By Diane Miller Sommerville, 4-2-12
In late December 1861 Northern newspapers buzzed with rumors about a high-ranking Confederate officer who had committed suicide. Within days the victim was identified as Philip St. George Cocke, one of Virginia’s wealthiest and largest planters. Cocke, a West Point graduate, had been appointed commander of Virginia’s state forces by Governor John Letcher in the earliest days of hostilities. He lost his coveted rank of brigadier general, however, when Southern state militias were folded into the Confederate Army.
Although he received a promotion to brigadier general after the First Battle of Bull Run, Cocke never recovered from being demoted to colonel and felt that his battlefield successes were not sufficiently acknowledged. The perceived slights, on top of the strain of war, combined to take a huge toll on Cocke’s psychological and physical health. He retreated to his plantation a broken man, and on the day after Christmas 1861, he shot himself in the head with a pistol.
Cocke may well have been the highest-ranking Confederate soldier to die by his own hands during the Civil War, but he was not alone. The historical record is peppered with cases of soldiers, Northern and Southern, taking their own lives. While most suicides likely occurred as a consequence of what was then called “battle shock,” quite a few took place in camp, even before being shipped off to the front.
The Richmond Dispatch, for example, reported that a soldier identified only as E. White committed suicide while in camp near Savannah, Ga., in October 1861. The grandson of Kentucky Senator John Crittenden, a 26-year-old private named Coleman, who was attached to the 1st Florida Regiment, cut his throat in late August 1861 while stationed near Pensacola. No explanation was offered other than he had been “under a state of mental derangement.” A prominent lawyer from Mobile, Ala., had enlisted in one of the volunteer companies formed in that city in early summer 1861; he, too, slit his throat while making his way to the front.
None of these Confederate soldiers left a suicide note, so it is impossible to know with certainty what drove each to commit such a rash act. While it is entirely possible that non-war related factors – pre-existing conditions or an unstable home life, for instance – contributed significantly to their deaths, war and one’s looming participation in it, the common thread in all these suicides, almost certainly proved the decisive factor. But the question remains: why were so many of them Southern? Was there something about Southern society that, combined with the stress of war, made suicide more likely? And what effect did so many suicides have on a society that before the war had roundly, even punitively, condemned the act?
Each suicide is a thing unto itself, but we can offer a few conjectures. Importantly, men, especially white men in the South, well understood the expectations Victorian society demanded of them in wartime. Honor and duty required their martial participation. So in the wake of the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, Southern white men heeded their new nation’s call to arms and flocked to recruiting stations.
The “Boys of ’61” were pulled into military service by rage militaire a sense of adventure, but they were also pushed into service by patriotic womenfolk who, despite reservations, implored their husbands and sons to enlist. To resist would raise questions about one’s manhood as well as commitment to nation. Consequently, thousands reflexively rushed off to war without much deliberation or contemplation.
As Southern recruits mustered in camps, the reality of what they faced set in. While many a green soldier longed to “see the elephant” – a colloquial term referring to engaging in battle – eagerness often gave way to anxiety and a plethora of fears: of dying, of killing, of failure, of the unknown. If any of those fears were made manifest, a soldier’s courage would be called into question, as appears to have been the case with Charles Robinson, a member of the newly constituted Independent Scouts of Mobile that was mustering in June 1861. When fellow recruits accused him of being a coward, Robinson retorted that he would show them how a Roman could die, then plunged a knife into the carotid artery in his neck.
While most new soldiers punched through that initial reservation and persevered, some became emotionally paralyzed in battle and ultimately unable or unwilling to fight. Take the case of Capt. Christopher Fisher of the newly formed Petersburg Cavalry, a “man of high social position at home.” Fisher first began to show signs that he was “laboring under mental aberration” as his company faced battle near Pig Point, Va., in the early weeks of hostilities. According to a newspaper account, Fisher had become “depressed in spirit” after recognizing that this company was about to be “cut to pieces by the enemy.”
Sympathetic officers and enlisted men, apprehending his weakened state of mind, persuaded him to leave his post and return home. Fisher complied, but en route he drew a pistol, shot himself and sustained an injury that felled him from his horse. He stumbled, ran a short distance, then shot himself again, through the head, dying a few minutes later. Suicide permitted the young captain to escape the taint of cowardice that surely would have followed him had he lived, just as it spared him the pain of facing loved ones as a man who had failed the battlefield test.
