Civil War Hospital Ship

The U.S.S. Red Rover, a captured Confederate vessel, was refitted as a hospital ship.

Evolution of Civil War Nursing

The evolution of the nursing profession in America was accelerated by the Civil War.

The Practice of Surgery

Amputations were the most common surgery performed during the Civil War.

Army Medical Museum and Library

Surgeon-General William Hammond established The Army Medical Museum in 1862. It was the first federal medical research facility.

Civil War Amputation Kit

Many Civil War surgical instruments had handles of bone, wood or ivory. They were never sterilized.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Her Daily Concern:" Women's Health Issues in Early 19th-Century Indiana

Author: Timothy Crumrin

Illness-- which might strike, suddenly, openly, like a summer storm, or slowly, furtively, like a night thief-- was an incontrovertible fact of early midwestern life. This, of course, greatly effected pioneer women, who were, after all, prey not only to illnesses which touched everyone, but also to those peculiar to their gender. Indeed, it can be said, that in the matter of health, women often had the worst of both worlds. That pioneer women were much concerned about this is strikingly evident from their letters and diaries. Nearly all made mention of their health or that of loved ones. Often, letters, like those of Mary Hovey, an 1830s immigrant to Indiana, were catalogues of symptoms, illness, and complaints.

However, by modern standards, there was precious little the women of this period could do about their concerns; they were all but powerless in their struggle against disease. Living in the time before the formulation of the germ theory of disease, women and men were unaware of the important connection between the lack of proper sanitation and illness. Early midwesterners lived side by side with their own waste and that of their neighbors. They drank polluted water and ate poorly prepared, tainted food. Their diets were poor and given over heavily to starchy foods. In addition they were grossly outnumbered by the disease bearing insects which swarmed around them, bringing with them malarial fevers and other illnesses. When the above is added to a general lack of cleanliness and various environmental hazards, it is not difficult to understand why pioneers kept such a weather eye out for symptoms.

The treatment of disease could be equally crude. Early midwesterners sometimes resorted to charms, potions, and home remedies to take up the battle against ill health. A bag of live insects hung around the victims neck was thought to cure whooping cough, while "punkin seed tea" was prescribed for convulsions.

The "medical profession" often offered cures that were only slightly more effective. Physicians were often inadequately trained, with little formal education. Some had learned on the job as apprentices to established doctors and rarely climbed inside a medical text. As a consequence their treatments were often only a step or two above folk remedies. The not so-gentle-ministrations of the period have been summed up as "bleed, blister, and purge." Physicians regularly practiced bloodletting, purging with emetics, and other invasive techniques. The sometimes destructive use of such orthodox, or "heroic" medicine, promoted the growth of quackery, with its various potions, and alternative health care providers like Thomsonians, who relied on herbal remedies. All in all, the antebellum period was not a propitious time for good health.

Disease lived in the picturesque midwestern landscapes. Fevers of various types were possibly the most prevalent kinds of illness. Bilious, or continued fevers, were the most common in newly settled areas. Close behind were malarial- type intermittent fevers like ague (usually pronounced "ager" in the midwest). Incidence of both diseases usually declined with the clearing of land and draining of swampy lands, which lowered the number of disease-bearing insects. Such fevers were normally seasonal, like Ague which usually appeared between June and October and could be quite deadly. In 1821, one-eighth of the population of Indianapolis died of both intermittent and unremitting fevers. Other seasonal illnesses such as whooping cough, pleurisy, and consumption also collected a grave toll from both sexes.

But disease could strike at any time. Most dreaded were the epidemics of cholera and small pox. Such diseases were like menacing, foreign invaders approaching from a distance; the warning only added to the fears. Alarms were sounded; any preparations which could be effected were made. Areas buzzed with foreboding and rumor as the assailant moved ever nearer. Cholera outbreaks flashed through the midwest in the 1830s, killing 22 in Madison, Indiana in November, 1832 and returning for an even more virulent visit to the Aurora/Salem area of the state in 1838, when cholera morbos took away 100 of 800 residents. Typhoid and smallpox epidemics wrought their havoc also (even though a smallpox vaccine was available in Indiana by 1817) and cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses took large tolls. Women, then, had all these things to consider, plus others.

"Female Trouble"
Pioneer women were subjected to diseases and ailments that were not only exclusive to them, but also exacerbated by their "place" in life. As one historian put it:

"Women were cast in a limited role in the 1800s. Child rearing was a primary responsibility, and women spent much of their married lives either pregnant or caring for children. Safe and effective contraceptives were not popularized until late in the century. Her role as mother contributed substantially to her poor health, and her modesty prevented her from receiving proper medical attention."

The quintessential role for women in the early nineteenth century was that of mother; a woman was to bear and raise children. How often and how well. she did that was often the only determining factor in how she was measured and defined. The number of children she bore was largely determined by the age at which she married and her remaining fertile years. Exact numbers on family size are impossible to ascertain due to many circumstances, but some general figures tell a compelling story. First generation pioneer women in 1820s Illinois had children approximately every 26-30 months. Over sixty percent had six to nine children, thirty percent had ten or more, and only ten percent gave birth to less than six children in their lifetime. According to 1840 census figures, women in Hamilton County, Indiana had an average of eight children during their lifetime.

Such high birth rates (which probably do not reflect miscarriages or stillbirths) undoubtedly had an adverse effect on a woman's health. In fact, a women's life expectancy during her childbearing years of twenty to forty-five was lower than that of men the comparable age, and only rose to that of men with a woman's passage beyond childbearing.

Childbirth, or parturition, was an event especially fraught with peril in antebellum America. Any abnormality might end in disaster. A fetus in the breech or other abnormal position could lead to the death of both mother and child. At times, "difficult or protracted labor" resulted in what today seem barbaric or ghoulish methods of treatment as physicians sometimes had to perform embryotomies to save the mother. An embryotomy was the act of separation of any part of the fetus while in utero. This might involve decapitation or extraction of a limb to permit extraction of the fetus. The physical and emotional toll of such procedures were enormous for the mother (and doctor), but few other options were open to the physician. Caesareans were "rarely performed during the first half of the nineteenth century" so one avenue to alleviate suffering and ensure a safe birth was generally closed. In cases when the rare procedure was performed, fatalities often ensued due to infections.

There was an advancement open to pioneer women which helped alleviate some of childbirth's inherent dangers. The 1740 introduction of the curved forceps and its increasing adoption by doctors lessened the need for embryotomies and greatly facilitated birthing. Forceps also brought more men through the expectant mother' doorway. The birthing area, once an almost exclusively female province of midwives, or "grannies," became host to increasing numbers of males.

