Understanding Trauma in the Civil War South: A Conversation with Diane Miller Sommerville

As I’ve written about for Nursing Clio previously, there’s been much debate in recent years about so-called ‘dark’ Civil War history. In that debate, Diane Miller Sommerville has been a vocal advocate for increased attention to the physical and psychological trauma wrought by the war. Her new book, An Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War South, is a powerful new addition to the conversation. The first study of suicide during the Civil War, or suicide in the American south for that matter, her book breaks new ground on the many ways the Civil War affected the people who lived through it. The book is beautifully written and methodologically fresh, and I was thrilled to get to speak to Diane about it.

Sarah: In your introduction, you make the point that while there’s a lot of scholarship on violence in the South, there has been very little investigation into suicide in the South. Why do you think suicide has gone unstudied? What brought you to the topic?

Diane: An interesting question. In fact, compared to European history, there’s been very little work done on suicide in American history. First, the records are much better in European archives, and are easily accessible in one central repository. In the U.S., they’re largely scattered. Vital statistics were not kept in most localities until the early 20th century, making studying mode of death difficult. More likely, I think, other forms of violence, especially extra-legal violence like lynching and eye-gouging, have captured the attention of historians.

Sarah: You’ve amassed an incredibly rich collection of stories and sources! Some might assume that nineteenth-century people might have been reticent to record their thoughts on suicide. Where did you find your sources?

Diane: Locating sources that referenced suicides or expressed thoughts on suicide was a challenge, but not as much as you might think. Newspapers were much more willing to publish news of suicides in the 19th century than newspapers do today. Nineteenth-century papers regularly identified victims of suicide in their accounts or obituaries while offering attempts to explain the circumstances that likely led to the suicide. After the war, publication of suicide notes in newspapers as part of the reporting grew common.

Book cover for Somerville’s Aberration of Mind. (UNC Press)

An obvious place to look for suicides were coroners’ reports, which included testimony of family members and other witnesses that was relied on by coroners for a determination of cause of death. Some of these provide excellent details of the circumstances leading up to the suicide.

But I did realize early on that I ought to expand my study to include suicidal behavior of all sorts, not merely completed or fatal suicides: that is, attempted (or uncompleted) suicides or suicidal ideation, which led me to lunatic asylum records. I also include in my study those who recorded thoughts on suicide or death in their diaries and letters but never acted on them. Here we see the thought processes played out in real time: what were the circumstances leading them to consider suicide? Why didn’t they go through with it?

I also found references to suicides in diaries and letters, but that was a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. I benefitted, though, from friends and colleagues who knew I was working on suicide so would send along snippets that they found in their own research.

Sarah: Something I found very striking about your book is how clear you were about your methods. For example, when you describe the case of Eliza Newton, who was institutionalized for suicidal behavior, you speculate on some things that may have caused Eliza’s condition, but also clearly state, “the answer is unknowable.” Can you tell us a little bit about how you approached sources and how you decided to interpret them?

Diane: In a word, carefully!

Causation was perhaps the greatest challenge in writing about historical cases of suicide. How can we ever truly know why someone, 150 years ago, took his or her own life? But the backdrop or historical context for most of these suicides was the Civil War. It was the one thing they had in common. Yet, who’s to say that even though a soldier killed himself following a battle that there wasn’t some other non-war related trigger?

Maybe he’d just received a letter that his betrothed had jilted him. Or that his beloved wife and child had died. I really struggled for a long time about how to talk about causation and suicide. In the end, I concluded that the etiology of any behavior is extremely difficult and the best we can ever hope to achieve is the proximate causes for a behavior, but that war, the Civil War in this case, stands out as a major factor. Even when the war was not a direct cause of a suicide, the war clearly exacerbated or shaped the decision to kill oneself.

In the case of Eliza, there were many factors in her personal history, any one of which might have been solely or primarily responsible for her melancholy and suicidal disposition: heredity, the deaths of her brothers in the war, the strain of her husband being in the war and his being wounded, a postpartum disorder, or her husband being charged after the war with raping their daughter. We don’t know for sure. That said, the war and the exigencies of war certainly didn’t make things easy or better.

Sarah: You make it clear that the war had a wide-reaching impact, even for those who didn’t serve in uniform. For instance, when Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas says in 1870 that she loves her children more than she did before the war, you explain that the very experience of mourning a child changed because of the trauma of the war. How did you come to the conclusion that the war had this broad affect?

