by John Talbott

(History Today, London, England, March 1996)

    When Civil War soldiers `saw the elephant,' as they called going into action, some of them sustained injuries they could not name. Wounds to the mind left them open to imputations of malingering, allegations of cowardice or charges of desertion. For the Union army had no label like shell shock, battle fatigue or posttraumatic stress disorder to help explain and legitimise a mysterious condition, no category short of lunacy to account for peculiar behaviour. In late November 1864, for instance, Captain J. McEntire, a provost marshal, wrote of Private William Leeds, a prisoner in his charge:

     He has been strolling about in the woods, and has procured
     his food from soldiers...He has a severe cut on his nose and
     his eyes are in mourning for the loss of his character.

     Since enlisting the previous January, Leeds had been trying to escape the Army of the Potomac: `We have not been able to keep him a moment except in confinement,' his colonel wrote. On Christmas Eve 1864 Leeds was committed, under escort, to the Government Insane Asylum--St Elizabeth's Hospital--in Washington, D.C.

     Perhaps Leeds was lucky. For men whom medical officers might have diagnosed for combat trauma in 1916, 1944 or 1968 were hauled before courts martial in 1864, and some of them probably wound up at the end of a noose or in front of a firing squad. The human response to stress did not change between the Civil War and the Vietnam War, but understanding and interpreting the response were transformed.

     The evidence bearing on combat trauma in the Civil War is anecdotal, ambiguous and fragmentary. Traces usually appear in such narratives as soldiers' diaries, journals, and letters home. Sometimes evidence appears in stories written long after the war. James Thurber, for instance, often mentioned his grandfather's awakening from nightmares of the Federal retreat from Fredericksburg. An Ohio volunteer who spent a lifetime recrossing the Rappahannock in his dreams probably suffered from combat trauma. Such mind wounds afflicted many fewer people and drew far less attention from either physicians or the public than `nervous breakdown,' the Victorians' term for incapacitating depression. Combat trauma led an underground, phantom-like existence until bursting into full view, and grudging recognition, in the war of 1914-18. For all its elusiveness, it leaves tracks.

     Consider the case of the James boys--William, Henry, Garth, or `Wilky,' as he was called, and Robertson or `Bob'. The two older boys, the philosopher and the novelist, did not serve in the Civil War; the two younger ones did. Wilky, an officer in the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, was twice wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner; Bob was an officer in the 55th Massachusetts, a less famous regiment that also saw some hard fighting.

     A mysterious back injury sustained fighting a fire in Newport, Rhode Island, kept Henry out of the army that so many of his friends and contemporaries rushed to join. William James shared Henry's ambivalent feelings about military service but not the back problem that went with it. Later on, however, he became deeply interested in the relationship between psychological trauma and psychopathology. Henry James' `obscure hurt' and William's debilitating bouts of depression are far better documented than the fate of the foot soldiers Wilky and Bob. While the older brothers emerged as two of the most influential men in American intellectual life, the two combat veterans dwelled in obscurity. Wilky moved from town to town, concocting grandiose financial schemes in which he repeatedly lost his shirt. Bob became an alcoholic. To ascribe the postwar fortunes of the junior members of the Jamesian quartet solely to their war experiences is too simple. Still, Wilky's chronic restlessness and Bob's alcoholism are tell-tale signs of combat trauma.

     Other evidence bearing on mind wounds is more indirect. Combat is replete with episodes of anomalous, peculiar or unusual behaviour. Such behaviour falls within the pattern the psychologist Pierre Janet called `dissociation.' As a response to traumatic events--indeed, as a defence AGAINST trauma-- dissociation is an adaptive strategy. It allows a person under stress to continue functioning, although often in an autonomic and sometimes inappropriate way. Three such cases among many that might be adduced involve high-ranking officers, not the infantrymen or `grunts' who were at greater risk of combat trauma.