Special training was required to use curved forceps properly, and it was normally only available to men. This training increased the number of physicians with advanced education in obstetrics and led to the rise of male midwives, sometimes also known as accoucheurs, whose specialty was use of the forceps. The advancement was a boon to the expectant mother. Curved forceps (despite the risks involved if ill-used) certainly reduced suffering and offered "safer and shorter" parturition (the process of giving birth). According to some experts, it also placed accouchement and parturition "almost exclusively in the hands" of males-- at least in the east. It is also held by some that untrained midwives had all but been replaced by doctors or male accoucheur in northern urban areas. The same was not so true in the midwest, where midwives were still much employed and medical techniques were sometimes slow in catching on.

Doctors and male midwives played an increasing role in Indiana and the midwest during this period, but female midwives were still heavily employed, most frequently in rural or newly settled areas. The reasons were many. Doctors and other specialists were still sparsely represented in many parts of the midwest; many felt more comfortable with the old ways and did not trust "medicine." And many women felt highly uncomfortable with a male's intrusion into such a "private" matter. Thus the midwife was called to many bed sides. A Jay County, Indiana, woman claimed to have delivered over 900 babies from 1840 to 1897. In central Illinois "'grannies'" (midwives) helped more than 'regulars' (doctors) in the most recurrent medical emergency in the country side, the delivery bed." Thomsonian medicine adherents believed parturition should be handled by female midwives who would maintain the mother on herbal potions and keep her "in a state of perspiration" through delivery.

The primary drawback to the use of female midwives was their lack of formal training, which might leave them unable to help a patient enduring a complicated birth. Among their advantages were experience, proximity and availability, and gender. Many women during the period felt much more comfortable with their own sex attending them. For these women, the doctor was called in only when difficulties arose; sometimes he arrived too late.

Birth Control
Birth control was not an openly discussed or viable option for most women of the early nineteenth century. Some women, however, were well aware of the dangers to their health by pregnancy and childbirth and the health difficulties in constantly having to care for a large brood of children. Others simply wished to limit the number of their children for personal reasons. The options open to these groups were limited. Birth control on a systematic basis hardly existed during the period. Contraceptive information was difficult to obtain and most of it, by modern standards, was specious. Additionally, societal norms and pressures encouraged the sacred state of motherhood and dissuaded any attempts at family planning. Still, some women did indeed seek ways of reducing their risks of pregnancy-- usually only with sporadic success.

Some turned to their doctors, but members of the medical fraternity were not always helpful. Many physicians were uncomfortable with dealing with such matters, while others were merely repositories of misinformation. Doctors often could not even help with the most readily available birth control "method." abstinence. A few "so misunderstood" a woman's bodily cycles that they erroneously advised women to abstain from sexual activity during the safe period of the last half of the menstrual cycle and encouraged it "immediately after ovulation," which put the woman at great risk of pregnancy. Abstinence and other "natural" means, such as coitus interruptus and that "long traditional" preindustrial contraceptive method, prolongation of nursing, were the most oft-used methods during the time, but were seldom considered a topic suitable for a proper lady's diary, letter, or conversation.

However, other means were employed. Feminine networking allowed for the dissemination of contraceptive information. On the midwestern frontier, women passed on such unlikely-- and ineffective-- folk remedies as drinking a concoction featuring gunpowder or eating dried chicken gizzards. Although some "mechanical" devices, such as condoms or sponges were known, they were not readily accessible to the pioneer woman and were likely used only by a minuscule number of Americans-- especially prior to the 1830s. Some loosening of the control of contraceptive information occurred in the 1830s. More extensive information became available with the publication of Robert Dale Owens Moral Physiology (1831) and Knowlton's The Fruits of Philosophy (1832), which contained frank discussions of contraception and reached a wide audience despite, or because, of the scandal and legal proceedings attached to their publication.

When contraception failed, as it was often wont to do, there was abortion. Abortion in the early nineteenth century simply did not elicit the controversy or comment as today (though it was rarely discussed as openly). Though not openly encouraged, it was not necessarily condemned out of hand if carried out early in the pregnancy. Many believed it permissible if done before "quickening," or movement by the fetus, which usually occurred in the second trimester. The first anti-abortion law was enacted in Connecticut in 1821, but it was basically an anti-poisoning law that stipulated it a crime if the woman was "quick with child." In essence, the law was aimed at doctors or potion-sellers whose medicines might cause an unwanted abortion. Quickening was the decisive issue every time abortion was raised in court prior to 1840. if the abortion took place before quickening it was not adjudged a crime. Indiana made abortions illegal in 1835, and did make the distinction regarding quickening. The Hoosier law was a rarity. Most "laws enacted between 1820 and 1840 retained the quickening doctrine and attempted to protect women from unwanted abortion, rather than prosecute them."

Abortion, however, was not considered a significant "means of family limitation" during the first third of the century. It was mainly viewed as a way of avoiding the scandal attached to an illicit affair or birth out of wedlock. However, by the late 1830s a change in the type of person seeking abortions and, and the reasons behind it, became evident. The rising abortion rate of the period probably reflected a desire on the part of married women to limit family size. It is estimated that the abortion rate jumped from one abortion in every 25-35 live births during 1800-1830 to one in every 5-6 live births by 1850. These figures may be a bit high (evidence is still sketchy), but are indicative of a trend.

As the above indicates, abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were "available, but dangerous." This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the midwest, and the average midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.

It was not, however, impossible. Such information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such information sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a "tea" brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included "bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics." Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonians claimed the preferred "remedy" was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.

More reliable sources of information were the ever popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings' The Married Ladies Companion, was meant especially to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who "took a common cold," the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation. Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to "release obstructed menses" and "dangers" to avoid during pregnancy.

The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan's Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to "restore menstrual flow." Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.

Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was feasible, available, and used option; it was a likely contributor to the birth rate falling by mid-century.

"Female Matters"
Public discussion of a woman's body and its health was frowned upon during the first half of the nineteenth century. Some have called it a taboo topic. Not only was it seldom mentioned publicly, women and their own doctors were uncomfortable discussing "female matters." Vaginal and pelvic exams were rare and cursory at best. Such prudishness undoubtedly contributed to a more rapid progression of disease and a quicker deterioration of an afflicted woman's condition. gynecological problems often went unmentioned and untreated. Simple operations on breast tumors took place, but treatment was rudimentary and met with little success. For the most part, then, treatment of "female matters'" suffered due to the same lack of knowledge and technique as other diseases.

