Lessons from the Civil War

There is an interesting observation in a book written in 1929 about General Sherman of the Civil War. The statement is “An even greater asset was the simpler and lighter diet of the Southerner, which enhanced his strategic mobility, whereas the heavy-feeding Northerner was not only handicapped by dependence on rail-borne supplies but strained the capacity of the railroads to supply him with beef and corn. The battlefields also offered a pungent proof of the difference - in the Northerner’s quicker decomposition as a corpse.” [Sherman: Soldier, Realist, American. By Liddell Hart, B. H.. (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. 1929, pg. 80)]

Why is this statement noteworthy? Because the Civil War provided a unique opportunity to observe the biological condition of two distinct groups of people – the Union soldiers who came from a more industrialized economy and the Confederate soldiers who came from a more agrarian economy. The battles were so horrific and so many men died that many times the dead were left where they fell and were never properly buried. The fact that the Union soldiers’ bodies decomposed faster demonstrates that the industrialized diet they were raised on and fed as they fought was less conducive to good health than was the Southern diet that was less industrialized.

To further illustrate this point, consider the well-known fact that the Southern troops were far more mobile than their Northern counterparts. Stonewall Jackson’s foot cavalry is the ultimate example of this fact. Jackson’s infantry could move so fast and cover so much ground that the oxymoron foot cavalry was developed to describe them. Much of this was due to Jackson and his generalship but one has to wonder how much of a role the stouter constitution of the Confederate soldier played in this phenomena.

Why does any of this matter? The Civil War was a turning point in American history when the industrialized North defeated the agrarian South and the nation as a whole became an industrialized nation. In fact, agriculture itself became more industrialized, a trend that continues to this day. If in the infancy of the industrial revolution, a clear distinction could be seen in the constitutional makeup of the soldiers of the two armies based on their diets, then how much more has the industrialization of America and its diet affected the constitution of its citizens? And if our constitutional makeup is far weaker based on this fact, how much more do we need to bolster our immune system and other bodily systems with nutrients and supplements to counteract these adverse effects?

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