- Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War–Era South by Diane Miller Sommerville
In April 1866, Thomas Peters shot himself. He had served in the Confederate army during the war, though his service had been surprisingly short. A Tennessean, Peters enlisted in a light artillery unit soon after his nineteenth birthday and quickly earned promotion to the rank of lieutenant. But only a few months later, he received a hasty discharge, apparently because superiors raised questions about his courage and about the state of his mental health. Peters returned to civilian life with his tail between his legs, and he was dressed in his old officer's uniform on the day, two and a half years after his discharge, that he picked up a pistol and fired it pointblank at his head.
Diane Miller Sommerville's Aberration of Mind, a finalist for the 2019 Lincoln Prize, is filled with enigmatic tragedies like this one. The result is a richly researched new survey of Civil War–era suffering that follows damaged soldiers, civilians, slaves, and freedpeople into the darkest corners of their psyches in order to explore the suggestive links between this great war and the hundreds, if not thousands, of southern suicides that followed in its wake. Even by the standards of Civil War historiography, the book's themes make it difficult reading, and Aberration of Mind must be understood as the latest addition to the "dark turn" in Civil War studies, a growing shelf of titles that together tackle the physical and mental violence of the war and the enduring effects of that violence on all those who experienced it.
Sommerville divides her first seven chapters into clusters that examine the lives of Confederate men, white women, and African Americans before, [End Page 134] during, and after the war. She suggests that suicidal behavior among these populations rose sharply after the outbreak of hostilities and that such increases can and should be read as expressions of the unprecedented sufferings unleashed by this conflict. Informed by the work of Eric T. Dean Jr., and using insights gained from wide reading in studies of fighters and civilians caught up in modern conflicts and war zones such as those of World War II and Vietnam, Sommerville succeeds in undercutting enduring popular images of southern soldiers as battle-hardened, of their wives as stoic "Confederate angels," and of their former slaves as joyful and carefree after emancipation. To the contrary, Sommerville finds their divergent paths strewn with formidable obstacles—hunger, disease, isolation, terror, and myriad other forms of dislocation and deprivation—that drove some to consider destroying themselves.
Sommerville also contends that the cultural and political valences that southerners attached to self-murder changed significantly during and after the war, accelerating a process of secularization and destigmatization that had begun in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the book's brief conclusion, she argues that, in the decades after 1865, former Confederates succeeded in configuring the suicides of certain white southerners (Edmund Ruffin being a case in point) as proof positive of the nobility of the Lost Cause. That neo-Confederate vision was, of course, racially exclusive. In the imagination of southern white supremacists, former slaves were unfit for freedom, too intellectually and morally inferior to be capable of heroic suicide. This thinking, Somerville says, informed the efforts of a cadre of cultural commentators and medical experts active after the war to dismiss willful suicides committed by African Americans as the uncontrollable, animalistic expressions of mania or id.
Covering a vast regional geography and encompassing a timeline that extends into the early decades of the twentieth century, Aberration of Mind is a lot to digest. Indeed, its voluminous notes and overstuffed bibliography testify to the breadth of research upon which it rests. Because records that would support the rigorous quantification of the extent of suicidal behavior do not exist, Sommerville has instead built her evidentiary base from a diverse range of...