In essence, the pioneer woman's body was much less her than that of her modern counterpart. Indeed, it was much less her own than her contemporaries living in northern urban areas. The midwestern woman of 1800-1850 was likely exposed to disease, more unhealthy conditions, more of life's hazards, than most of her gender. As with other aspects of her life, her existence was a problematic one. Yet, hampered by ignorance, exposed to a myriad number of diseases, she survived, even flourished.


A Soldier Gets Sick


Lewis E. Parsons wrote many letters during the Civil War to his family in Talladega, Alabama. Parsons talks about many different things in his letters to home. He mainly asks questions about the home front, and he also talks a great deal about how war is an awful thing. He describes many different situations that he and his fellow men have to go through during the time of war. One of the situations or problems that these soldiers had to face was being sick or getting a disease. Sickness was a very serious problem that many soldiers had to deal with while they were off at war. Parsons does not talk very much about sickness or disease, but he does make one reference to sickness in a letter that he wrote on May 17. He says “I am still having chills and am very weak.” Many soldiers had these same symptoms or feelings that Parsons had. These chills that Parsons takes note of could probably be the symptoms of typhoid fever. The men in the camps started calling the sickness “camp fever”. Many soldiers got sick during the war because of the camps that they had to stay in all the time.

The camps were very unsanitary, and disease was all around the men because of these unsanitary conditions. Historian Thomas Cutrer wrote about some letters from a Confederate soldier to his wife. The soldier’s name was William Moxley, and he served in the Eighteenth Alabama Infantry during the war. Cutrer tells of how Moxley wrote a lot about the sickness of the soldiers and diseases that they had. The soldiers “never acquired the immunities necessary to fight off even the most common of childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, and scarlet fever.” So when the soldiers had to leave their homes to go live in these unsanitary camps they contracted many different diseases. Cutrer also says that a “great interest and value in the Moxley letters is their wealth of commentary concerning the epidemics of disease that shattered both Southern armies and Southern home communities.” These diseases wiped out a huge percentage of both armies during the war. The main disease that was “especially deadly was typhoid.” There were many other diseases and infections that went through these soldiers, but typhoid fever killed the most number of men.

 Another historian by the name of James Pate writes about the letters of the Francis brothers who were soldiers in the Civil War. Pate says that “health issues were a major subject, and outbreaks of measles, mumps, and typhoid fever were routinely reported.” So, Lewis Parsons was not the only soldier sitting in his camp with chills and a feeling of weakness. Every other soldier in that same camp with Parsons probably had some type of sickness or disease. Parsons probably had one of the diseases mentioned above. He did not say in his letter how bad he was feeling, but the sentence he writes does let the reader know that Parsons was sick or on the verge of getting sick. It could have been one of the deadly  diseases that were rampaging through both armies.

How a American Civil War Invention Is Used Today for Relief From Osteoarthritic Knee Pain

By Pariswiederstein M

As an orthopaedic surgeon specialising in knee problems the majority of my patients suffer from osteoarthritis and although knee replacement surgery is generally successful, most patients who are referred to me are not suitable for surgery. These patients are managed with conservative treatment, the main components of which are painkillers and anti-inflammatories, weight loss and exercise.

Each treatment has its own advantages and disadvantages. Painkillers can be very effective in reducing the symptoms of osteoarthritis and for long term use in chronic conditions, paracetamol is the safest drug. Adding an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen significantly improves the effectiveness of the medication.

However, there are risks associated with long term use of anti-inflammatories. Stomach ulcers with bleeding, kidney failure and cardiac problems are all associated with anti-inflammatory use. Side effects can be decreased by using the anti-inflammatory as a cream which is applied to the knee but in general, I have found that many of my patients simply do not like the idea of having to take long term medication in any form for their knee pain.

Weight loss is very effective in those patients who are overweight but as anyone who is overweight knows, it is not easy to lose weight and many patients often cannot manage this. Exercise has a dual benefit of encouraging weight loss and releasing 'feel good' endorphins which can act as a natural painkiller. However, exercising the knee is difficult when the knee is painful.

What is needed for successful conservative treatment is a form of pain relief which is not drug based, is easy and convenient to use and effective in managing patients symptoms of Osteoarthritis. In fact, such a treatment has been available for over 150 years!

In 1862 during the American civil war a technique was discovered that is becoming increasingly available today as a method of treating pain. With no available anaesthetics for battlefield use it was discovered that injured soldiers with painful amputation stumps could obtain pain relief by having the painful stump 'drummed' with drumsticks at a particular frequency. This produced pain relief lasting for many hours. By 1865 nearing the end of the conflict, drummer boys, when not leading the troops into battle, were employed to provide pain relief in field hospitals using this technique.

The mechanism by which this effect was produced would not be discovered for another 100 years.

It was only in the early 1960′s that two scientists Merzack and Wall discovered the process and named it the 'gate theory of pain'. They found that stimulating the vibration sensors in the body causes the pain signal to be blocked on its way to the brain, producing a pain relieving effect. This is due to the spinal column being unable to carry both the pain signal and the vibration signal together. The introduction of the vibratory signal 'closed the gate' to the pain signal.

With this in mind I explored using vibration therapy for the management of knee pain in my patients. We used a commercially available vibration therapy device which was designed for use on the elbow and adapted it for the knee. We then tested it with a large group of patients in a clinical trial. The results were impressive. Some patients who suffered with osteoarthritis pain obtained complete pain relief without using drugs and many subsequently improved so much that they reduced their pain reliving medication to much safer levels. We also saw a reduction in stiffness of the knee joint and greater mobility which enabled many patients to go back to work, to take up gentle exercise and start weight loss programmes and to generally increase quality of life.

Although not a miracle cure for osteoarthritis, the trial showed that vibration therapy can allow patients to delay the need for a knee replacement and reduce their medication use, giving greater safety and increased health benefits. I now use vibration therapy as a significant part of my conservative management programme for patients.


History of the U.S. Christian Commission


Soon after the start of the Civil War, YMCA leaders became concerned with the religious and spiritual needs of the soldiers in the nearby camps. Vincent Colyer, a member of the New York City YMCA, had begun spending time visiting nearby encampments where soldiers were stationed temporarily on their way to the battle front. Colyer mingled with the soldiers, offered words of encouragement, and handed out religious tracts. Since few camps had chaplains, the chaplaincy then being in its infancy, Colyer's ministrations were welcomed by both the soldiers and their officers. As a result of these activities, and the apparent need to extend them, the New York Association established an "Army Committee" with Colyer as chairman, with its mission to provide preaching services, individual religious visitation, and publications for soldiers.

