New Directions in Civil War Trauma

AHA Session 17
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Room A706 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College
Peter S. Carmichael, Gettysburg College

Session Abstract

Since Eric T. Dean, Jr.’s 1997 book Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam and the Civil War, inaugurated a “dark turn” in Civil War scholarship. Dean’s work encouraged a diverse corpus of work on the experiences of veterans and the nature of trauma in the war. Scholars like James Marten, R.B. Rosenburg, Patrick Kelley, and Rusty Williams have since turned their attention to Soldier’s Homes in the post-war North and South. David Silkenat and Diane Miller Sommerville have published research exploring the rising rate of suicide among Confederate veterans. Other scholars, among them Brian Craig Miller, Brian Matthew Jordan and Frances Clarke, have explored physical trauma and how amputees shaped post-war society, culture and the memory of the war. However, virtually all of these scholars accept Dean’s arguments about Civil War trauma in Shook Over Hell. The three young scholars on this panel will revisit Dean’s work in order to offer new interpretations of Civil War trauma. All three papers in this panel foreground questions about the nature of physical, mental and emotional trauma in the Civil War, such as: how was mental illness perceived during the Civil War? Was combat traumatic to Civil War soldiers? Was there a connection between physical and emotional trauma? Were Civil War soldiers afflicted with contemporary disorders, such as PTSD? Kathleen Logothetis Thompson examines how military and medical leadership in the Civil War perceived, defined, and ultimately treated mental illness among soldiers during the conflict. Ashley Bowen-Murphy evaluates the generally ill, “broke down” veteran to examine the possible somatization of emotions in the 19th century. Using pension applications, case records from St. Elizabeths [sic] Hospital, and personal letters and diaries, Bowen-Murphy argues that physical and mental health was far more fluid than historians have previously recognized,. Dillon J. Carroll examines the experience of post-war families living with a mentally ill Civil War veteran. Using letters and case records from St. Elizabeths [sic] Hospital, Carroll explores how mental illness impacted family units financially, socially, and emotionally. Additionally, he explores how family members conceptualized what happened to their sons, hubsands and fathers. Taken together, these papers challenge Dean’s easy identification of trauma and PTSD with the Civil War soldier.  A more complete account of Civil War soldiers’ experiences will account for the contingent ways that soldiers, their officers, and historians have made sense of the suffering, death, and danger that characterized the war. Additionally, given its relevance, this subject should have broad appeal to both professional historians and the public writ large.

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