to natural history. The diary follows his military life from enlistment on August 10, 1861, to mustering out on September 8, 1864. Though the young graduate of Jefferson College in Pittsburgh, PA, may have deferred pursuit of his ministerial career in order to go to war, he certainly did not put aside his consuming interest in natural history while serving. In that, McMahan was similar to many Americans drawn into the Civil War.
Men, women, and children in 19th Century America embraced the study of natural history with a fervor. Collecting natural specimens, from fossils to shells, from insects to plants, engaged a broad swath of the population. Science was alive in communities across the country through the work of scientific societies, museums, and other institutions. Thousands flocked to scientific lectures; for instance, some of Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz’s lectures in Boston during the winter of 1846-47 attracted 5,000 eager patrons. Cabinets of curiosities stood tall in many homes, at times becoming the foundations of the scientific collections of museums and colleges. The acquisition of knowledge of the natural world was widely believed to be a hallmark of a civilized person and a mature society. In the decade before the Civil War, Spencer F. Baird, an assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institution created a nationwide network of correspondents through which natural history specimens flowed to the fledgling entity, expanding its collections enormously. For many of these correspondents, science was an avocational interest, and they came from diverse walks of life – they were “farmers, tradesmen, clerical workers, and manual laborers.” At the time of the Civil War, science seemed a largely communal affair with the lines dividing professional from amateur in the sciences just beginning to be drawn.
(Among the sources I used to develop the perspective outlined here are: Keith R. Benson, Concluding Remarks: American Natural History and Biology in the Nineteenth Century, American Zoologist, Vol. 26, No. 2, 1986; Thomas Bender, Science and the Culture of American Communities: The Nineteenth Century, History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring 1976; Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Curiosities and Cabinets: Natural History Museums and Education on the Antebellum Campus, Isis, Vol. 79, No. 3, September 1988; Daniel Goldstein, “Yours for Science”: The Smithsonian Institution’s Correspondents and the Shape of Scientific Community in Nineteenth-Century America, Isis, Vol. 85, No. 4, December, 1994; Edward Lurie, Louis Agassiz, 1988.)
A question I had been grappling with even before these years of the 150th anniversary of the fighting of the Civil War is this:
As 19th century American men were swept into the war, what happened to the enthusiasm for nature and natural history that had gripped so many of them in their civilian lives?Yes, they mostly had to throw off the roles they had played in civilian society and assume the new, military ones assigned to them. But, I am convinced that for many of them, on the battlefield, on the endless roads they marched down, and in the camps where much of their time was spent, their interest in natural history emerged; it could not be suppressed. McMahan repeatedly “geologized,” building a collection that, on April 17, 1863, he reported was to be “boxed up” and sent home. Of this collection, he noted, “Have quite a variety of Silurian fossils.” (Reluctant Cannoneer, p. 142.) Though his pursuit of natural history while soldiering may have been particularly intense, it was not unique. Consider the stories that follow.
This first one probably doesn't help much to make my case, but it's fun. Did the Brigadier General George G. Meade actually take time out of the Seven Days’ Campaign near Richmond in June, 1862, to collect a six-lined racerunner lizard (Aspidoscelis sexlineata sexlineata) and send it off to naturalist Louis Agassiz at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology?
(This image of General Meade was taken by Mathew Brady and is in the Library of Congress’ photographic collection.)
Writer Franklin J. Tobey, Jr. certainly thought it possible and that it would explain how the specimen ended up at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, floating in a jar of alcohol that was labeled “Richmond, Virginia, 1862.” If true, Meade’s motives seemingly reflected less of a naturalist bent, and much more of a practical concern. In 1856, Meade, serving as a captain on Key West, Florida, with the Corps of Topographical Engineers, had befriended Harvard-trained naturalist Theodore Lyman, who had journeyed to Florida to collect starfish specimens. The lizard sent to Agassiz, speculated Tobey, might have been part of a campaign to bring Lyman, a former student of Agassiz's, onto Meade’s personal staff. If so, it worked (eventually) because from late summer 1863 (after the Battle of Gettysburg) until the end of the war, Lyman served with Meade, and, it should be noted, during his service, the naturalist, not unexpectedly, collected and sent a few specimens back to Cambridge. (The Mystery of Harvard’s Civil War Lizard, Civil War Times Illustrated, January/February 1991. I have to note that the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s online database lists a six-lined racerunner as being found in Richmond, Virginia, but the date is given as unknown.)
A story decidedly more to the point involves John Wesley Powell, who, in his post-war career, went on to lead an expedition that navigated down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, head the U.S. Geological Survey, and direct the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology (aspects of his life were described in a previous post).
(This picture of John Wesley Powell is from the Library of Congress' photographic collection.)
Powell had a long standing interest in geology. A school teacher and principal in Illinois before joining the Union Army at the outset of the war, Powell saw heavy action early in the war in the west, losing an arm at Shiloh. He parlayed his self-taught expertise in engineering and geology into a position as a military engineer, a role he played in the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 as a Captain with Battery F, 2d Illinois Artillery Volunteers. The siege dragged on and the Union forces slowly moved forward, digging new trenches and fortifications.
