Kathleen Logothetis Thompson
While Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not yet diagnosed in the 1860s, soldiers have always faced the physical and psychological consequences of soldiering. Combat stress manifests itself in many ways, suicide being the most shocking reaction to the stresses of war. Civil War soldiers had social and cultural tools to help them cope with the experiences of camp and battle, but in some cases those tools broke down, leading to psychological stress or suicide. Statistically, suicides were few in the armies. The Union army reported only 391 official suicides during the war (approximately 0.02% of Union soldiers) and there is no official number for Confederate suicides. While the official numbers are low it is very likely that the actual rate was higher through unreported or misreported suicides and veterans suicides after the war.
Suicide is a very personal experience, often seen as sudden and unexplainable to outside observers, so it is very difficult to pinpoint the cause, especially 150 years later. However, two experiences had a definite connection to mental stress and suicide: injury in battle and becoming a prisoner of war. Because most soldiers distrusted the army medical system, the fear of injury sometimes outweighed the fear of dying in battle. Injuries in combat also shook soldiers out of the adrenaline-induced state that allowed men to fight for hours, causing the body and the mind to react to the shock of battle in the midst of combat, not later when the fighting was over. At Fredericksburg, Thomas H. Evans of the 12th US Regulars reported passing over the battlefield on Marye’s Heights immediately after the engagement, hearing a shot, and then finding a body with a rifle lying across it, powder burns on the clothing, and the head shattered from the chin upwards. Evans wrote: “He had probably mistaken our approach for a body of the enemy, and in his agony and horror of becoming a wounded prisoner, had blown out the remains of his life by his own act.”
The Fredericksburg soldier had reason to fear becoming a prisoner of war, for they were another group that faced particular traumas. The foundations that soldiers clutched to manage their wartime experiences completely broke down in the environment of prisoner camps. Deprivation, monotony, cruelty, disease, and death forced some prisoners to sink into apathy and face long-standing psychological and physical issues and others to consider or commit suicide. Francis Amasa Walker wrote of his time as a prisoner of war that he suffered “a period of nervous horror such as I had never before and have never since experienced, and memories of which have always made it perfectly clear how one can be driven on, unwilling and vainly resisting, to suicide. I remember watching the bars at my window and wondering whether I should hang myself from them.” Walker resisted such temptation, but others could not, despite the restrictions of available materials in the prison camp. Crossing the “dead line” was an apparently popular form of committing suicide; this was a perimeter set up at many prison camps that marked the point prisoners could not pass without being shot by the guards. There is no question that these men wanted death; one soldier stepped over the line and challenged the sentry to shoot him, after two failed shots he yelled at the guard to do his duty and the third shot hit him in the head, killing him instantly.
When we say goodbye to Tom Fairfax, he has recovered from his physical wounds but still suffers from the mental stress of his experiences. He is caught between returning to the frontlines where he will re-experience the stress and trauma of combat and camp life and transportation to a POW camp where he faces an environment that broke many soldiers during the war. In the end he chooses to take his own life instead of facing either. It is important to note that even though Mercy Street chose to represent psychological casualties of the Civil War through a suicidal character, most traumatized soldiers suffered silently due to the cultural and medical constraints of the time.
About the Author:
Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies. She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012. She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War. In addition, Kathleen was a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park and is co-editor for Civil Discourse, a blog of the long Civil War Era.