From “Nostalgia” to PTSD

Definitely worth a read today is the Smithsonian Magazine article by Tony Horwitz on how historians are now digging through Civil War stories with post-traumatic stress disorder in mind.

The Civil War killed and injured over a million Americans, roughly a third of all those who served. This grim tally, however, doesn’t include the conflict’s psychic wounds. Military and medical officials in the 1860s had little grasp of how war can scar minds as well as bodies. Mental ills were also a source of shame, especially for soldiers bred on Victorian notions of manliness and courage. For the most part, the stories of veterans like Hildt have languished in archives and asylum files for over a century, neglected by both historians and descendants.

This veil is now lifting, in dramatic fashion, amid growing awareness of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder. A year ago, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine mounted its first exhibit on mental health, including displays on PTSD and suicide in the 1860s. Historians and clinicians are sifting through diaries, letters, hospital and pension files and putting Billy Yank and Johnny Reb on the couch as never before. Genealogists have joined in, rediscovering forgotten ancestors and visiting their graves in asylum cemeteries.

Most interesting to me is the subtle backlash, Horwitz notes:

Not all scholars applaud this trend, which includes new scholarship on subjects such as rape, torture and guerrilla atrocities. “All these dark elements describe the margins not the mainstream of Civil War experience,” says Gary Gallagher, a historian at the University of Virginia who has authored and edited over 30 books on the war. While he welcomes the fresh research, he worries that readers may come away with a distorted perception of the overall conflict. The vast majority of soldiers, he adds, weren’t traumatized and went on to have productive postwar lives.

Gallagher is wise in that he goes on to caution viewing the 1860s through a contemporary lens. Context matters on both ends of history. The telling is undoubtedly influenced in by the time in which the historian studies and writes just as any moment in history is influence by an incalculable array of factors. Within the context of modern times, the sometimes devastating mental effects of service are more public than at any time previously. Advances in psychology and medical science, as well as social advances which have begun to peel away some of the stigma attached to PTSD , have both motivated and allowed historians to take a second look at the past.

It is a worthwhile endeavor.

The Civil War remains the most devastating conflict in American history. One in five soldiers died in the Civil War, for a total the Civil War Trust estimates to be about 620,000 men. Another 476,000 were injured in the war. At time mental injuries were not counted, so this remains an unknown worth exploring.

These conditions contributed to what Civil War doctors called “nostalgia,” a centuries-old term for despair and homesickness so severe that soldiers became listless and emaciated and sometimes died. Military and medical officials recognized nostalgia as a serious “camp disease,” but generally blamed it on “feeble will,” “moral turpitude” and inactivity in camp. Few sufferers were discharged or granted furloughs, and the recommended treatment was drilling and shaming of “nostalgic” soldiers—or, better yet, “the excitement of an active campaign,” meaning combat.

I have to wonder if Gallagher is correct, but only because those exposed to mind-shattering trauma in the Civil War died on the battlefield or in a field hospital. The seeming prevalence of PTSD in today’s soldiers may be an inadvertent result of our ability to save the lives of those who in earlier wars would have died of their physical injuries.

Read the article. Do it.


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