By Donald Lee Anderson, Godfrey Tryggve Anderson
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
The American Civil War witnessed a revival of nostalgia, a mental disorder that had created problems for armies for centuries. It is not within the scope of this study to trace the origins of nostalgia in detail. If we were to attempt this we might begin in early biblical times and consider the words of the psalmist: "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion".
As early as 1569, a Swiss officer reported that one of his cadets had succumbed to homesickness. References to this problem can also be found in the first half of the seventeenth century. In 1688 Johannes Hofer, a medical student in Germany, wrote a dissertation on the subject. He was the first to use the term "nostalgia" and to identify it as a disease. He described the symptoms as anorexia, insomnia , slow fever, irritability, anxiety, and a general wasting away of the organism. Hofer pointed out that separation from the homeland was the basis of this ailment and that an "afflicted imagination" was an important cause of this malady. In the course of his description of this "wasting disease" he used such expressions as "nervous fluid" and "the animal spirits".
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this malady attracted the attention of German physicians. Prominent also in the consideration of nostalgia were the Swiss, who seemed to have particular problems with this malady. It was believed, incorrectly, that those from the vicinity of Bern were especially susceptible to homesickness when they left their native habitat. However, at various times people of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Lapland, and almost every country showed symptoms of this problem. Beginning at about the time of the French Revolution and extending into the nineteenth century, the French physicians became very concerned with problems of nostalgia in their military ranks. Nostalgia was of epidemic proportions in the French army of the Rhine in 1793.
The official records of noninfectious diseases in the federal army during the American Civil War reveal 5,213 cases of nostalgia and 58 deaths from this malady among white troops from May 1861 to June 30, 1866. The record for "colored troops" reveals 334 cases of nostalgia and 16 deaths. The number of cases of nostalgia is relatively small when compared with such diseases as rheumatism and typhoid, yet the cases which were labeled nostalgia posed a perplexing problem in some areas for the army during the entire duration of the war.
During the early years of the conflict the number of cases of nostalgia among Northern troops increased. In the year that ended June 30, 1863, 2,057 cases and 12 deaths were reported. The next year the number of cases decreased by 800, and the last year of the war the number of cases dropped markedly, although deaths continued to increase slowly but steadily. The year following the war brought a drastic drop to less than 200 cases. The decline after 1863 was due in part to the type of men being taken into the service and the more realistic view of the duration of the war at this time. It was generally felt that nostalgia was most prevalent among the young recruits, and partly for this reason the surgeon general favored increasing the age for induction from 18 to 20 years. Early in 1863, the assistant surgeon general, Dr. Dewitt C. Peters, described nostalgia as found in the military at this time: "... a species of melancholy, or mild type of insanity, caused by disappointment and a continuous longing for the home . . . and is daily met with in its worst form in our military hospitals and prisons, and is especially marked in young subjects".
From: Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
Volume 28, Number 1, Autumn 1984
pp. 156-166 | 10.1353/pbm.1984.0021