- Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South by Diane Miller Sommerville
In this exhaustively researched, methodologically innovative, and brilliantly executed book, historian Diane Miller Sommerville describes "the psychological and emotional damage of the Civil War on Southerners" (p. 12). In the author's sensitive hands, suicidal activity and the responses it stimulated in Southern society and culture yield new clues about the ways in which soldiers and veterans, wives and widows, the enslaved and newly-freed people wrestled with the period's "uncharted territory and unrelenting hardship" (p. 81). Allowing that motivations for suicide "are complicated, multilayered, and largely obscured," Sommerville explains that the Civil War was nonetheless "the social and cultural context" for many self-murders (p. 8–9). Building ties between the war's trauma, personal biographies, and individual "lived experience"—connections that historical actors were unequipped to make—the result is a much "fuller accounting of the war's costs on its participants" (p. 12).
Aberration of Mind unapologetically joins a wave of neo-revisionist scholarship focused on the war's less than ennobling characteristics and enormous human consequences. Some critics have dismissed the so-called "dark turn" for purportedly misrepresenting "marginal" experiences as mainstream; others allege presentism. Sommerville smartly responds that "it is unreasonable to expect historians to refrain from considering links between psychiatric distress among soldiers and their experiences in military service, knowledge that we have at our disposal, simply because nineteenth-century Americans did not" (p. 272, n13). Further, she makes clear that taking the war's psychological and emotional scars seriously does not make an argument about their typicality, something that her necessarily qualitative evidence proscribes (p. 14–15).
Sommerville's book is divided into three parts. The first considers [End Page 398] Confederate men and women during the war itself. While a "flurry of wartime suicides" became "less stigmatized than in earlier periods," at the same time, "few Southerners seemed willing or able to link the war to the mental distress of combatants" (pp. 37, 41). Though southern women were less inclined than men to commit suicide, they "appear to have been much more engaged in contemplating death as an exit from their suffering" on the home front, something Lost Cause narratives effaced after the war (p. 50–51).
The second part examines African Americans in slavery and after emancipation. In the book's most powerful chapter, Sommerville maintains that using "slave suicide as prima facie evidence for resistance . . . risks ignoring or discounting slaves' suffering as a motive for suicide" (p. 97). Slaves resorted to taking their own lives because it "brought an immediate end to emotional or physical pain" (p. 99). Of necessity, southern whites denied the frequency of slave suicides—a pattern that persisted after the war, when African-Americans were deemed "constitutionally incapable of experiencing the same emotions as whites" (p. 147). Only whites could suffer or experience loss; instead, blacks were diagnosed with "mania," which some white southerners interpreted as the predictable result of emancipation.
The final part probes the experiences of Confederate veterans and widows. Southern asylums teemed with new patients who not only witnessed the horrors of a brutal war but experienced the humiliating sting of defeat. Emasculated, Confederate men faced "financial ruin" and "dim job prospects" as they returned to civilian communities that seemed unable to comprehend their experiences (p. 179). At the same time, foisted into new and often disconcerting roles, their nerves frayed and emotions knotted, "thousands of southern women . . . collapsed in the wake of defeat" (p. 210). In the last chapter, Sommerville ties together the threads of her argument that the war invited a "change in the cultural meaning of suicide" (p. 48). The enormity of pain and suffering unleashed by the Civil War demanded that white southerners rework antebellum ideas about suicide. Obituaries and coroner's reports began to evince sympathy [End Page 399] for those who took their own lives. Edmund Ruffin was...