Civil War soldiers may be first to document PTSD

By Morgan Stringer

The first documentations of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in soldiers may have occurred during the American Civil War.

This was one of the topics discussed recently during an event hosted by The Center for Civil War Research at Ole Miss.

“I think we are doing a good job of bringing scholarly interest to campus,” said founder and director, John Neff. “We have the best and brightest historians.”

The center hosted an annual conference Oct. 9-10. This year’s topic was “Science, Medicine and Technology in the American Civil War.”

The topic was chosen not only because of public interest in science, medicine and technology, but the renewed interest in these topics by academia as well.

“We want to continue to do things bigger and better,” said Neff.

One of the panels at the conference consisted of three doctoral students presenting their papers.

The first panelist featured alcohol abuse and psychological trauma of veterans living at The Soldiers’ Home in Washington and how the staff dealt with these issues. The Soldiers’ Home was founded for the care of wounded, ill, and elderly veterans, according to

The Soldier’s Home did not have the resources to treat the increasing amount of alcoholic and mentally ill residents, said Scott E. Ackerman, a student at the City University of New York.

Many medical practitioners believed mental illness was caused by a moral failing or weakness in character of these ill veterans, said Ackerman.  This led to staff increasingly punishing soldiers with labor, confinement, suspension, or even dismissal from the home.

The psychological trauma sometimes led soldiers to commit suicide. One soldier, James Bond, leaped to his death from the third story of The Soldier’s Home, according to Ackerman.

The second presentation focused on how Civil War veterans’ mental illnesses became associated with psychological trauma experienced in the war.

Families and friends of mentally ill soldiers noticed that their loved ones changed after the war, and they made a connection between the two, which was a relatively new phenomenon, said Dillon J. Carroll, a student at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Staff at St. Elizabeth’s Government Hospital for the Insane also began to link mental illness to wartime psychological trauma, due to the high amount of veterans among patients and behavior problems developing in these men after war experiences, according to Carroll.

“We cannot send a psychiatrist back in time, but it is likely that PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) was the cause,” said Carroll.

The final panel presentation discussed how Southern Civil War medical literature bolstered Southern nationalism and created a new identity for Southern physicians as professionals.

Confederate medical journals created a dialogue between the emerging military surgeon and civilian doctors. These two communities deepened nationalism, according to Lindsay Rae Smith, a student at the University of Alabama.

These medical journals also allowed Southern physicians to assert themselves as professionals for the first time, said Smith.

Neff said the American Civil War is a continuously popular topic among the broad population and academia.

The center also provides a forum for people to debate topics such as monuments on campus. Historians from the center provide people with historical expertise on these matters.

“Some will want to memorialize it (Civil War symbols), others will want to eradicate it, but we can’t run from it,” Neff said.”We can’t escape from it. The best solution is to understand the past and how it shapes our present.

“The Civil War is important to our identity as a nation and an identity of self. The country we live in is what the Civil War and Reconstruction produced.”

Neff said the Center for Civil War Research is particularly appropriate to Ole Miss because the campus was directly involved in the conflict.  Students fought in the war, and the campus is close to several battlefields.

“The war came to Oxford, not once, but repeatedly,” he said. “A good portion of Oxford was burned in August of 1864.”

The center was founded in the spring of 2009 as a subset of the history department. The center promotes scholarship, houses research materials, and is involved in community outreach, according to the center’s website.

The next event at the Center for Civil War Research will feature an address on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The lecture will be April 14,  the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

“We want to continue to do things bigger and better,” said Neff.

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