War Trauma and the American Civil War: A Roundtable Discussion

War Trauma and the American Civil War: A Roundtable Discussion

Today we share the first in our series of panel reports on the recent Southern Historical Association annual meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. There were a number of timely Civil War era panels that we are excited to share with readers. Follow along the rest of this week!


As Diane Miller Sommerville (SUNY-Binghamton) pointed out in her opening remarks, Americans today all have some familiarity with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or the idea that traumatic events can have lasting effects on the people who experience them. In the historical profession, more scholars are researching the effects of the Civil War on those who fought or experienced it, in the context of veterans’ studies, medical history, or soldier experience. Set in a roundtable format, these roundtable panelists at the Southern Historical Association’s 2018 meeting in Birmingham fostered for a meaningful discussion on this scholarship, the opportunities present, and the challenges of pursuing this type of research.

At the outset of the session, each panelist had about five minutes to present remarks to open the discussion. Dillon Carroll (Independent Scholar) introduced a brief historiography of the topic of Civil War trauma studies and how recent scholarship is moving toward what some historians call the “dark turn.” He acknowledged the pushback that these studies have sometimes received, with claims that historians are imposing modern views on the past and interpreting history in a way vastly different than the historical actors would have. To move past that dilemma, Carroll offered some thoughts to open the discussion: Are there alternative ways to interpret trauma in Civil War veterans, such as recurring dreams, that we can use to make connections to our understandings of trauma? How did Civil War veterans themselves see and cope with this trauma? How was the African-American experience of trauma similar to or different from other soldiers?

Matthew Hulbert (Texas A&M University—Kingsville) approached the topic from the angle of irregular or guerrilla warfare, asking how different types of violence created different types of trauma and if that trauma manifested in similar or different ways. He also asked how violence that was considered legitimate versus illegitimate might affect the ways men coped with their experiences; for example, the presence of women and children in the spaces where guerrilla fighting occurred, or the inability to separate the homefront from the warfront, since guerrilla violence occurred within communities. Hulbert also asked questions about the point of transition from when men needed certain skills to survive in war to when those skills became “symptoms” in civilian life. His last question was how the element of trust affected the transition from warfront to homefront; in war, soldiers build relationships of trust with comrades to cope and survive, but when returning home, family is suddenly not in that circle of trust.

Angela Riotto (Army University Press) invited the audience to look past questions of how trauma manifested or how men coped, to look at trauma as an experience in itself. Based on her research about Civil War POWs, Riotto suggested looking at how veterans used their trauma as a marker of their experience and in comparison to the experiences of other soldiers. In her research she saw veterans compare their experiences to one another, ranking their trauma. Historians need to focus on what the sources and historical actors tell us, and in her research the veterans could not find the precise words to describe their trauma. They simply wanted that trauma to be recognized as part of their sacrifice for their nation. She invited historians to look past arguments of terminology and look at how the soldiers and veterans themselves utilized their traumatic experiences to claim a place in the wider story of the war.

Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh (United States Naval Academy) was the dissenting voice on the panel, pushing back on the idea of seeing psychological trauma in the past. He argued that much of our modern understanding of psychological trauma is based on the idea that humans do not want to kill one another, and that when they are forced into an environment of war, this causes trauma. Hsieh said that there is little historical evidence to prove that people did not want to kill, and psychology is problematic to apply to our own time, let alone applying it to the past. He also pointed out that many psychological categories are based on power structures and ideas about proper social behavior which can affect our understanding of trauma.

The discussion that followed these opening remarks was a mixture of questions to further the field of inquiry, and support or opposition to the use of trauma as a lens of study. A few audience members offered thoughts that questioned the use of trauma to study Civil War experiences. One offered the examples of a few studies on Vietnam that suggested PTSD rates were much lower in those soldiers than previously assumed. He asked about overblowing the rate of trauma in the Civil War and suggested the dangers of presentism. Another historian asked about the idea that rates of trauma were under reported in the contemporary records of soldiers; his point being that we cannot know the rates are under reported if there is no data for comparison. This echoed the previous question about overestimating the rates of trauma. A third comment challenged the idea that nineteenth-century brains were the same physically as our modern brains (and thus we cannot use how modern brains experience trauma or cope as comparison) and warned against the practice of diagnosing backwards in history. These were in line with the opinions of Hsieh, who acknowledged the suffering of soldiers, but did not like applying the term “trauma” to their experiences.

Some members of the audience countered Hsieh’s opinions. Lesley Gordon asked him to offer historical examples of men who liked killing and challenged the idea that studying trauma is presentism. Anne Rubin noted that these experiences were not binary—you either had trauma or did not—and that historians can note and support the idea that war changed people, even those who kept their lives together as veterans. Megan Kate Nelson said that she was tired of the presentism argument against this type of research because it suggests that historians either do not have a sense of change over time or that they have some sort of agenda. Historians study what happens in history, but we also want to know why things happened; why should we limit our analytical tools, if modern knowledge can help us?

Besides the back-and-forth about the validity and challenges of the topic, a few audience questions offered ideas for ways this research can expand our understanding of the Civil War experience. One historian asked how previous experiences with death, blood, or conflict impacted a soldier’s response to the traumatic experiences of war, and another asked about the use of alcohol among soldiers and veterans as a coping mechanism. Another question was how those in civilian communities recognized the effects of war or trauma on the soldiers and how social organizations set up to help veterans defined this change or tried to help. Similarly, there was a question on whether civilians who experienced aspects of the war might also show manifestations of trauma. A final comparative question asked how the Civil War affected its soldiers in comparison to other conflicts. These questions offer additional routes of scholarship to look at the idea of trauma in the Civil War, and in their final comments the panelists suggested ways to advance this research while also taking the necessary caution to avoid presentism.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson

Dr. Kathleen Logothetis Thompson earned her PhD in Nineteenth Century/Civil War America from West Virginia University, and also holds a M.A. from WVU and a B.A. from Siena College. Her research is on mental trauma and coping among Union soldiers and she is currently working on her first book, tentatively titled War on the Mind. She currently teaches history at several colleges and universities and leads tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for several years and is the co-editor of Civil Discourse, a blog on the long Civil War.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.