Diane: Recent scholarship, say in the last 10 or so years, on war and society, the cultural turn of the study of the Civil War, has taken as its focus myriad topics that illustrate the broader impact of the war on the lives of Americans, soldiers, civilians, and the enslaved. Historians have been doing deep dives in areas that shine a light on the many ways war affected its participants, starting with Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering (2008). The collective scholarship, mine included, suggests we historians have only just begun to assess the human costs of the Civil War. That assessment, to my mind, comes into stark and dramatic focus when we linger over the lives of ordinary individuals and the many ways, small and large, that civil war changed them.

Soldiers toast each other around a table as death, in the form of a skeleton, waits outside the tent. (Alfred Waud/Library of Congress)

Let’s take Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas. Her diary is an important source for understanding how the Civil War upended her life and affected her marriage. Her husband, Jeff, became depressed and drank too much. He was unable to support the family, so it fell to Thomas, who grew resentful. I read her 1870 quote — “I love all my children more than I ever did before” — partially as a rebuke of her husband, partially as an acknowledgement that pervasive death made her appreciate her children more (though not Jeff!). Suffering permeated the South and we’re only now just beginning to consider the extent and depth of the consequences.

Sarah: Your chapters on the black experience of suicide added significant, necessary context and analysis of Southern culture — but it occurred to me that it might have been easy to focus just on white Southerners. Why did you think it was important to include the experiences of enslaved and freed black Southerners in your book?

Diane: Because my former adviser told me it was. I’m only partially joking. Jan Lewis read my NEH proposal and asked why I hadn’t included African Americans. “They’re southerners, too!” Of course she was right. I initially conceived of the project as a study of Confederates, which would have made it much easier to structure conceptually. Instead, I struggled with the inclusion of the enslaved and newly freed slaves whose experiences with suffering and suicide were so very different than southern whites. It also posed organizational challenges. I came to see, however, that the treatment of southern blacks was more central to my story than I had imagined.

The two chapters on African Americans appear in the very center of the book, and serve as a kind of hinge between the sections on Confederates during and after the war. In the final chapter I bring it all together: suicide and suffering came to serve as markers of racial and intellectual superiority for white southerners. A racialized construction of suffering, mental illness, and suicide was one of the legacies of the Civil War, a way of denying African Americans their full humanity by denying they suffered emotionally and psychologically.

African American refugees coming into the Union lines near Culpeper Court House, Va. (Edwin Forbes/Library of Congress)

Sarah: There’s been a lot of discussion in Civil War scholarship about whether historians who study trauma run the risk of overestimating the incidence of the “dark side” of the conflict. Why do you think it’s important to study suffering and trauma? What do you think it adds to our knowledge of the war era?

Diane: I think part of the pushback to studying war trauma is the influence of the triumphalist narrative of the Civil War that has prevailed until recently. Soldiers are heroic. Full stop. Despite the considerable evidence to the contrary. I sense that some historians imagine that merely considering the psychological harm that afflicted some Civil War soldiers and veterans represents a betrayal of their sacrifices, perhaps even an assault on their character. Paul Cimbala’s recent book Veterans North and South (2015) offers a very thoughtful exploration of the historical treatment of trauma among Civil War veterans.

But while he concedes the importance of studying trauma, he worries that by focusing on psychological harm done to soldiers we may lose sight of those who were resilient and who “returned home whole and happy.” (xvii) He is not incorrect to claim that many veterans returned home and seemingly integrated back into civilian life seamlessly.

Two things, though: one, appearances can be deceiving. Victorian-era men were highly motivated to appear well and strong in order to adhere to notions of masculinity, so likely hid invisible battle scars from view. Sarah, you know a thing or two about that. You only need look to the case study of Joshua Chamberlain, hailed by many as the quintessential Civil War veteran success story. Despite ‘seeming’ to have embraced a successful career after the war, he was both physically and emotionally debilitated by his war wounds.

A second point to be made is this notion, implied or otherwise, that the ‘typical’ veteran proved resilient, and the traumatized one aberrational. Truth is, we have absolutely no way of knowing what a ‘typical’ veteran experience looked like. The historical record simply doesn’t permit it. The question is also a moving target. Some veterans may have done well at the beginning, but regressed years later. So in one set of sources a veteran may seem perfectly integrated back into his civilian life, but twenty years he may end up an addict in a veteran’s home. And the reverse could be true: many suffered immediately after the war, but then rebounded.

Why study Civil War trauma? Most importantly, it gets us closer to a full accounting of the Civil War. The men and women in my book are testament to the high cost and enduring toll the Civil War took on Americans. We should never lose sight of the fact that political and military decisions have profound consequences on the lives of ordinary people. I hope my book makes that point clear.

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