[This article is crossposted at uncpressblog.com.]
We welcome a guest post from Kathryn Shively Meier, author of Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley and Peninsula Campaigns of 1862, Union and Confederate soldiers faced unfamiliar and harsh environmental conditions—strange terrain, tainted water, swarms of flies and mosquitoes, interminable rain and snow storms, and oppressive heat—which contributed to escalating disease and diminished morale. Using soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs, plus a wealth of additional personal accounts, medical sources, newspapers, and government documents, Meier reveals how these soldiers strove to maintain their physical and mental health by combating their deadliest enemy: nature.
In the following post, Meier explains that soldiers reported traumas from unexpected sources.
Since World War I, the language available to describe mental afflictions as a result of military service, as well as diagnostics and treatments, has expanded exponentially. The year 1980 saw the introduction of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder into the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Lately, the news has been awash with reports linking physical brain injuries to the symptoms of PTSD, further enhancing our ability to understand and treat the mental repercussions of battle in our armed forces. Yet modern conceptions of soldier mental health do not necessarily translate to clearer understandings of soldier mental trauma in the past. Union and Confederate soldiers described a great deal of their mental suffering as incurred outside of combat. In fact, most Civil War soldiers looked forward to combat as a sporadic and exciting break from the taxing and monotonous day-to-day soldiering that wore down their resolve.
Understanding the mental experience of Civil War soldiers requires entering into an era when physicians lacked sophisticated understandings of the human brain and the contemporary lexicon offered few words to characterize mental health. This is not to say that Civil War soldiers did not provide ample evidence of their states of mind while serving. Soldiers used such terms as “the blues,” loneliness, and homesickness to explain their reasons for devolving into alcoholism, defying direct orders, straggling or deserting, and occasionally ending their lives. They relied upon correspondence with those at home to prevent mental decline, often beginning or ending their own letters with a desperate plea for increased communication with loved ones. Civil War surgeons, responsible for maintaining the overall health of regiments, possessed only a few terms for describing mental disorders, excluding all but the most severe cases. Specifically, U.S. surgeons provided official reports on insanity or “nostalgia,” a potentially fatal case of homesickness with the associated physical problems of fever, stomach ailments, and even death, while Confederate surgeons recorded only nostalgia or mania. All other mental ailments fell through the cracks of official reporting and therefore official care.
Civil War soldiers were quite clear about what burdened their minds, though their descriptions may surprise modern Americans. keep reading →