Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the U.S. Civil War

A battlefield memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park. Photo by Paul Huard

A battlefield memorial at Gettysburg National Military Park. Photo by Paul Huard

The issue of mental illness arising from the trauma of combat is nothing new. Homer described the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the Illiad. When Achilles’ close friend Patroclus dies in combat, Achilles cries out, “My comrade is dead, / Lying in my hut mangled with bronze, / His feet turned toward the door, and around him, / Our friends grieve.  Nothing matters to me now” and then embarks on a killing spree that is more like an attempt at suicide than warfare.  Call it what you will: “shell shock,” combat fatigue, survivor’s guilt.  PTSD is as old as history.

The U.S. Civil War was no different. While researching another topic, I stumbled across an article from The New York Times by University of Georgia graduate student Dillon Carroll on PTSD and the Civil War.

A key quote:

 Historians are beginning to uncover what was a virtual epidemic of emotional, psychological and neurological trauma that afflicted soldiers after the war. Veterans labored under emotional and psychological stress in ways that are disturbingly similar to the present. Alcoholism was rampant, as was unemployment. Suicide was endemic. Civil War veterans dotted the wards of insane asylums across the country.

Despite all the valor shown during the Civil War, despite all the worthiness of the cause, soldiers both North and South were often damaged men long after the war was finished. I see a need for historians to take a close look at what might be an untouched area of study regarding the real toll of America’s worst war. What they find will not only expand our understanding of that period of history but hopefully reinforce the current argument that the United States needs to provide better services and better outreach to a generation of combat veterans who have fought in America’s wars since 9-11.



Filed under Commentary, Military History, Scholarship and Historians

2 responses to “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the U.S. Civil War

  1. “all the worthiness of the cause”? The Civil War was America’s greatest tragedy. The rampant mental illness that resulted testifies to its destructive nature. Lincoln didn’t save “the Union”, he destroyed it forever.

    • paulrhuard

      Nick, thanks for commenting. In some respects, I agree with you. The Civil War was the nation’s great tragedy — the death, the destruction, and the echos of sectional resentment that linger to this day cannot be ignored. However, I stand by my assessment that it was a worthy cause. Nothing else would have ended slavery; nothing else bonded the nation together so a war like that could never be fought again. It was the Second American Revolution that at least began the work of completing the first one. War is terrible, but some of the alternatives are even worse. The United States was the third-wealthiest nation on the planet in 1860, and the bulk of the wealth came from slavery. Very few people in the U.S. wanted to walk away from that kind affluence voluntarily.

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