Kathryn Shively Meier: Civil War Soldier Trauma in Unexpected Places

Nature's Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, by Kathryn Shively Meier[This article is crossposted at uncpresscivilwar150.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.

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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. Indeed, soldiers on both sides pegged environmental circumstances as some of the most serious stressors of the war. Privates through non-commissioned officers, common soldiers rarely had traveled far from home before deploying. That meant the vast majority of them were transported to foreign environments that appeared extremely threatening based on popular notions of disease causation. Lacking conceptions of germ theory or insect-borne illness (theories developed in the 1870s and 80s respectively), mid-century Americans widely believed that a sudden change of location or weather and the air, water, and terrain of certain locales (particularly those of the South) caused life-threatening diseases, such as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid. It was clear to soldiers that disease claimed far more mortalities than combat; indeed, two-thirds of soldier deaths by war’s end would be from sickness rather than wounds. Nature appeared to be the soldiers’ fiercest enemy.

The contemporary disease conception, in turn, influenced soldier ideas about what caused mental debilitation. As described in soldier accounts, leading causes of mental distress included exposure to prolonged bad weather, putrid water, miasmatic swamps, and irritation from insects. Soldiers dreaded falling ill and dying as a fate worse than succumbing to combat wounds. Such a death appeared to deprive them of gloried sacrifice to their Cause. As the men watched their regiments, generally familiar faces from back home, decimated by disease, their loneliness and homesickness compounded. Given that battles were relatively rare in the early years of the war, soldiers had little to do but focus on the misery of camping and marching with flimsy protection from the heat and insects of summer and the bitterness of winter; consequently, they despaired. Following the war, soldiers reflected in their reminiscences upon the difficult process of becoming hardened to the elements, a process contemporarily known as seasoning. As most veterans wrote memoirs for family consumption, it is apparent that they wished loved ones to acknowledge the mental burden they had suffered, and, in some cases, overcome, while in other cases, still staggered under years later.

One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, the human brain still presents many mysteries for scientists. As an American people again at war, concern for our military servicepeople continues to motivate us toward better comprehension of how soldiering affects mental health. Just as the recent large numbers of news articles, fictional accounts, and histories regarding PTSD reveal our culture’s current fixation on physical brain trauma, the descriptions Civil War soldiers provided about their own mental health provide us with a window into what nineteenth-century Americans feared most.

Kathryn Shively Meier is assistant professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia is now available.

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