Historiography Of PTSD In Civil War Soldiers

Researching the American Civil War soldier and what that soldier encountered during the war requires a good bit of time management, and sometimes a bit of understanding due to the amount of sources that deals with the topic. During the war the average Union and Confederate soldier lost someone close to them due to battle injuries or due to illness and this loss affected the soldier mentally. Sometimes the soldier himself was injured due to being shot or hit with a cannon shot which not only caused him a lifetime of pain, but the injuries wreaked havoc on his mental state throughout his life. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder a topic which has not been incorporated into Civil War research thoroughly, is an important topic as it helps define what a Civil War soldier endured through the war and how he carried back home after the war.

During the Civil War and Reconstruction era mental illness was not focused on as the wars were of great interest, but decades later after the war Civil War soldiers and PTSD have become a focal point of historians in recent times. In today’s society, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is a common diagnosis for current or former soldiers that have been on active duty or in a battle. PTSD, which was labeled as melancholy or nostalgia during the American Civil War or shell shock during World War I was not originally an official diagnosis until the early 1980’s. Symptoms of PTSD include depression, flashbacks, irritation to stimuli or people, nightmares, and physical harm and former soldiers of the Civil War exhibited these symptoms during and after the war. In current times PTSD can be viewed as an anxiety disorder in which psychologists Miki Doran and Mooli Lahad have reported that 80 percent of the Western World is affected by and it has shown its effects of long-term problems in 40 percent of cases. There is no way to know the exact number of veterans of the Civil War that exhibited these symptoms after the war, but the men and sources that document PTSD points to a horrific experience that sometimes led to depression, suicide, and substance abuse.

During the War Between the States mental breakdowns or signs of cowardice were not an option given to the soldiers by military leaders or doctors. Swift punishment was administered to a Union or Confederate soldier such as death for desertion and the soldiers followed a strict personal regimen for combat and camp life. The soldiers exhibited courage during battle as they did not want to face their fellow soldiers for not showing a proper battlefield attitude and if they did not they would face poor treatment or loose the respect of their leaders or comrades. For example, if a soldier displayed any type of mental disorder or trauma during the war it was dealt with swiftly. Historian John Talbott states that men were brought before court martials in 1864 if they displayed any type of mental illness during the war. As the war continued the men still held in their emotions and fears, but sometimes after the war the men let go of their feelings and exhibited unusual behavior.

During the Civil War physicians and surgeons described mental issues as melancholy and hysteria. Melancholy was a term that was associated with the war and it is similar to today’s diagnosis of depression. Melancholy was experienced by mostly every soldier, but it did not garner immediate attention from some doctors. Melancholy was a common issue for both Union and Confederate soldiers, but there was not a treatment prescribed for this issue even though sometimes melancholy resulted in suicide among veterans and soldiers. An example of melancholy in a soldier was Thomas Smiley and his experience with burned bodies. He states in his diary that there was the large brick house at Chancellorsville took fire and burnt up with about two hundred wounded yankees who were so badly hurt that they could not move and their own soldiers did not help them any. This experience by Smiley is an example of what the soldiers saw during the war which caused melancholy. A study was completed at the completed at the conclusion of the war which was reported by the Surgeon General’s Office and it was recorded in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-65). The results from the study showed that 302 men committed suicide during the war, but this does not include the Confederacy’s statistics and prisoner of war camps. This figure does give a true idea as to how much melancholy affected the soldiers, especially on the northern side.

Hysteria was another common mental disturbance that the Civil War soldiers and veterans encountered during and after the war. Hysteria, a condition in which experiences of the war brought on was not an official diagnosis by surgeons and physicians. Hysteria was evident in a situation that haunted a Union soldier named Albert. Albert and a comrade were taking a break when a Confederate shell was fired in their direction and it struck Albert’s friend and decapitated him. Albert’s response after the incident took him into a state of shock in which he remained in a psychotic state through the night and the following day he was declared unfit and was admitted into an asylum. The issue with asylum records in regards to hysteria which makes the historiography of this mental issue difficult was the lack of information submitted on records or the lack thereof records. Asylums in the southern states are difficult to locate and northern asylum notations are not per se easy to locate, but the records contain limited information. This makes comparison of hysterical cases during and after the Civil War difficult to document and research.

The third disorder that some soldiers faced during and after the war was nostalgia. Nostalgia or depression was the discomfort, hardships, and exposure that occurred when soldiers or veterans who were raw recruits who were homesick or men that were married and separated from their families. An example of nostalgia was shown in a young man who became ill in 1864 and then became depressed and homesick. A month and a half later he passed away from his mysterious illness. Many men on both sides suffered from nostalgia, but officers denied or laughed at these men as this was deemed an unacceptable illness. Officers would accuse the soldiers of being lazy and even goes as far as accusing some men of being cowards, but the officers felt the only cure for this problem was to place the afflicted soldier into combat or force him to complete extra tasks around the camp. Even exercising was recommended to help the soldier occupy his mind instead of thinking about his loved ones. One positive aspect to nostalgia and its treatment was highlighted by Drew Gilpin Faust. Faust noted that the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission which were northern based groups recommended that soldiers keep up communications with families. These communications or letters helped combat nostalgia as it was a temporary solution in which the soldiers received and mailed letters to loved ones.

