By B. Christopher Frueha, Jeffrey A. Smith
Little is known about post-combat psychological reactions of warriors prior to the Twentieth Century. We estimated rates of suicide, alcohol abuse, and probable psychiatric illness among Union Forces during the U.S. Civil War via examination of data compiled by the Union Army. White active-duty military personnel suicide rates ranged from 8.74 to 14.54 per 100,000 during the war, and surged to 30.4 the year after the war. For blacks, rates ranged from 17.7 in the first year of their entry into the war (1863), to 0 in their second year, and 1.8 in the year after the war. Rates for most other relevant domains, including chronic alcoholism, “nostalgia,” and insanity, were extremely low (<1.0%) by modern day standards. Data provide contextual information on suicide and psychiatric variables for combatants during the U.S. Civil War, a brutal modern war with vastly higher casualty rates than recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
► Suicide rates among active duty military personnel have doubled. ► We do not have estimated rates of military suicides prior to modern psychiatry. ► Medical records compiled during the U.S. Civil War provide suicide data. ► Military suicide rates are far higher now than during the U.S. Civil War. ► Historical data suggest that suicide is not an inevitable consequence of combat.