In November, 1861, at the instigation of members of the board of the New York City YMCA, a special convention of fifty delegates representing fifteen YMCAs met in New York. A "Christian Commission" of twelve members was appointed to devise a plan for the Associations to act as a clearinghouse for all religious work in the armed forces. The work of the Commission was organized at the national level. Local Associations were encouraged to support the Commission while maintaining their own activities. Many Associations merged into local branches of the Christian Commission or resolved themselves into army committees in order to facilitate the work of the Commission. The national organization established an office in Philadelphia and the Associations of Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Louisville, New York, St. Louis, and St. Paul became regional clearinghouses for the various activities channeled through the Commission. George H. Stuart, founder and first president of the Philadelphia Association, and then chairman of the YMCA's Central Committee, was designated as Chairman of the Commission, a post he held throughout the war. The method of operation was the appointment of "delegates" who served on a volunteer basis for terms averaging six weeks.

The general aim of the Commission was "to promote the spiritual and temporal welfare of the soldiers in the army and the sailors in the Navy, in cooperation with the Chaplains." Its early activities included publication of a collection of familiar hymns, bible readings and prayers, devotional meetings in the camps, the organization of of a "working Christian force" in every regiment, and aiding and supporting chaplains. Though originally devised to provide spiritual sustenance, the activities of the Commission soon expanded into the physical and social realm, making the Commission a valuable agency of wartime relief. A newspaper report of its first annual meeting described the objects of the organization as, "the promotion of the intellectual, moral and religious welfare of the Army and Navy, buy suggesting needful national legislation and administration, securing well-qualified chaplains, encouraging Sabbath observance, promoting temperance, multiplying libraries, reading-rooms, and gymnasiums, and endeavoring to arouse the sentiment of the nation to a sense of its obligations to this class of citizens. Delegates, serving both at the front and behind the lines, established tents as social centers with stationery and periodicals provided, distributed emergency medical supplies, food, and clothing, and operated canteens and lending libraries. A special work of compassion performed by delegates of the Commission was the assembling of records of those buried from prisons and in certain major battle areas. Prisoner-of-war work, which was to figure more prominently in YMCA war work in later conflicts, also began during the Civil War.

The establishment of the Commission was a pivotal moment in the history of the YMCA movement in North America, which was then just ten years old. The work of the Commission provided the medium for large-scale cooperation between the Association and the general public and was significant in creating prestige for the YMCA movement. The value of the services rendered was recognized by civil and military authorities during the war and afterward.

After the surrender of the Confederacy in 1865, the Commission continued to minister to the troops until they were discharged from military service. At a meeting of the Executive Committee in December, the decision was made to terminate the work of the Commission on January 1, 1866. During its 4 years of operation, the Christian Commission sent nearly 5,000 agents into the field; distributed 95,000 packages, which included nearly 1.5 million portions or full scriptures, 1 million hymnbooks and over 39 million pages of tract. Total monies spent during the Civil War was estimated at over 6.2 million dollars.

Historical material adapted from Chapter 1, "How it All Began," of Serving the U.S. Armed Forced, 1861-1986: The Story of the YMCA's Ministry to Military Personnel for 125 Years, by Richard C. Lancaster; and from the collection.

History of the United States Christian Commission obtained from web site of the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries 

Image: Maimed Soldiers and Others before Office of U.S. Christian Commission – Washington, D.C., April 1865

Prostitution and Venereal Disease in the Civil War

by Amelia Cotter

During the Civil War, medical and ethical advances were helpful in developing a health care system that benefited both prostitutes and soldiers.

Low wages during the inflationary war period inspired many women, especially of the lower class, to take up prostitution, including women who were barely older than what we today consider to be children.

Dr. William Sanger of the Venereal Disease Hospital on Blackwell’s Island, New York, conducted a survey in 1858 of about 2,000 prostitutes. He found that 80% of them were under age 30, and 40% were under age 20. About 62% of them were foreign-born, with 57% being Irish, 20% German, and 8% English. Most of the prostitutes died within an average of four years due to venereal disease or alcoholism—an important insight into the lives of prostitutes at the time.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were common during the Civil War. A diagnosis of gonorrhea referred to any form of urethral discharge, and could have encompassed a number of other diseases not yet discovered, such as Chlamydia. Gonorrhea was diagnosed in 102,893 soldiers, and over 79,589 soldiers were diagnosed with syphilis. Of these cases, six white soldiers and one black soldier died of gonorrhea, while 123 white soldiers and 28 black soldiers died of syphilis. It should be noted that doctors were not yet aware of the more advanced forms of syphilis that affected the nervous system and heart, and likely caused numerous deaths years after the war.

Amazingly, only 426 of the men diagnosed with STDs were hospitalized, and the remainder were simply relieved from duty. The attitude towards illnesses and injuries was generally rather harsh, as demonstrated by the following quote found in a surgeon’s journal: “[Norris was] as well as any man in the regiment…diarrhea, swelling of the testicles, scabs, and a large running sore.”

Many soldiers, out of shame or embarrassment, tried to conceal their infections or treat them on their own. Remedies for these diseases included poke roots and berries, sassafras, and wild sarsaparilla. None of these were effective. Mercury, however, actually did provide some relief from pain, but no permanent positive effects—hence the saying, “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”

By mid-war, a licensing system was developed by doctors in Nashville, Tennessee that involved the regular inspection and possible treatment or hospitalization of prostitutes. The inspection fee for a prostitute—which involved checking if she was free of disease and otherwise healthy—was 50 cents.

By January, 1864, over 300 prostitutes were registered in the city, with 60 found to have venereal diseases. Similar systems were instituted in Memphis, Richmond, Washington, D.C., and several other cities. Interestingly, many of these licensing programs were established in the South, where sexuality and gender roles were traditionally more heavily guarded than in other areas of the States.

If a prostitute was found to have a disease, she would be placed under quarantine. Surgeon W.H. Chambers wrote in December of 1864 that early in the year, 10 to 20 of his officers would have had an STD at any given time, but by December, he hadn’t seen a single case. Unfortunately, in the same year, military personnel in some other cities were banned from visiting brothels, perhaps due to the prevalence of venereal disease.

Not everyone was a fan of prostitution, of course. In an effort to clean up the streets, everything from soliciting prostitution openly down to simply talking to men in public were banned in Memphis and other cities. Many women’s rights and temperance activists attempted to pinpoint links between prostitution and alcoholism in order to outlaw both. Some soldiers could be arrested or even discharged for soliciting prostitutes, though this was rarely enforced.


