Suffering Veterans - The American Civil War and PTSD
By Emma Walton

Much has been written about the lives and deeds of Civil War soldiers, but little has been said about their mental state. This is in part because the practice of psychiatry was not established by the cessation of hostilities, and attitudes to mental illness were then very different to those we hold today. However, there is significant evidence of disturbed behavior from Civil War veterans to support a theory that many were irreversibly damaged by their experiences during the war. Many undoubtedly suffered from what is today referred to as 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder'

The History of PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a term covering a range of symptoms and behaviors which can be traced back to mental and emotional damage caused by traumatic experiences. These symptoms include, but are not limited to, an increase in aggression, an inability to connect with the world, flashbacks to the traumatic events, sudden and seemingly unprovoked violence, panic attacks, hallucinations, great stress, depression, shaking, ‘hysterical’ physical symptoms (i.e. apparent bodily problems induced by the mind rather than any more physical cause), substance abuse, mood swings, and suicide. The condition was first properly recognized during the First World War, when hundreds if not thousands of soldiers suffered irreparable emotional damage by what was then termed ‘shell shock’. However, it has almost certainly existed ever since human consciousness first developed – and has featured in the battle accounts of many ancient cultures. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs have been found which depict the stories of soldiers suffering from battle-induced mental trauma, while the Ancient Greek historian Heroditus eloquently records the tales of several fighters which most modern medical professionals would not hesitate to diagnose with PTSD. In one, a young man is afflicted with blindness for which there is no apparent physical cause after witnessing his fellow soldier shot down by an arrow next to him. In another, a soldier is withdrawn from the front lines due to incessant trembling. He leads a listless, haunted life – which he ultimately takes. Clearly, therefore, PTSD has been affecting humans for millennia, making it a fairly certain bet that many of those who participated in the American Civil War would have been affected in like manner.

Haunted By Their Experiences

PTSD can be brought on by any traumatic event – childhood abuse is a common cause – but its strongest causative correlation comes with wartime events. Given that civil wars are among the most mentally and emotionally distressing of combat situations, it should come as little surprise to find that a great many accounts record ex-soldiers who were thoroughly unable to reintegrate with peaceful life. Many found that they simply could not cope with civilian existence and opted out of society. The years following the Civil War saw an increase in vagrancy, with veterans making up the vast majority of these new wanderers. Some attributed this to a lack of economic opportunity for ex-soldiers, but others acknowledged that most of these people had been rendered mentally and emotionally incapable of taking any opportunities offered to them. In his book ‘To Appomattox and Beyond’, Larry Logue speaks of a veteran named ‘Len’. Len took up a nomadic lifestyle, drifting from place to place, and completely unable to speak of his experiences. When taken in by the police, he seemed unable to remember any personal details – but perusal of his effects and a little detective work revealed that this apparently deranged hobo had once been a prosperous man, happily settled into family life and with a contracted lawyer to boot. His experiences during the war had damaged him beyond repair. If he ever returned to his family, he swiftly absented himself from them, driven to the roads by the horrors within his own head. Many others did likewise.

Inadequate Treatment

Those who did return to their families often fared little better. It takes a strong and loving family indeed to cope with a PTSD sufferer. Logue tells of Polly McColley, who wrote letters about her son, whom she described as ‘Out of his mind’ when he returned from the war. Many recognized that their loved ones were ill, and called in the professionals – but with little effect. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would not be recognized as a condition for several decades, and treatments would take even longer to arrive. Nowadays, although there is still no definitive ‘cure’ for the condition, avenues do exist which can be of great help to sufferers. Treatment centers like The Refuge have a much greater understanding of the condition and how to treat those suffering from it. Not so after the Civil War. Those who seemed depressed were diagnosed with ‘melancholy’ or ‘nostalgia’, and their families were advised to raise their spirits. Others were simply passed as physically sound and told they needed to ‘pull their socks up’. The protests of wives and parents that their sons and husbands were ‘not themselves’ or ‘being strange’ were considered too nebulous to act upon, and frequently dismissed as feminine silliness or oversensitivity. Besides which, the violence which commonly accompanies PTSD was rarely spoken of in a domestic context – and not considered a great problem even when it was. Where behavior was clearly disturbed, disturbing, or dangerous, sufferers would be throw into lunatic asylums - where they received treatment which was often brutal and very rarely (if ever) effective. Those who evaded this often acquired lengthy criminal records, and many ended up in jail.

The 'Old Soldier' Problem

Old soldiers have always been something of an awkwardness for peacetime society – which frequently wishes to brush the horrors and atrocities of wartime beneath the carpet and forget about them. Veterans expecting a hero’s welcome when they return home after the cessation of hostilities are thus more often than not disappointed. A pervasive disillusionment has been observed to take hold of many veteran populations after major armed conflicts – and this phenomenon was attributed to the general surliness, disengagement, and ‘oddness’ of many post-Civil War veterans. However, the behavior of many would now be recognized as far too extreme to stem from simple discontentment with society. That they had experienced wartime horrors, and been mentally scarred by them, seems a near certainty. While the war brought out a great deal of heroism and produced legends which would last generations, it also continued to deal out human suffering long after the killing had ended. The mental torment of those soldiers who returned with PTSD should not be forgotten. The condition continues to affect combatants to this day – although, thankfully, diagnostic procedures now exist to spot and attempt to remedy it in vulnerable soldiers.