Mental Trauma and a Different Kind of War

B. Christopher Frueh and Jeffrey Allen Smith ask this about mental trauma and the Civil War:

One would assume that the physical price paid by the men who fought in the war would have a rough equivalent in the mental price, that the experience of that terrible war would have left countless survivors with horrible psychological scars. But that may not actually be the case: according to official Union war records, adverse psychological reactions to combat across a variety of categories never matched, or even approached, the shocking physical losses from the war…

Nevertheless, what should be made of the relatively low-recorded instances of psychological casualties in the Civil War? Was it a result of flawed data collection or analysis? Did Victorian or religious social pressures result in under reporting or unwillingness to recognize these invisible wounds?

Ultimately, they conclude:

While considering diagnoses of modern psychiatric conditions extrapolated from records kept 150 years ago during the Civil War is problematic at several levels, perhaps the larger take away message is a heartening one of human resiliency. The data seem to demonstrate that exposure to combat alone does not weaken the human psychological condition.

I think there’s something else going on. The Civil War, by and large, was set piece war in a culturally familiar environment. Unlike many modern conflicts, where death potentially lurks around every corner and soldiers can’t tell friend from foe, typically Civil War battles were more clearly defined, and the combat portion was relatively short and defined; the battle of Gettysburg, for instance, was less than 72 hours long. That doesn’t mean there weren’t ‘meat-grinder’ battles or that war wasn’t terrifying. But it wasn’t constant, and there were many familiar touchstones of home. There was some respite from battle, whereas in many conflicts, the threat of death is all pervasive. If you’re not paranoid, there’s a good chance you will be.

That has to be a factor.

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2 Responses to Mental Trauma and a Different Kind of War

  1. Art says:

    I think you nailed it.
    The structure of the war was such that the actual time in combat was quite short. The battle was joined , and then was gone. While modern troops spend months in a combat zone chasing ghosts and fighting hidden enemies the total time in combat for a civil war soldier was days, with very well defined boundaries. And when not in combat you were part of a stable group of fellow soldiers in your unit, all of which came from your state/county. Commanders seldom changed and replacements were few and far between.

    There was none of the modern psychological whipsawing where you alternate the horror of war with all the comforts of home.

  2. Cynthianne says:

    I had a great-great uncle who was in the Civil War as a teenager. He came back quite silent and withdrawn, but functioned fairly well until he suddenly went catatonic in his late 30’s. He had “waxy” catatonia- he did not appear to see or hear anyone or anything, but he could be led around, and ate when fed, and was usually left in a rocking chair on the porch, where he usually sat motionless until moved.

    Was this related to his experiences in the war? No way to tell.

    And with a largely rural society that took care of its own, with few doctors and NO mental health specialists, how many cases like this just disappeared into the woods?

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