Civil War Medicine: Pills, Ointments and Bitters for Soldiers

Written by Rachel Walman

This Father’s Day, June 16th, 2013, eminent historian Harold Holzer will be here [New York Historical Society] to answer families’ burning Civil War questions. Following his talk, families are invited to play a choose-your-own-adventure style game where they get to walk in the shoes of a Civil War soldier. Are you sitting there wishing you could really be a Union hero? Perhaps the next few paragraphs will change your mind.

3.2 million men fought on both sides of the war. A recent study has suggested that between 650,000 and 850,000 men and women (mostly men) died because of the war. More Americans died during this war than during any other war in our history.

The greatest wartime killers were not devastating minie balls (new bullets that did a lot of damage), or piercing bayonets, but rather microscopic bacteria. Disease caused roughly 60% of all Union soldier deaths. Ten out of eleven black Union soldiers who died succumbed to disease, not a bullet.  No one in America at that time could have imagined that invisible microbes caused fatal epidemics.  Doctors and regular folks alike had a hazy theory that illness was transmitted through “miasmas,” or foul air, and that health could be achieved through the balance of four bodily substances called “humors”. Ignorance of the roots of disease combined with poor conditions in Civil War camps and hospitals to cause many deaths – deaths that could be prevented today.

The most common fatal diseases amongst Union (and Confederate) soldiers were diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia and tuberculosis. These diseases, which mostly affect the lungs and intestines, are transmitted through contaminated food and water and contact with an infected person. Bad food, bad water and close quarters were the hallmarks of a Civil War soldier’s life. A staple of the soldier’s diet was a flour-and-water cracker called hardtack that provided them with barely any nutrients or energy, lowering their immune systems. When soldiers did have protein in the form of salted or canned meat, it was often spoiled. And of course, there was the battlefield. Encampment water sources with latrines dug nearby were often contaminated with the soldiers’ waste. Several soldiers shared one tent, allowing disease to spread fast. Of course, there was also the battlefield: a bullet wound could become infected with gangrene or blood poisoning in the field hospital.

So what could a soldier do to keep himself healthy when disease and death lurked around every corner? Camp doctors would often prescribe drugs called purgatives which, guess what, make you poop. That’s not a good idea for a soldier who already has dysentery, diarrhea or typhus! Doctors at the time believed purgatives helped the body expel illness. To avoid untrustworthy doctors, soldiers often treated themselves. Have you ever gone to a drug store for cold medicine or stomach relief? Well, soldiers did too, only their medicines were quite different from yours. We now call these “patent”, “proprietary”, or “quack” medicines. There is no real evidence that any of them worked (in fact, some actually damaged those who took them), and their formulas were kept a secret, which is illegal today.

Three medicines often marketed to soldiers were Brandreth’s Pills, Hostetter’s Bitters, and Holloway’s Ointment. Soldiers who happened to take these drugs and survive often gave testimonials to the companies that made them. The companies used the soldiers’ words to advertise their miracle cures to other soldiers. In an ad for Brandreth’s Pills, “Sixty Voices from Army of Potomac” stated that the pills “protect from the arrows of disease, usually as fatal to Soldiers as the bullets of the foe.” Hostetter’s Bitters, its producers swore, were “a positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous.” Holloway claimed his pills could “so purify the blood and strengthen the stomach…” that Union soldiers could handle whatever their environment threw at them.

Though the formulas for these drugs were a mystery to Civil War soldiers, they are not a mystery to us now. Hostetter’s Bitters claimed its disease-fighting ingredients were exotic herbs; however, the ingredient that probably affected soldiers who drank it the most was the whiskey. One bottle of Hostetter’s Bitters was about 47% alcohol. Some soldiers taking this “medicine” undoubtedly believed they were convalescing when in reality they were just intoxicated. Depending on the illness, the alcohol in Hostetters may have made things worse. Brandreth’s pills and Holloway’s Ointment were medically ineffective, but also fairly safe. Brandreth’s Pills had a vegetable base. Holloway’s products were similar. According to the book “Popular Medicines: An Illustrated History,” and Jim Schmidt of the blog Civil War Medicine (and Writing) “the pills contained aloes and rhubarb, with small amounts of saffron and pepper; the ointment was principally olive oil, lard, and waxes.” (Schmidt, 2009)

Quack medicines like these became even more popular among Civil War veterans after the war. These soldiers health was permanently compromised, and some became addicted to their wartime maladies.


Rheumatic Diseases Among Civil War Troops

By Alfred Jay Bollet MD
Arthritis & Rheumatism, Volume 34, Issue 9, pages 1197–1203, 7 October 1991

There are extensive existing medical records of Federal Civil War troops. More than 160,000 cases of „acute rheumatism” occurred among these soldiers, and acute rheumatic fever was known to be the main cause. Infectious arthritides were frequent but not understood; gout was rare. „Chronic rheumatism” was diagnosed more than 246,000 times; prolonged rheumatic fever and reactive arthritis following dysentery were probably the major causes. Over 12,000 soldiers were discharged because of chronic rheumatism, many with "lumbago,” which was probably spondylarthropathy.


A Union Soldier’s Correspondence about Disease in Hospitals


John L. Knapp of the 9th Indiana Regiment wrote a letter to his friend Mary Merrick during his stay in a hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In this letter, Knapp commented, “Where there are many people together they are liable to catch disease. More than they do at home. I used to be afraid but I am now all over it now.” These diseases afflicted many soldiers throughout the war.

Disease was a major part of the Civil War. Historian Dale C. Smith, who studied medicine throughout the war, stated, “The general hospitals early in the conflict were makeshift arrangements in whatever buildings could be found, an approach that was seriously flawed.” The army lacked enough doctors or other medical officials to meet the demand of injured soldiers. Historian Richard H. Shryock estimates that each surgeon at Gettysburg had about nine hundred cases to tend to. This caused doctors to work quickly, increasing the odds of spreading disease amongst the injured.

The methods that surgeons used were often unsanitary. For example, chest or abdominal wounds required the surgeons to probe the wound to find the bullets or to help stop the bleeding. The hospitals themselves also carried many germs. Poor sanitary conditions allowed diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and diarrhea to infect soldiers.

Knapp’s fear of disease shows how rampant it was among soldiers in close quarters. Shyrock mentions that “High as were the casualties, it is well known that losses from disease were higher.” He also mentions that roughly ten percent of all soldiers were sick at one time. Fear of disease such as Knapp expressed, coupled with the mortality rates of those that caught disease, wore on soldiers as the war went on.