     On June 30th, 1862, toward the close of the ill-fated Peninsula campaign and the sixth day of the ferocious Seven Days' Battle, General George B. McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac, boarded the gunboat Galena and steamed up the James River, putting a great number of miles between himself and the responsibilities of his command. What could account for such behaviour? The judgement of McClellan's biographer, Stephen Sears, is harsh: the general `had lost the courage to command'. This moral judgement might be softened by guessing that McClellan, never eager to commit his army to battle and chagrined by the consequences, was suffering from dissociation, a response to trauma rather than a loss of nerve. Indeed, Sears goes on to qualify his own remark: `[McClellan] was drained,' he says, `in both mind and body.' This is a Janet-like acknowledgement of the psychosomatic consequences of stress. In any event, McClellan recovered his equilibrium, if not his fitness for high command.

     The other two examples derive from eye-witness accounts. In late November 1862 Lieutenant Henry L. Abbott, 20th Massachusetts Volunteers, wrote to his father about the alarming behaviour of Raymond Lee, the colonel commanding his regiment:

     Col. undoubtedly very much shaken in his
     intellects, at any rate at times...It seems the horrors of
     Antietam, his previous fatigues and his drinking, completely
     upset him. After the battle he was completely distraught. He
     didn't give any orders. He wouldn't do any thing. The next
     morning he mounted his horse, without any leave of absence,
     without letting any body [know] where he was going, he set
     out alone. Macy, who was bringing up some recruits, met him
     about ten miles away from the regt. without a cent in his
     pocket, without any thing to eat or drink, without having
     changed his clothes for four weeks, during all which time he
     had this horrible diarrhea--just getting ready to turn into
     a stable for the night. Macy gave him a drink and some money
     and got him into a house, put him to bed stark naked, and
     got his wits more settled, and then came on. When the poor
     old man came back to the regt. they thought he had been on
     an awful spree, he was so livid and shaky. Macy says he was
     just like a little child, wandering away from home.

     The third episode of dissociation is more ambiguous. Around mid-morning on May 6th, 1864, the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness, the 20th Massachusetts was dug in behind log and earthen breastworks hastily thrown up along the Orange Plank Road. During a lull in the firing, Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth came galloping up and ordered the regiment to advance toward a wall of saplings and scrubby pines believed to conceal rebel troops.

     At fifty-nine Wadsworth was the oldest senior officer in the Army of the Potomac, a wealthy and well-connected New Yorker admired for serving competently and without pay in a position of great danger. Yet on the morning of May 5th, a 20th Massachusetts officer recalled, Wadsworth rode up `in a very wild and excited manner' demanding to know who was in command. Told by Colonel George Macy that his own brigade commander had ordered him to hold his position at any cost, `Wadsworth then said very excitedly,' according to the Massachusetts captain, `"I command these troops and order you forward."' In fact, Wadsworth commanded a division of the 5th Corps, under Gouverneur Warren. The 20th Massachusetts belonged to the 2nd Corps, under Winfield Hancock. In the confusion of battle Wadsworth had either lost or deliberately left, for a purpose known only to him (perhaps an attempt to impose order where he saw none?), his own division. In any event, when the jurisdictional issue was raised Wadsworth `became still more excited,' according to our informant, `throwing his arms in the air, and said something which I did not catch, but to which [Macy] answered "very well sir, we will go."'

     Accounts of what happened next are markedly at odds. Either Wadsworth led the charge of the 20th Massachusetts or, as a survivor of the assault remembers it, the general `immediately galloped off and disappeared' before regimental officers managed to pry their men loose from the breastworks and walk them into the muskets of the 8th Alabama, lying in wait on the ground. `Great God!,' Macy told his captains, `That man is out of his mind.' Shot through the head that afternoon, Wadsworth died a few days later. In the space of fifteen minutes, the 533 men who charged into the woods were reduced to the three of four officers and 110 men who eventually reformed on the Brock Road.

