- Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War
In Rehabilitating Bodies, Lisa Long, a professor of literature and gender studies, attempts to explain why the Civil War emerged as a powerful cultural hermeneutic that expresses altered social, political, and economic relationships and helped form an emergent self-consciousness. This cultural trope emerged as a result of an intimate relationship between the war and a variety of physical illnesses that became inextricable from social diseases (racism and sexism), which infected the culture at large. The enduring diseases of the war not only served as measures of postbellum health but also became deeply embedded in understanding the Civil War. Disease and the experience of war became interchangeable. People chose to revisit the war through fiction, narratives, first-person accounts, and battle-site visitations as a form of rehabilitation; therefore, the war was a source of disease and restoration. Long uses postbellum literature, African American war narratives, and United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) records to illuminate patterns and changes in stress-related human and military experience to provide a framework for understanding the historical meaning of the Civil War.
Rehabilitating Bodies fails on most levels, but primarily because Long examines the psychosocial effects and the historical significance of the war in postbellum literature. Fiction reflects cultural/social norms because "any contact with the Civil War can conveniently collapse the already tenuous distinctions between [history and fiction]; the war's sheer weight, the magnitude of its [End Page 103] suffering, and the heft of its dead bodies press, condensing all representations into compact nuggets of history. Thus any text that treats the Civil War can become American history, even when it explicitly purports no such generic intention" (17). Long fails to prove the connection between fiction and historical memory or fact. Imagining any historian rating Silas W. Mitchell's "The Case of George Dedlow" as an equal in historicity with Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (1886) is unfathomable.
This work also suffers from Long's deficiency in Civil War history. In "Sanitary Bodies," Long criticizes the USSC's assertion that sanitary science aided Union victory. It is, according to Long, "the foundational myth upon which [Union] victory, defeat, and subsequent reunification are founded" (95). Long fails to understand the connection between and among martial discipline, sanitary camps, and healthy soldiers: without discipline the camps would be contaminated with fecal matter, dead animals, and rodents. Discipline was the basis for sanitation and healthy bodies, and healthy soldiers won the war.
In "Nursing Bodies," Long purports that strict army uniform regulations for female nurses stripped the women of their sexuality, creating a sedate person, "divest[ing] the women . . . of their corporeal power" (187). Dorothea Dix wrote the guide and the dress code for her nurses, not the army, thus negating Long's perceived antifeminine interpretation of army regulations.
The author confuses fiction with reality and social norms, encoding racial stereotyping in descriptive battle scenes. In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane associated the barbaric behaviors of Civil War white soldiers with so-called African depravity, equating blackness with savagery. "Moving to and fro with strained exertion, jabbering the while, they were, with their swaying bodies, black faces, and glowing eyes, like strange and ugly fiends jiggling heavily in the smoke" (162). Crane described how soldiers looked during battle—their bodies blackened with gunpowder residue, blood, and dirt, a common occurrence described in many narratives and first-person accounts. Yet, Crane was not guilty of racial stereotyping, as Long suggests.
Long's best chapter deals with African American war narratives ("Historic Bodies"). African Americans used war narratives to showcase Civil War service in an attempt to avoid racial stereotyping as well as political and social disenfranchisement. This is also the only chapter that successfully and coherently addresses the historiography of war narratives.
We still seek clarification of issues that began with the war and that still plague our country today: race relations, sexual equality, economic turmoil, [End Page 104] and crises...