In a study cited by Smith, there were approximately 6,445,000 casualties combined between the Union and Confederate armies from May 1, 1861 through June 30, 1866. Of these, over six million were disease related. Shryock also looked at the numbers of deaths during the Civil War. According to him, by the end of the war, about 250,000 Union troops were killed by disease compared to 110,000 deaths from battle injuries. That means that roughly 70% of deaths in the Union army were a result of disease. Similarly, Confederate soldiers suffered about 164,000 deaths from disease and 94,000 on the battlefield; good for roughly a 64% disease mortality rate.

As the war continued, there were some improvements made in medicine that helped. Quinine and chloroform were both agents used during surgeries to help ease pain and make surgeons’ jobs easier. These advances also helped to ease the minds of soldiers such as Knapp.

More About Nashville's Civil War Prostitute History: Hospital 15

By Betsy Phillips

William Moss Wilson has a cool piece in the New York Times about his great grandfather's great grandmother who ran a brothel in Nashville during the Civil War. (You may remember we talked about Nashville's ill-fated attempt to ship all its white prostitutes to Louisville earlier this year.) One of the cool parts is his discussion of the hospitals specifically devoted to treating Nashville's prostitutes and their soldier clientele.

"Two hospitals were dedicated to treating sexual infections in Nashville: Hospital 11, for soldiers, and Hospital 15, also known as the Pest House, for prostitutes. The head surgeon, Robert Fletcher, claimed that after the first six months of regulation, when 92 women had been diagnosed with S.T.D.’s, only 13 of the nearly 31,000 soldiers admitted to Hospital 15 had contracted their infections in Nashville. Dr. William Chambers, charged with medical inspections of the women, noted that regulations led to improvements in hygiene in addition to the decrease in new infections.

"Chambers’s work led him to a discovery that challenged the conventional wisdom of the day, which held prostitutes solely to blame for spreading sexual infection. In February 1864, a substantial spike in new visits to Hospital 15 accompanied the thousands of re-enlisted soldiers returning from furlough. The following days brought a surge of new female patients to the Pest House. Chambers concluded that the returning soldiers must have brought the S.T.D.s with them and then infected his female patients."

This is a little confusing because the hospitals are misnumbered in the first paragraph and numbered correctly in the second. Hospital 11 was the hospital for prostitutes, located on Second Avenue in the old home of a Catholic Bishop. (A lot of Civil War Historians think this picture is probably of that hospital.) Hospital 15 was for soldiers. So, soldiers came back and were sick and then prostitutes got sick.


Definite Iindeterminacy: Blindness in the Civil War

By Vanessa Meikle Schulman

"[The wound around his eye] has been constantly open, suppurating and discharging ever since … with loss of strength and increasing blindness in the left eye which is very weak & he is less & less able each year to do any manual labor or care for himself. "

Applying in 1882 for an increase to his Civil War pension, Private James M. Greenleaf, who received his facial wound at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, attempted to convince the government that his eye—unhealed and rapidly losing its sight—was so debilitating as to prevent him from earning a living through gainful employment. To the above statement in his pension application, Greenleaf added an “affidavit signed by 24 acquaintances stating that his wound was worse than the loss of an arm or a leg.” Though Greenleaf also complained of pain in his hip, it was the wound to his face, with its leaking pus, that made him “totally & permanently helpless,” as the government surgeon wrote on examining him in 1907. The claim that Greenleaf’s partial blindness incapacitated him more than the amputation of a limb stands out in a narrative—one of pathos, to be sure, given how frequently his applications were rejected by the government—that was all too common throughout the post-Civil War era. I take Greenleaf’s story not as a representative case of the logistical problems faced by veterans of the Civil War but rather as a signpost to a larger cultural narrative that emerged as a response to war trauma in the years following the conflict: that of blindness.

Two eyewitnesses to the war, author Ambrose Bierce and artist Winslow Homer, used different artistic media to come to terms with the trauma of the war. I argue that instead of being mere “realists,” as they are often described, they used metaphors of blindness or compromised vision in their literary and artistic works. Bierce and Homer deploy these strategies of incomplete representation as a commentary on the futility of using traditional forms of representation to depict the unprecedented horrors of mechanized warfare. Though working in different media, both men questioned how one might begin to represent such a conflict. After examining the ways that both Bierce and Homer developed theories of truth and vision, this essay will examine different modes of “blindness” that they presented in their representations of the war. These modes range from the paradoxical narrowing of vision created by technologies specifically designed to enhance natural sight, the moral and literal blindness of participating in a military engagement, and, finally, the ways that their war experiences caused both Homer and Bierce to question their own self-knowledge and clarity of vision.

The project of representing the Civil War took place in an atmosphere of widespread popular visual culture, manifested primarily in forms that were easy to mass-produce and disseminate. These forms of visuality—most notably popular illustration and photography—emerged in the 1850s in a reproducible form more or less similar to those they took during and just after the war. Displayed in prominent photographic galleries or seen every day in the pages of the illustrated magazines that dominated American news in the 1860s, these images familiarized ordinary viewers with horrific scenes of modern, industrialized warfare. Homer and many of his fellow artists such as Theodore R. Davis, Edwin Forbes, and William and Alfred Waud worked as “special correspondents” during the war, sketching scenes of battle and everyday events of camp life for the most popular illustrated weekly magazines of the nineteenth century, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Both publications began circulating in the mid-1850s and both experienced massive increases in their readership during the war years, partly due to their exhaustive and timely visual coverage of the conflict. At the end of the war both magazines maintained competitive circulations, reaching audiences of hundreds of thousands each week.  Advancements in the printing press and technologies of reproduction generally, in addition to increased speeds of communication between reporters on the front lines and their editors in New York, created a visual milieu saturated with war reportage, maps, humorous scenes of military life, and portraits of heroic generals. The “faces and events which the war has made illustrious,” appeared often “tacked and pinned and pasted upon the humblest walls.”

Photography, too, contributed to the ways that nineteenth-century Americans visualized the war. While common soldiers still had their daguerreotypes made before leaving home, the newly-invented wet collodion plate process, with its drastically reduced exposure times and ability for replication using glass negatives, changed both the appearance and functions of photography. The collodion process allowed commercial photographers to take easily reproducible images of the war, though not, crucially, of the action. The photographs that have become famous—shots of bloated corpses on the battlefield at Gettysburg taken by the studio of Alexander Gardner and stark photographic documents of survivors’ ghastly wounds compiled by army surgeon-photographers such as Dr. Reed B. Bontecou—would seem to attest to photography’s supposed objectivity. Of course, despite the indexical nature of the medium, even early photographs were doctored or manipulated. Despite this, the first viewers of Civil War photographs, notable among them the prominent Boston physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., viewed the images as “terrible mementos” capable of truthfully illustrating “what war is.”