     General Alexander S. Webb, who had anchored his brigade's line on the strong position occupied by the 20th Massachusetts, later called Wadsworth's command to put his twelve regiments at Wadsworth's disposition `the most astonishing and bewildering order.' Indeed his actions on the morning of May 6th make little sense. Seeking to arrest the disintegration of the Federal line, Wadsworth accelerated it. Why was he so far from where he belonged? Why did he countermand the instructions of the experienced and able commander on the scene? Why did he so frantically urge a reliable, veteran regiment to assault an invisible enemy? This episode illustrates both the fog of war and the disorientation of Wadsworth. In the hours before the incident in question, the general admitted to an aide that `he was exhausted and worn out' and wondered about his own fitness for command. Dissociation may help account for his `most astonishing and bewildering' behaviour.

     The best-known case of dissociation in the Army of the Potomac lived only in Stephen Crane's imagination. Despite his preternatural sense of the realities of warfare, when he wrote THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1895), a tale of a Union soldier's coming of age, young Crane had never been in combat. From what he had read and heard from friends and relatives, however, he created one of the truly great American novels. For verisimilitude, his `Tattered Man' is unsurpassed. He embodies the straggler, a whole category of armed and uniformed refugees, soldiers in search of (or in flight from) an army. In a vast penumbra around every battlefield, I suspect, wandered many acute cases of combat trauma.

     Crane's story of wounds physical and mental unfolds at Chancellorsville, virtually the same ground as the Wilderness and its equal as a scene of savage fighting. In the year separating the first battle from the second, the character of the Civil War changed drastically. From First Bull Run in July 1861 to Gettysburg in July 1863, weeks, often months, passed between battles. From the crossing of the Rapidan on May 4th, 1864, until the end came nearly a year later, however, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were seldom out of rifle shot, and scarcely a day passed when shots were not exchanged. Two different wars were fought: one (1861-63) looked back to European wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the other (1864-65) looked forward to the twentieth-- to the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War and beyond.

     Different wars have created different hells. At one end of the spectrum lies the Greek hoplite way of war, a deadly and terrifying rugby scrum over in minutes and definitive in outcome. `It was a BRIEF nightmare,' its historian, Victor Hanson, emphasises. At the other end of the spectrum lies Clausewitz's `absolute war,' a theoretical realm of unrestrained violence. Over the last two centuries, especially, warfare has lurched toward the Clausewitzian end. In studies of twentieth-century wars, psychiatrists and social scientists have emphasised duration and intensity as key variables in the incidence of combat trauma. There is no such thing as `getting used to combat,' an official study of infantrymen in the European theatre in the Second World War found. `Each moment...imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure.'

     Combat veterans who forded the Rapidan in the spring of 1864 quickly recognised the war had changed. The new conditions struck them with overwhelming force. `These last few days have been very bad', Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr wrote his parents on June 24th, seven weeks after the Army of the Potomac had crossed the river. `Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign begun (sic) from the terrible pressures on mind and body...I hope to pull through but don't know.' Holmes left the army later in the summer, against the urgings of his father, when his three-year enlistment ran out. `Doubt demoralises me as it does any nervous man,' he had written earlier by way of explanation, `I cannot now endure the labors and hardships of the line.' Holmes, in fact, served as a headquarters staff officer during his last campaign, but as a member of the 20th Massachusetts he had been in the thick of many of the Army of the Potomac's battles since the autumn of 1861.

     Indeed, scarcely any Union regiment was in the heart of the storm longer than the 20th Massachusetts. At the end of June 1864, Captain H.L. Patten reckoned the toll exacted on his outfit:

     [The men] have been so horribly worked and badgered that
     they are utterly unnerved and demoralised. They are easily
     scared as a timid child at night. Half our brigade were
     taken prisoners the other day, in the middle of the day, by
     a line no stronger than themselves, without firing a shot.
     You had a campaign of one day, we of fifty-three days; EVERY
     DAY under fire, every night either digging or marching. We,
     our brigade, have made fourteen charges upon the enemy's
     breastworks, although at last no amount of urging, no heroic
     example, no threats, or anything else, could get the line to
     STIR ONE PEG. For my own part, I am utterly tired and dis-
     heartened and if I stay at all, it will be like a whipt dog
     --because I think I must.

