Come to the Dark Side: Disability as “Dark” Civil War History

Come to the Dark Side: Disability as “Dark” Civil War History

While the rest of the world was happily decking the halls and calling for goodwill toward men, Civil War historians — in the now-famous words of Historista blogger and historian Megan Kate Nelson — were “freaking out.”

They weren’t freaking out because of the discovery of some great new source material, or an exciting new publication. They were freaking out because both Civil War History and The Journal of the Civil War Era, the two major journals in the field, each published an article in their December issues that criticized the state of current Civil War research and writing. The major concern for the articles’ authors — Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier for JCWE and Earl J. Hess for CWH — was that Civil War military historians, already a dying breed, are being hurried to their demise by eager social and cultural historians who dismiss military history as unscholarly and old-fashioned. Earl Hess suggests that “understanding the real battlefield of 1861-1865 is essential to understanding everything else about the Civil War.”[1] Gallagher and Meier assert that “because the Civil War was a massive war, every scholar of the conflict should be at least basically versed in its military history.”[2]

Like many others who have responded to these articles, I don’t disagree with these arguments. As Megan Kate Nelson stated, “of course logistics and strategy and the lived experience of combat are important. They were important to Civil War Americans, and so they are important to those who study them.” I also think it’s essential for historians of the era to know military terms — there’s a significant difference, for example, between a regiment and a brigade, a smoothbore musket and a rifle, infantry and cavalry. When I’m researching a veteran, it’s important that I understand what it means when he refers to the Crater, or Little Round Top, or Fort Pillow. These events were incredibly important to the soldiers who experienced them, even decades after the war’s end.

Camp life in the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry, 1861. Civil War armies included not only soldiers, but also "camp followers," women, children, wives, siblings, and other civilians who took care of the more everyday needs of the armies like cooking and cleaning. (Library of Congress)
Camp life in the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry, 1861. Civil War armies included not only soldiers, but also “camp followers,” women, children, wives, siblings, and other civilians who took care of the more everyday needs of the armies like cooking and cleaning. (Library of Congress)

This plea for the preservation of military history isn’t what caused the uproar. Instead, it was the authors’ frustration with social and cultural history, or “war studies,” which have helped bring the experiences of women, children, blacks, and Native Americans into the study of the war era. That’s a good thing. But in addition to broadening the field, the authors suggest that these historians, probably influenced by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, take an anti-war stance in their work, making traditional military history unpopular inside the academy. An important aspect of this turn — and the one that raises the most ire with Gallagher, Meier, and Hess — is a move toward so-called “dark history,” which focuses on the disturbing and less glorious aspects of the war. In recent years, historians of the “dark side” have challenged our beliefs about the realities of emancipation for freedpeople and reminded us of the rape and torture perpetrated by Confederate and Union soldiers alike. Others — myself included — have started to investigate the lives of Civil War veterans, particularly those with physical and mental wounds. This, at least according to the defenders of military history, is “marginal” work that is at best misleading and at worst, presentist and ahistorical. As Gallagher and Meier put it, “the analytic risk of overemphasizing the dark side is that readers who do not know much about the war might infer that atypical experiences were in fact normative ones.”[3]

Aside from making many jokes about who was on “dark side” or the “light side,” as if we were participants in an epic galactic war, the historians of the Civil War blogosphere have rightly pushed back against many of these claims. I loved the Tattooed Professor Kevin Gannon’s argument that calling certain wartime activities “dark” means arguing that the rest of the activities were “light” — that the “purposeful extinguishing of another human life, and the constant impetus to do so repeatedly, was not dark.” But one issue that hasn’t been yet raised is how disability figures into this debate. According to this critique of war studies, war-related disabilities were not a typical experience, and those who did have disabilities were able to “overcome” in order to lead successful civilian lives. This interpretation relies on a surprisingly outdated understanding of disability and disability history. The history of disabled people in the United States has long been considered marginal, often on the grounds that it does not represent the experiences of society as a whole, but rather isolated, personal, medical issues. Yet Douglas Baynton explained over a decade ago that disability history is about more than pointing out that disabled people existed. Just as Joan Scott proposed that we use gender as a lens in the 1970s, Baynton argued that disability is critical to interpreting society and culture. “Disability,” he stated, is not as simple as individual medical problems, but “a fundamental element in cultural signification and indispensable for any historian seeking to make sense of the past.”[4]

"Savage Station, Va. Field hospital after the battle of June 27," June 30, 1862,  James F. Gibson, photographer. (Library of Congress)
“Savage Station, Va. Field hospital after the battle of June 27,” June 30, 1862, James F. Gibson, photographer. (Library of Congress)