Our perception of photography’s access to the “real,” its status as an impression from a thing that has been, gives it an important role in the reliving of trauma, as Michael S. Roth argues. He notes the apparent ability of photography to bring a “distant real” to the viewer, “making the temporally distant present.” He continues, “Photographic images seem to offer the possibility of reexperiencing the past, or of experiencing a past for the first time without a subjective intermediary.” In this interpretation, the very distinctness of Civil War photographs would seem to be a mechanism for facing—literally—the trauma of the national schism, for seeing it in the most straightforward light possible. It is the direct gaze forced by photography that allows one to deal with trauma; as Roth writes, “traumas seem to urge us not to look away.” In her article on Civil War medical photography cultural historian Kathy Newman reacts to the images of mutilated young men confronting the camera directly, which she characterizes as stark medical documents that “assaulted [her] senses.” As a scholar and a humanist, she claims, one “can neither refuse nor transform their traces of violence.” Newman argues that only through an intimate visual encounter with these images can their pain and discomfort be discharged; a greater disservice is done to the wounded in turning away, in not seeing, than in gazing at their wounds. And yet I argue that Bierce’s and Homer’s suspicion of vision is not a cruel rejection of pain but a legitimate and common response to the trauma of the war. Artists who attempted to depict the war faced obstacles, one of which was the inability of traditional modes of representation to express the political complexities of the war and the deep pain and confusion it caused to those who witnessed it. As Steven Conn records in his study of history paintings of the Civil War, the traditional narratives belonging to that genre—in the American context, most frequently nationalistic and teleological fictions of inevitable progress—were not applicable to this war. It was difficult to accept an overtly nationalistic interpretation of the conflict without mortally offending half the population, and a war in which crucial industrial and transportation infrastructure was damaged on both sides could hardly be said to contribute to progress. There also seemed to be a crippling lack of consensus on the causes and goals of the war—a topic that still bedevils scholars today. The war was, in Conn’s estimation, an event of “narrative trauma,” one that saw the collapse of “traditional representational strategies, the familiar ways of creating order and coherence out of experience.” Uncertainty about the best ways to represent the war stifled the traditional outlets of patriotic battle painting and hagiographic portraits of charismatic generals, leading to a breakdown in visual representation, at least among “high” art circles.

To this uncertainty we may also apply what transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson termed the “angle of vision,” a moment when “the poles of the eye should coincide with the axis of the world” and the subject reach enlightenment. Throughout his writings, Emerson attempted to make sense of the individual’s capacity for acquiring spiritual knowledge using metaphors of vision, referring to the eye as the “first circle” of the perceived world. According to Emerson, writes literary scholar Sherman Paul, men might reach a “higher” state when “seeing became a unitary act” that combined physical, mental, and spiritual forms of knowledge. Tragically, in the Civil War, such elevated vision revealed itself as an impossible achievement and the “angle of vision” turned out to be oblique. Into this traumatic void stepped artists like Homer and Bierce who, instead of becoming paralyzed by the inability to represent the war through traditional means, adopted stylistic and formal tropes of blindness as metaphors for the dislocating experience of the war itself.

Bierce, Vision, and the Devil’s Dictionary

Both Bierce and Homer served on the front lines of the war, though in vastly different capacities. Bierce enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry regiment in 1861 and for the following four years served in the army as an infantryman until becoming a military engineer and mapmaker around 1862. Bierce suffered physical and emotional trauma during the war years. He fought in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and sustained a major head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, experiences that influenced his later Civil War works profoundly.  After the war, Bierce became known for the acerbic humor and spare realist prose he employed to document his experiences during the conflict. Traditional interpretations of his work, such as journalist and critic H. L. Mencken’s comment in 1927 that Bierce was “the first writer of fiction ever to treat war realistically,” often focus on his evocation of war’s horror through precise details, sparingly and simply told. Yet Bierce’s Civil War stories contain another, more disturbing, theme: that of the impossibility of using vision alone to comprehend the full enormity of the war. Cathy N. Davidson adopts this perspective, arguing that in his stories Bierce consistently structures the narrative “in such a way that the nature of the self, the nature of the world, and the nature of the relationship between the two are called into question.” To Davidson’s interpretation I would add the peculiarly visual nature of Bierce’s writing and its contribution to this exploration of the interplay between inner and outer truths. To his constant focus upon explicit visual details Bierce adds moments when the abilities of sight break down, when epistemological knowledge cannot be gained by mere vision. Bierce intersperses vivid descriptions of the war’s mise-en-scène with ruminations on the instability of sight. His characters withdraw from the visual world in tragic errors of misrecognition or stumble blindly without vital visual information.

Bierce’s contrarian self-presentation in print makes it difficult to assess his attitudes toward the traumatic events he had witnessed as a member of the army. His sarcasm and rejection of sentiment may have functioned as a mechanism for repressing scenes better forgotten, though the grotesque forthrightness of some of his descriptions, such as this one from the short story “Chickamauga,” suggest a willingness to engage in depth with the more horrific elements of the war: “The man … turned upon him a face that lacked a lower jaw—from the upper teeth to the throat was a great red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splinters of bone.” Bierce’s stories are peppered with such horrific evocations of wartime injuries. However, the larger thematic thrust of his work is taken up with the difficulty of searching for truth amid such chaos. A close examination of entries from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of humorous definitions of common words that he published serially in American magazines starting in 1875, demonstrates that Bierce took his own role as an interpreter of truths quite seriously. Under the entry for “geographer,” Bierce’s own profession during the war, he quips that he is “a chap who can tell you offhand the difference between the outside of the world and the inside.” Underlying Bierce’s humorous cynicism is the implication of a separation between the external and internal worlds, the sphere of things and that of thoughts, matter and mind. Nineteenth-century American culture was deeply concerned with whether external appearances offered a reliable reflection of the inner life of things and people. An underlying anxiety about the authenticity of images and people pervaded the postwar years as Americans pondered the complexities and contradictions of life in the modern nation. Bierce proposes himself as a guide to the gaps between observed realities and lived experience.