     The diary of Private Austin Carr, 82nd New York Volunteers, of the same brigade and division as the 20th Massachusetts, catalogues the pressures to which Holmes alluded in his letters home. Carr joined up in August 1862, right before Antietam, so his perspective is that of a seasoned grunt--just how seasoned is apparent from his entry of May 1st, 1863, the eve of Chancellorsville:

     Eight days rations in our knapsacks and haversack, one
     change of clothes, an overcoat, an oil cloth blanket, a
     woolen blanket and a shelter tent will make an awful load to
     carry...Ten rounds more of ammunition served out to us,
     making fifty in all, that's the way they load us down, so
     that when we come to march, we can't go but a short distance
     before we are tired out. Forty rounds is all I want to
     carry, so when we start, I will throw the extra ten rounds

     Like all veteran infantrymen, Carr keenly sensed the relative usefulness of, to use the title of Tim O'Brien's book on Vietnam, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED.

     New recruits, he discovered in the Wilderness, posed a greater danger to their own side than to the enemy. Wildly firing his rifle, a man named Clark hit one comrade in the head and nicked Carr in the finger. `That riled me somewhat,' Carr wrote, `So I put my rifle to his head and threatened to blow his brains out if he fired again.' Now the risk of being killed came not only from the front but from all sides. Following the refusal of Webb's brigade to obey his order to charge (by no means an uncommon occurrence in the Army of the Potomac that spring), two intermingled lines of infantry fired into each other, dissolving momentarily into a fleeing mob. `The boys don't fight as they used to,' Carr lamented. Still more fearful than misdirected small-arms fire was an artillery bombardment, friendly or hostile. In most accounts from the incoming end, including the following from Carr, terror vies with helplessness:

     We lay upon a knoll close to the enemies works and under
     their artillery, which they didn't hesitate to use, they
     having perfect range of the knoll. A deadly fire of shells
     was poured into us, killing and wounding a great many,
     without our having the means to retaliate. It was a fearful
     spot, and the sights I was compelled to witness was horrible
     ...Our feeling can better be imagined than described while
     we were laying out under that destructive shelling. I trust
     that I will never get in another such position as I have
     been in today.

     Eighty years later, an American Marine found himself in another such position. `As Peleliu dragged on,' Eugene Sledge wrote:

     I feared that if I ever lost control of myself under shell
     fire my mind would be shattered...To be under heavy shell
     fire was to me by far the most terrifying of combat
     experiences...Fear is many faceted and has many subtle
     nuances, but the terror and desperation endured under heavy
     shelling are by far the most unbearable...

     W.H.R. Rivers, who treated countless British soldiers for shell shock during the Great War, was convinced that his patients' sense of helplessness contributed far more to their condition than the routine horrors of combat. Perched beneath balloons tethered high over the trenches, artillery observers were sitting ducks to the riflemen and machine-gunners below. These utterly helpless observers, Rivers pointed out, suffered the highest incidence of breakdown of any branch of the service.

     Digging in offered Austin Carr and his comrades one means of escape from the intensity of small arms and artillery fire. `We entrench ourselves as soon as we halt for the night,' he wrote on May 27th. `That much despised weapon of McClellan, the spade, is constantly brought in use'--despised, perhaps, but long since become the foot soldier's friend. Satellite mapping of the Chancellorsville battlefield is beginning to reveal that pickets on duty in front of their regiments' positions in May 1863 had dug in, fully a year before the idea of entrenching battle lines had become generally accepted. Henry Abbott, Major of the 20th Massachusetts, had noted after Gettysburg in July of the same year that the failure of Pickett's charge `demonstrates...that... a front attack over an open field against even the slightest pit cannot be successful...'

     But if a trench gives shelter, it also imprisons, immobilising its occupants and inducing a powerful urge to escape. `We have to lay all day in the [rifle] pits,' Carr complained:

     ...amongst the dirt and sand. We have dug places in the
     ground for water, and places to go to attend the wants of
     nature. We are packed in here rather close, making it rather
     difficult to walk; if we do walk it is in a stooping
     posture. We are covered with sand, eat sand, drink sand, and
     breathe sand, until we have almost become pillars of sand...

