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Reflections on “The Trauma of War” and Shook over Hell

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 414-418 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0085

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I began work on my study of the psychological problems of Civil War soldiers and veterans in the 1980s. I was influenced largely by two factors: First, the Vietnam Veterans’ movement of the 1970s and 1980s had drawn a great deal of attention to the phenomenon of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Commentators stated repeatedly, without challenge, that this phenomenon was unique to Vietnam veterans, and that soldiers and veterans of earlier American wars, including the Civil War, had readjusted well, due to adulation from adoring publics. Second, John Keegan had only recently written The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, and this work invited historians to examine military history with a close eye on the experience of the common soldier—something that had been grievously overlooked for all intents and purposes in practically all military and social history. In prior military history, the emphasis had been on generals, leaders, battles, and regimental histories, and there had probably been more discussion of uniforms and flags than of the opinions and reactions of the common men who fought and died.

I put aside my law practice and accepted Keegan’s invitation to examine the past with a new, more discerning eye. Common sense suggested that in a war like the American Civil War, which took the lives of an estimated 750,000 men, there must have been adverse, if not dire psychological consequences for the combatants. But no one had yet written this story. I thus embarked on my ten-year study of the Civil War soldier and veteran.

My journey took me to Purdue University for an MA and Yale University for a PhD. I put together an ambitious “plan of attack,” which would take me from my native Midwest to the East and South. To conserve resources, I favored Motel 6’s, and I spent long days in a wide variety of state and private libraries and state archives as well as the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Perhaps only another historian can appreciate the deep satisfaction of spending days and days in the quiet and still of the archives poring over manuscripts, letters, and diaries, and finally discovering what one has been seeking. I had many such moments, which were full of wonder.

A stunning portrait of Civil War soldiers and veterans in acute distress emerged. I saw classic elements of PTSD, including depression, anxiety, social numbing, flashbacks, fear, dread of calamity, and memory loss. These men continued to suffer from the aftereffects of the war. Their testimony was immediate, compelling, and alarming: “Sobbed & cried & imagined that some one was going to kill him”; “in constant dread of being killed”; “Preparing his knife and bringing his ax in near his bed at night time”; “calls for his gun & declares his enemies are seeking his life & at times talks as if the Rebels were threatening an attack”; “his whole mind was on the service, and he constantly ranted about the army, saying that the rebels were after him and that he could hear them digging holes to put him in.” He would “look wild and excited and being evidently in great mental commotion,” would say “there is some one after me,” “do you see them coming over the hill, we will all be lost and destroyed.”

Doctors would heavily sedate these men, but their torment continued, and to end the unbearable memories of death and violence, many tried to take their own lives. The families of these men also suffered. In my research, the stories of devoted wives, sisters, and mothers emerged—people who maintained their vigils night after night to care for their menfolk who could not sleep. One can only imagine the distress of the sister of Allen Wile, who was close to her brother. One day in 1867, he was riding with her in her wagon, when he was suddenly seized by panic and fear. He held his head in his hands, and, in a highly distraught condition, “said for me for God’s Sake to help him away from there and from that country, and … his face turned red, and he said he thought someone was going to shoot...

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