A Nurse Describes the Smell of the Civil War

The overpowering stink of blood and decaying flesh can surprise even trained soldiers

civil war re-enactment
A Civil War historical re-enactment at Tunnel Hill, Georgia FRILET Patrick/Hemis/Corbis

War is full of smells. "Stay in a hospital during a war and you will be come accustomed to the chemical smell of blood," writes journalist Robert Fisk in The Independent as he reflects on his years in the Middle East. Philip Caputo recalls the stench of 8,000 corpses in the Golan Heights during October 1973. "Their putrefying flesh overwhelmed the odors of smoke and diesel fuel and burned tanks, trucks and armored personnel carriers," he writes in the Los Angeles Times

Caroline Hancock was 23 when she served as a nurse after the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863. She found the smell of the decaying bodies so strong that "she viewed it as an oppressive, malignant force, capable of killing the wounded men who were forced to lie amid the corpses until the medical corps could reach them," writes Rebecca Onion for Slate’s history blog, The Vault. Hancock’s account is published in a new book called The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, by Mark Smith, a history professor at the University of South Carolina. The young nurse wrote home:

A sickening, overpowering, awful stench announced the presence of the unburied dead upon which the July sun was mercilessly shining and at every step the air grew heavier and fouler until it seemed to possess a palpable horrible density that could be seen and felt and cut with a knife …

The smell of war can be so powerful that "newly deployed soldiers are often so overwhelmed by the olfactory assault that it distracts them from the tasks at hand," according to James Vlahos in Popular Science. To prepare them for this onslaught, the Army and the Marines familiarize soldiers in training to the stench of rotting flesh and the burn of melting plastic. They’ve even taken to adding smells to their virtual reality simulators. 

While documentation of the realities of war is powerful—some even argue that the press can be too conservative in the photos they show— photographs alone leave the other senses blind. Fisk, the journalist covering the Middle East, writes that he saw horrors that "no art form" could entirely convey. No one left safe at home can fully understand what happens on the battlefield—its full assault on the sense.

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