     Straggling kept pace with entrenching. The provost guard, or military police, Carr noted, `is getting very strict and ugly. It is rumored that two of them was shot this evening.' Although gloomily aware of his own fraying nerves, he never wrote of deserting. In any event, he was spared the temptation. On June 22nd, 1864, Carr fell into the hands of the rebels, who happened upon a regiment stuporous from drink. Whisky was to the Army of the Potomac what dope became for the American army in Vietnam: the favoured means of self-medication against the stresses of war.

     The war of movement, or at least the war of two large armies stumbling and crashing into each other in the woods of northern Virginia, had become a stationary war even before Austin Carr was captured. Rifle pits hastily scratched in the dirt each day gave way to elaborate fortifications stretching around Petersburg as far as the eye could see. One infantryman wrote to his hometown newspaper:

     We are close up to the enemy's guns besieging his works. The
     breastwork against which I am leaning is not more than 200
     yards from the enemy's lines...The field is open between us,
     but it is a strip of land across which no man dares to pass
     ...An attacking party from either side would be mown down
     like grass. We have abattis in front of our works, and so
     have they...[T]hese snarly prongs extending outward are no
     very pleasant things to get over in the face of a murderous
     fire at close range. I believe if the enemy should attack
     us, we could kill every man of them before any could get
     into our works...a man's head isn't safe a moment above the
     protection of the breastworks. Our work here is built
     zigzag,...which gives us a chance to protect ourselves from
     a cross fire. We can only get from place to
     walking in trenches that we have dug for that purpose.
     Relieving is accomplished in the night, and as slyly as

     In virtually every particular, the war being described here could be the war of 1914-1918: the war of shell shock. The evidence for combat trauma in the Civil War seems far more diffuse and ambiguous than the disorder this term suggests. Yet `shell shock' is misleadingly precise. It expresses an inference drawn in the early months of the Great War, when the novel and alarming symptoms front-line British soldiers displayed were attributed to the concussive effect of exploding projectiles on their brains and spinal columns. As combat trauma revealed its protean character, medical officers challenged this organic hypothesis. Nevertheless, the label stuck. In our day, journalists describe Democrats who lose control of the U.S. Congress as `shell-shocked.'

     In terms of the terrible pressures they endured, combat soldiers of the last year of the Civil War had more in common with those of the first year of the Great War than either had with civilians of their own times. In terms of mental disorder, the so-called `Front Experience' reached not only between belligerents but across generations. What changed in the half century between the Civil War and the First World War was not the response of the human species to stress, but the cultural expression of the response. In 1914 far more was known and admitted about what went on in mind, brain and body than had been the case in 1861. Mental disorder had been re-constructed. And so it has been re-constructed since 1918. Yet a little cultural construction goes a long way. In the realm of the historical understanding of combat trauma, it can easily go too far.

     It would be well to remember a premise drawn from evolutionary psychology, a discipline historians have not been especially eager to borrow from. `The evolved structure of the human mind,'--the one we all carry around in our heads today--`is adapted to the way of life of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and not necessarily to our modern circumstances.' Modern war is a concatenation of hells, none of them good for hunter-gatherers.


     Eric Dean, `We Will All Be Lost and Destroyed: Post- traumatic Stress Disorder and the Civil war,' CIVIL WAR HISTORY, 37 (June 1991); Mark de Wolfe Howe, ed. TOUCHED WITH FIRE: CIVIL WAR LETTERS OF OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR., 1861-1864 (Harvard University Press, 1946); Abram Kardiner, THE TRAUMATIC NEUROSES OF WAR (New York 1941); James M. McPherson, BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: THE CIVIL WAR ERA (Oxford University Press, 1988); Tim O'Brien, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (Houghton-Mifflin, 1990); Daniel Pick, WAR MACHINE: THE RATIONALIZATION OF SLAUGHTER IN THE MODERN AGE (Yale University Press, 1993).

     John E. Talbott is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.