Suicide in the antebellum South, as in the rest of the nation, was roundly condemned in moral and religious terms. Protestant and Catholic theology decried suicide as a mortal sin, while laypeople often equated the act with cowardice and selfishness. Ministers railed against the act as an encroachment on God’s authority. Preachers admonished parishioners to follow the example of the long-suffering Job, who patiently endured endless personal suffering. And while the legal remedies to punish suicide victims had largely disappeared from American practice – namely, forfeiture of the suicide victim’s inheritance to the state – the stigma surrounding suicide steadfastly remained at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Indeed, the war stands as an important turning point in the way Southerners came to view suicide and helped usher in a more tolerant, sympathetic attitude toward those who died by their own hands. Consider the newspaper coverage of the death of Captain Fisher. We learn that Fisher “was greatly beloved by his company,” members of whom believed he was a brave man. Excessive concern for his company, not fear or shame, the newspaper explained, had caused Fisher to end his own life.
General Cocke, too, had been eulogized in similar fashion. The Richmond Enquirer even equated Cocke’s suicide with a battlefield death by proclaiming him a “martyr to his patriotism as if he had fallen in the field of battle.” Readers were assured that his “heart and soul were thoroughly enlisted in the noble cause of Confederate independence.” The Richmond paper further vindicated Cocke by denying he bore blame for the self-murder, explaining that he had shot himself while “under the impulsion of a mental aberration that extinguished all responsibility.”
Sympathetic responses extended to enlisted Confederate soldiers as well as officers. On Dec. 14, 1861, for example, the Richmond Daily Dispatch, reported on yet another soldier suicide, this one from the 9th South Carolina Regiment. While friends were at a loss to explain why Burgess killed himself, the newspaper surmised that he was “tired of life and had concluded to try the realities of another world.” Noting that this was the second such suicide in a few days, the newspaper abhorred “such deplorable waste of life.” The piece further opined that “men in war become more reckless of their lives and attempt, through a mistaken notion, to relieve themselves of a burden too heavy to bear.”
Another measure of changing attitudes toward Civil War victims of suicide can be seen in the public sympathy victims received after their deaths. The lawyer from Mobile who cut his throat en route with his company to the front was accorded considerable respect following his suicide. Two companies escorted his coffin to the cemetery for burial, where he received military honors. The Knoxville Register reported that “a large number of our citizens” attended the funeral, which was presided over by a minister, suggesting at least some religious rituals were observed. Similarly, a military detachment accompanied the remains of Thomas Stringham, a 22-year-old German Virginia man who killed himself while encamped near Norfolk with his company in October 1861. In a display of community reverence, members of the Norfolk Tailors Society appeared at burial-site services.
If some Southerners expressed compassion and support for soldiers who died by their own hands, others failed to make the connection between suicidal behavior and wartime experiences. Modern observers, many of whom witnessed American soldiers returning from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, are keenly aware of the possible contribution of trauma experienced in war to mental illness. But 19th-century Americans had no such understanding that exposure to battle sometimes resulted in psychiatric breakdown or debilitation.
Consequently, when a soldier (or, after the war, a veteran) developed severe signs of mental distress including suicidal tendencies, the causal connection to his military duty eluded many people, even family members and professional caretakers. As was common before the field of psychiatry matured, social pathologies like alcoholism were confused as a cause, not a symptom, of mental illness. Consequently, bystanders trying to explain why “a poor unfortunate soldier” attempted suicide in June 1862 said he had been made “delirious from liquor.” Likewise, masturbation was to blame for Joseph Henderson’s violent threats to himself and others, not his stint as a soldier in “Price’s Army” in Missouri or the “many fatigues” he had undergone there.
The stories of Confederate soldiers who attempted or committed suicide get us closer to a full accounting of the personal costs of the Civil War. Losses in dead, wounded and treasure have been well-documented; individual suffering, less so. And while suicides occurred among Union soldiers, there is evidence to suggest suicides occurred more frequently in the South during the war and following the defeat and collapse of the Confederacy, as broken soldiers returned home burdened with combat stress as well as the herculean task of rebuilding themselves, their families and the region.
Their stories also illuminate a “community of suffering” that emerged in the South during and after the Civil War that served as a catalyst for shifting ideas about suicide and manhood, opening the door for a more empathetic treatment of suicide victims. Southern soldiers who died by suicide, just as those who died by a sniper’s bullet, an exploding shell or typhoid were, to their minds, martyrs to patriotism.
Diane Miller Sommerville, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University, is the author of the forthcoming “Aberration of Mind: Suicide, Civil War and the American South,” for which she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. An expanded and fully cited version of this essay will appear in a forthcoming volume of Civil War History.