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“A Burden Too Heavy to Bear”: War Trauma, Suicide, and Confederate Soldiers

From: Civil War History
Volume 59, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 453-491 | 10.1353/cwh.2013.0070

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Civil War soldiers are among the last participants in American wars to become the focus of scholarly inquiries about the effects of war trauma. Eric Dean’s Shook over Hell, the first substantive historical treatment of Civil War soldiers and the impact of post-traumatic stress, rightly notes that historians have pinpointed World War I as the watershed of military psychological casualties, and in doing so have given short shrift to nineteenth-century soldiers, minimizing or even ignoring their emotional and psychological suffering. Focusing our attention on Civil War soldiers, with the benefit of recent studies of war trauma and neurological impairment, though, permits us to see that combat stress greatly affected these men. Asylum records, diaries, and wartime newspapers reveal a virtual epidemic of emotional and psychiatric trauma among Confederate soldiers and veterans that manifested in a wide array of physiological and psychological symptoms. Institutionalization and even suicide occurred in extreme cases. Documenting and examining instances of war-related psychological trauma among Confederate soldiers, a key aim of this essay, gets us closer to a fuller accounting of the costs of civil war on the American people.

The brutal and protracted experience of war also forced Confederates, both soldiers and civilians, to reconsider the meaning of many traditional convictions and ideals to which they had clung when the war began. None of these notions suffered more than that of masculine courage, as Gerald Linderman argues in Embattled Courage. At the war’s outset, courage was defined as heroic action, as unflinching stoicism in the face of danger, and as the ability to face peril without exhibiting fear. Corollaries stemming from the ideal of courage included dying the good death and the belief that bravery protected soldiers. On the battlefield, courage was personified by the likes of Stonewall Jackson and J. E. B. Stuart, who appeared indifferent to and unaffected by the risks in battle. Launching a charge across an open field defined martial courage. But the grinding, lethal, and sustained experience of war chipped away at the pantheon of courage, baring its obsolescence. The flipside of courage, cowardice, likewise evolved over the course of war. Constructing breastworks or seeking shelter behind a tree, early on denounced as cowardly, came to be embraced as practical and prudent. And the experiences of scores of soldiers who exhibited psychological debilitation forced a reconsideration of the association of psychiatric breakdown with cowardice. Strong, virtuous men, not merely the weak and unvirtuous, broke down in the field, forcing Confederate men and women to rethink the stark and rigid dichotomy of courage and cowardice. As psychologically incapacitated soldiers were discharged and sent home or committed to insane asylums, or as word spread in a community about a soldier who had committed suicide, the reality of war began to resonate with those on the front lines as well as at home, causing many to reassess the high, inflexible, and unrealistic standards for manly comportment in a war zone. Given the mounting evidence of pervasive emotional suffering among Confederate soldiers, which only intensified as the war continued, even suicides, though rare, tended to be treated with understanding and empathy not in evidence before the war.

To understand how the war altered ideas about men’s courage, it is essential to pull back the curtain and examine the stories of those soldiers in the war zone who proved unable to endure the rigors of warfare and to establish the extent of combat stress reactions among Confederate troops. Because until recently war trauma generally and suicide specifically have been largely ignored in U.S. history, especially in the American South, another aim of this study is to shed light on the hidden history of mental illness and suicide in the American South. I argue that once we become more aware of the extent of combat-related psychiatric casualties we can then better understand why some soldiers took their own lives and how those suicides were regarded by others. By examining characterizations and treatments of soldier suicides by white southerners we can better assess how the experience of the Civil War changed ideas about suicide. The bevy of Confederate suicides, emerging as they did out of a larger swath of...

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