The slow progress of digging gave Powell ample opportunity to examine the rocks of the area, especially because fossil seashells were uncovered in the trenches. During periods of inactivity, Wes and Emma [General Grant had permitted Powell’s wife to join her husband at the front] collected specimens of these fossil mollusks, discarding inferior examples as better ones came to light. He treasured this little collection and, before the final assault, carefully wrapped each piece in cotton scraps and sent them by post to Wheaton [Illinois] for safekeeping. (William Culp Darrah, Powell of the Colorado, 1951, p. 65)An act of botanizing has resonated down the century and a half since the war. Captain John Cornelius McMullen with the First Wisconsin Regiment outside Atlanta, Georgia, carefully plucked a plant and, pressing it in paper, mailed it off to a scientist in Wisconsin. (David Tenenbaum, Flower Links Civil War, Natural History and “The Blood of Heroes,” University of Wisconsin-Madison News, November 24, 2014.) On that date, August 14, 1864, McMullen was part of the Union forces led by General William T. Sherman that were marching through Georgia. Atlanta would fall less than a month later. As McMullen wrote of the plant in the letter that accompanied it to Wisconsin:
It was growing outside my tent and notwithstanding the noise of 500 pieces of artillery flourished, and seemed to repose as sweetly at night as if its native heath was not disturbed by the tread of hostile armies.
(Pictured above is the plant specimen and the accompanying letter. This photograph is reproduced with the permission of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the photographer Bryce Richter.)
The scientist to whom the plant was sent was Increase Lapham, considered the “founder of natural history in Wisconsin.” McMullen survived the war, worked for the U.S. Government, and then went into banking in California. (Lawrence College Alumni Record 1857-1915, p 181.) I don’t have any other record of McMullen’s activities related to natural history during the war, though I doubt that this plucking was a one-of-a-kind event.
The most tragic of these vignettes features Private Isaac Lyman Taylor to whom I previously devoted a post (relevant references can be found in that post). For little bit more than a year, from January 1, 1862, until the morning of his death at Gettysburg, on July 2, 1863, Taylor of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment recorded his wry observations about his life as a soldier. Taylor, who had graduated from college and was teaching school in Illinois at outset of the war, wrote a diary that is literate, insightful, and moving. In many parts, it reveals the thoughts of a man carefully studying the geology of the landscape around him and hungrily reading geology texts to build his knowledge. On occasion, a specimen or two might be collected – sometimes it’s clear what was found, other times not. It was clear, for instance, on May 8, 1863, outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, when Taylor wrote, “Cloudy & some rain. Relieved at 9 A.M. Flag of truce crosses river. I send a piece of petrified wood to Prof. D[avid] Branch of Prairie City Academy.”
In late June, when his unit pulled out and headed north in pursuit of Lee’s Confederate Army, Taylor would find himself marching through Haymarket, Virginia, and into Thoroughfare Gap in the Bull Run Mountains. His diary entry for June 22, 1863, reads,
Fair day. Relieved about noon. This P.M. I “reconnoitre” about Thorofare Gap & find two old grist mills, a few dwelling houses, Broad Run, highly inclined strata, tortuous lamina, joints, cleavage planes, igneous rocks, bold “crags & peaks” & much magnificent scenery.
If I were a free man I should enjoy a whole day’s ramble in this vicinity, but in these “exciting times” a soldier does not venture very far from camp for fear that something may turn up that requires his presence.The last entry in the diary in Taylor’s handwriting is dated the morning of July 2nd.
I have not discovered other accounts of specific individuals who, during this war, turned to natural history. Such stories are out there, of that I am certain. My search to date has been haphazard, with nothing methodical about it. So, for example, even though I haven’t found instances of men serving in Confederate ranks pursuing natural history, they are likely to be found; the embrace of natural history was not a uniquely northern phenomenon.
Overall, the pull of natural history was strong among many of the men of the mid-19th century who were drawn into giant military machines. I think that is shown by the examples recounted here. Of the universality of this impulse, I offer this final piece of evidence.
During the war, Benjamin F. Taylor, an editor of the Chicago Evening Journal, served as the newspaper’s correspondent in the field with Union armies in the West, including the Army of the Cumberland. Taylor, also a poet, waxed eloquent about the life of the soldier in battle and in camp. Particularly vibrant are his descriptions of soldiers setting up camp when, from a torrent of activity, shelters emerged, and implements to support domestic life were crafted. Taylor observed of these soldiers,
They are tailors, they are tinkers, they are writers; fencing, boxing, cooking, eating, drilling, – those who say that camp-life is a lazy life know little about it. (Benjamin F. Taylor, Pictures of Life in Camp and Field, 1875, p. 96.)He described how quickly men in camp came to know the land that surrounded them, the people and animals who lived there, and the crops growing in the fields. In this process, the soldiers’ passion for natural history emerged full throated.
If there is a curious cave, a queer tree, a strange rock, anywhere about, they know it. You can see them with chisel, hammer and haversack, tugging up the mountain, or scrambling down the ravine, in a geological passion that would have won the right hand of fellowship from Hugh Miller [a Scottish paleontologist and geologist], and home they come with specimens that would enrich a cabinet. The most exquisite fossil buds just ready to open, beautiful shells, rare minerals, are collected by these rough and dashing naturalists. (p. 96-97.)