There are several historians that have focused on the historiography of the violent nature of war and how it affected the soldiers of the American Civil War and the first historians are Joseph Allan Frank and George Reeves. These two historians discussed the horrors of war and the affects it had on the soldiers in the book Seeing the Elephant: Raw Recruits at the Battle of Shiloh. The authors used various primary and secondary sources to broaden the historiography and in one instance they used Captain Andrew Davis’ diary to describe the horrors of Shiloh as Davis stated it was an overwhelming concentrated horror due to the damage the guns and cannons inflicted upon the Confederate troops. Frank and Reaves also noted that the soldiers would dig through the dead bodies looking for valuables and then sit down and eat without showing any emotion. The authors were able to add to the historiography as they pointed out that even though the scenes at Shiloh were gruesome the soldiers did not express remorse and these actions would play a negative role in their lives later with the onset of PTSD.

Historian Gerald Linderman built the historiography of PTSD and the American Civil War soldier as he focused on the reactions and experiences of the young soldiers on the battlefield. Linderman focused on the courage of the young soldiers as they felt that courage must be upheld throughout the war and if courage was lost the soldier was useless to his regiment and comrades. He argues strongly that the sights that these men witnessed throughout the war would make it impossible to back to civilian life successfully after the war. Linderman’s analysis illustrates that the sights that the men witnessed would impact their lives negatively as they would experience psychological issues after the war.

Another secondary source that promoted combat trauma related issues and mental health concerning the Civil War was Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress Vietnam and the Civil War. Eric Dean, the author examined mental health and the Civil War which developed new historiography as he used the cliametric school of thought. In his work he examines former Civil War soldiers and how their experiences of terrible sights affected them after the war. One of Dean’s strengths in his research was his analysis of 291 cases from the Indiana Hospital of the Insane in which former soldiers were admitted due to psychological issues. His analysis consisted of evaluating the demographics of the former soldiers and he found that PTSD in former Civil War soldiers was common. His work helped pave the way for other historians to research and expand on the historiography of PTSD and the Civil War.

Historian Diane Miller Sommerville discussed PTSD and the Civil War in her article “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the American Civil War.” Sommerville was quick to add to the historiography of the topic by pointing out two logical points. One logical point that she discusses in her research is why historians have been tardy in studying PTSD in the Civil War soldier. In her article she used primary and secondary sources and discovered that Civil War soldiers suffered through the same symptoms that modern soldiers exhibit today, but in past historiographical evidence historians have not acknowledged that Civil War soldiers experienced psychological issues. She states that one reason historians did not consider PTSD legitimate is due to the lack of weapons of mass destruction which brought fear to soldiers in the 20th century. Past historians argued that without these modern weapons there was not any reason Civil War soldiers could have PTSD, but Sommerville argues that the gruesome acts of violence and the amount of casualties did bring about PTSD in the soldiers.

A second argument that Sommerville included in the historiography of the topic concerns the lack of scientific and psychological understanding during the War Between the States. Civil War doctors did not see a connection between war and mental breakdowns, and left little direct evidence about psychological issues. But, in Sommerville’s and other historians’ recent research has brought evidence that is centered on the mental and psychological issues shows that these issues were a common problem. There are two examples that she included in her research and the first example is a Confederate veteran from Alabama, William James. James returned from war and he began to rebuild his life as a farmer, but he began to exhibit violent behavior and in the process he unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide. His behavior today would be diagnosed as PTSD. She also mentioned another former soldier Neal Story who served in Georgia’s 46th Infantry during the war. During the war he began to act weird, but after returning home his odd behavior increased. He became more violent and finally his family admitted him into the Georgia Lunatic Asylum when his erratic behavior continued. Sommerville’s assessment of primary and secondary sources has added to the historiography to help validate PTSD was indeed a problem during and after the war.

Princeton economics professors Dr. Angus Deaton and Dr. Anne Case researched the mortality rates of middle-aged men form the post-Civil War era and they came to an important discovery that southern whites had the highest addiction rates in the country. This conclusion by the researchers is important because at this time many veterans had returned from war wounded or were imprisoned in the harsh prison camps were prescribed opium or morphine. These prescribed opiates were used to treat the pain associated with the wound or was given to the veterans to combat the symptoms of PTSD. For example, one former Union soldier described his addiction to opium which was given to him after his imprisonment at Andersonville, but he became addicted and tried to quit the drug. He described the withdrawals as “no tongue or pen will ever describe the depths of horror my life plunged into. This veteran was able to stop his opioid use, but not after it wrecked his life and tortured his body.

Confederate soldiers also turned to opioids as a way to cope with the atrocities they witnessed during the war. Many soldiers came home to not only a defeated Confederacy, but ruined homes, and dead loved ones. These human losses were either family members or friends and to deal with this heartbreaking ordeal former soldiers turned to morphine to relieve the pain or grief. Sommerville discussed a former soldier who turned to drug use because he was destitute, but his family begged him to seek admittance into the Lee Camp Soldier’s Home due to his addiction and his low social status in society. He had turned to opioids to relieve his pain from the wound he received in the war and his depression brought on due to his lack of money. After the Civil War had ended former soldiers turned to drugs to help ease the suffering of PTSD, but these drugs caused addiction problems which have carried on to modern society today. 

16 August 2021
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