INVISIBLE WOUNDS: MENTAL ILLNESS AND THE CIVIL WAR SOLDIER
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.
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.
James Trainor, a Civil War veteran was reported in 1884 as being “insane suffering from Chronic Mania. This man is insane and [amaisotic]. Is unable to give an account of the date of the war, and yet says he was in the army, but knows not if he was in the Confederate or Federal army, if the war took place 5 or 50 years ago.” It is not know if he had a head injury or was simply ruined from his war experiences.
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.