This seems especially true in the study of the Civil War, or for that matter, any war. As Elaine Scarry has noted, “the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring.”[5] The central aim of having hundreds of thousands of heavily armed men line up and shoot at each other is to inflict bodily harm. And when these men weren’t actively shooting at each other, they were living on poor rations and bad water, sleeping and marching in all kinds of weather, generally far from familiar environments, climates, and loved ones — all of which wreaked havoc on their bodies and minds. Soldiers routinely described themselves to be “worn out” or “used up” by the stresses of war. When the Surgeon General’s office published The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion after the end of the war, the detailed case histories, images, and numerical data regarding wounds and illnesses of Civil War soldiers amounted to six volumes, around 3,000 pages. Sickness, pain, and psychological trauma were common experiences for those who fought the Civil War. Even if you argue that not all men were wounded or sick during the war, the reality remains that anywhere a Union or Confederate soldier looked he saw illness, wounds, pain and suffering. It was a fundamental part of the war. How can we argue that these experiences are marginal to our understanding of the Civil War?

Part of the problem is the preoccupation among Civil War scholars to emphasize veterans’ ability to “overcome” their wounds and illnesses in order to achieve postwar success, and that many remembered the war in very positive terms. Gallagher and Meier argue that most veterans were not “prevented from moving past military service to live productive postwar lives.”[5] This is remarkably reductive. Did disabled veterans who found postwar success become somehow less disabled because they had good luck?

US Civil War veterans John Long, Walter French, E. P. Robinson, and an unidentified acquaintance, 1860s. (Library of Congress)
US Civil War veterans John Long, Walter French, E. P. Robinson, and an unidentified acquaintance, 1860s. (Library of Congress)

In reality, war disability is infinitely more complicated than the authors allow. Veterans’ disabilities did not magically disappear because they found a satisfying line of work or fathered children or became politicians. Rather, most disabled Civil War veterans learned to live and work with altered bodies and minds. James Marten’s recent book on James Tanner, a Union veteran who lost the lower portion of both legs during the war, shows that Tanner became a well-known veterans’ advocate and public speaker while living with the painful effects of his wounds.[6] My own research on Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain shows that throughout his successful career as college president, governor of Maine, writer, and speaker, the agony of his wounds was a terrible constant. Chamberlain, in his many postwar essays and speeches, recalled the war as a singularly glorious experience. In his private writings, such as family correspondence, however, he was less certain, even admitting occasionally that he was still unsure about what it had all been for. The many stories about veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who want desperately to return to the battlefield even while grappling with debilitating PTSD or other injuries demonstrate the tension between soldiers’ feelings about their war experience and disability. Clearly it is not as simple as overcoming or failing, celebrating or condemning.

One need only flip through the pages of Harper’s Weekly, some sheet music, or even children’s literature to see how significant the issue of disability was to Civil War era Americans. Disabled soldiers littered the pages of the day’s popular media. One song, “The Empty Sleeve,” had civilians contemplating as they sang: “what a tell-tale thing is an empty-sleeve, what a weird, queer thing is an empty sleeve.”[7] To Civil War Americans, disability was hardly peripheral. As Douglas Baynton famously pointed out, “disability is everywhere in history, once you being looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.”[8] It seems to me that if the history of disability in the Civil War era is marginal, it is only because we as historians have failed to look squarely at it.


[1] Earl J. Hess, “Where Do We Stand? A Critical Assessment of Civil War Studies in the Sesquicentennial Era,” Civil War History 60 (2014), 393.

[2] Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms with Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era 4 (2014), 489.

[3] Gallagher and Meier, “Coming to Terms with Military History,” 492.

[4] Douglas Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” in Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Urmansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 52.

[5] Gallager and Meier, “Coming to Terms with Military History,” 492.

[6] James Marten, America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014).

[7] David Barker, “The Empty Sleeve,” in Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1863), 47.

[8] Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” 52.

Further Reading

Berry, Stephen, ed. Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011

Brune, Jeffrey and Daniel J. Wilson, eds. Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

Clarke, Frances. War Stories: Suffering and Sacrifice in the Civil War North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Dean, Eric T. Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gerber, David, ed. Disabled Veterans in History. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Longmore, Paul K. and Lauri Umansky, eds. The New Disability History: American Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Marten, James. Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Nelson, Megan Kate. Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Feature image: “Wounded soldiers at hospital in Fredericksburg, VA,” [1860-1865] (Library of Congress)

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.