Importantly, Bierce also proposes himself as a figure who sees properly, sees things others cannot. A self-described cynic (the first edition of the Devil’s Dictionary was titled The Cynic’s Word Book), Bierce defined his own vocation thus: “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.” The emphasis on vision again makes an explicit reference to Bierce’s role as a revelatory figure uncovering truths that others would rather not face. But ironically, this vision is only “faulty” when seen from the point of view of an optimist, the cynic’s foil and bête noire. Bierce excoriates the philosophy of optimism using another visual metaphor: “Being a blind faith, it is inaccessible to the light of disproof—an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.” The optimist’s blindness causes him to mis-see, to believe “that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly.” The cynic’s “faulty” worldview is, in Bierce’s estimation, far the more truthful. But it is also threatening to the hegemonic establishment of optimists, who visit violent trauma upon the cynic, correcting his “faulty vision” by the extreme expedient of creating a state of total blindness.

Bierce would probably have greatly appreciated—if in an ironical fashion—the disapproving review his 1892 collection of war stories received in the Atlantic Monthly, an apotheosis of the optimist’s rejection of the cynic: “It has never been our fortune to read a collection of tales so uniformly horrible and revolting. Told with some power, and now and then with strokes of wonderfully vivid description, with plots ingenious in their terror and photographic in their sickening details, we must pronounce the book too brutal to be either good art or good literature.”

“I Paint it Exactly as it Appears”

Though he was also a direct witness to major battles as well as to the day-to-day experience of life in camp, Winslow Homer, a visual artist, had a quite different experience of the war. Almost ten years older than Bierce, Homer was already a somewhat well-established professional at the outbreak of the war, having served for the previous four years as a freelance illustrator for various New York-based magazines. Along with a large group of other artists, Homer traveled with the Army of the Potomac on assignment with Harper’s Weekly during 1861-62 and later as a freelancer. After returning from the Peninsular Campaign, he began to experiment with oil painting; his first canvases were of Civil War scenes, some based on the same sketches he translated into wood engravings for Harper’s. Though he was untrained as a “fine” artist, his oils of the war earned acclaim and he was elected a full Academician of the National Academy of Design (NAD) in 1865 at the age of 29, quite young for an artist with very little formal training. From 1863 through the early 1870s, Homer painted at least twenty canvases related to both the home and camp life during the war. His works were considered truthful, straightforward, and honest representations of life on the front and in the wartime domestic sphere; one critic wrote in New Path that Homer was the only American artist “to tell us any truth about the war.”  The London Art Journal concurred: “These works are real: the artist paints what he has seen and known.”  The strong reception of Homer’s war paintings as documents of lived experience seems to contradict my claim that Homer’s war works thematize blindness and trouble the reliability of vision, but I believe that an examination of the spiritual elements within Homer’s art may demonstrate how his indeterminate visions of war suggest a special, privileged kind of vision. The primacy Homer himself placed on the role of the eye, or of vision, as part of a revelatory experience may be seen in his angry response to John W. Beatty, who inquired whether the he “modified” nature in his compositions: “‘Never! Never!’ the artist cried, ‘When I have selected the thing carefully, I paint it exactly as it appears.’”

Homer had a long and successful career in the decades following the war, during which he pursued formal and stylistic experimentation, and it is usually these later paintings that are credited with possessing a sense of indeterminacy, for all their lifelike bodies and violent, crashing waves. Art historians Jules Prown and Charles Colbert interpret Homer’s representations of survival and rescue at sea from the 1880s as manifestations of a battle that is spiritual rather than physical, separating the materiality of his artwork from the ineffable that lies within or beneath.  In these works Homer uses metaphors of rescue and resuscitation to posit a relationship between external, tangible, and observable reality and inner faith. Contemporary reviews focused with startling regularity on Homer’s eye as an organ of both sight and deeper revelations. “This is the picture of a man who has the seeing eye,” wrote Eugene Benson in a review of Homer’s The Bridle Path at the NAD show in 1870, continuing: “We have no figure-painter who … sees the actuality of his subject better; not one who is closer to the objective fact of nature.” Homer’s supposedly direct access to nature was one way for professional art critics to praise him despite his untrained technique. A reluctant admirer of Homer, art critic Mariana van Rensselaer, wrote: “But always, whether it be austerely beautiful or frankly ugly, his work is vital art—not mere painting, not the record of mere artistic seeing, but the record of strong artistic feeling” (emphasis original).  This confluence of sight and emotion, of the outer skin of things somehow invested with an inner life or spirit, this seems in some ways similar to Bierce’s formulation of himself as a privileged figure possessed of uncommon understanding. Learning that Homer possessed a copy of George Chaplin Child’s religious tract The Great Architect, which posits a connection between the technical workings of the eye as an optical apparatus and the inner illumination required for salvation, Colbert reads the painter’s late oeuvre as concerned with the “‘correspondence’ of the material and the spiritual.”34 As previously mentioned, concern with the eye’s ability to perceive a higher “truth” through external observations permeated American culture during this period. But these truths, when it came to making sense of the Civil War, turned out to be fragmentary.

Thus far, both artists have been considered in light of their contemporary reception and self-professed role as figures with access to unique forms of truth. What was this privileged form of sight that both Bierce and Homer shared? Both realized that the real truth of the war was blindness. The contested nature of the war—its multiplied causes and meanings, the still-fractured nation it left behind—was the ultimate truth that Bierce’s and Homer’s direct vision grasped. Both understood that true vision was not purely optical. Concerns and anxiety about the trustworthiness of vision were rampant in these years, and there was a certain horror in the sheer amount of information that threatened to overwhelm the viewer or reader in a torrent of factuality. An odd review of Homer’s art, given by Eugene Benson in a cynical and almost Biercean phraseology, noted that his work usually “falls below the standard of finish and detail which is within the reach of our most childish and mediocre painters, and which misleads many, and deceives painters with the thought that by going from particular to particular, of itself insures a fine result in art.”  While seeming to call Homer worse than mediocre, Benson in fact praises his ability to see only that which is important, removing extraneous detail. The act of a painter moving painstakingly “from particular to particular” sends a creeping horror down the reader’s neck as he imagines a painting—not unlike the Victorian parlor—completely crammed with objects, all rendered in delicate and excruciating detail. Bierce, too, seemed to find the modern obsession with detail a horror vacui; his definition of “telescope” describes an apparatus “enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details.”  Homer escapes this fate, van Rensselaer agreed: “He had boldly omitted everything that could not serve his purpose.” Bierce, too, was praised for the stripped-down, often spare forms of his prose. Both Bierce’s and Homer’s narratives, whether textual or visual, deal with the confluence of vision, memory, and trauma by conceptualizing blindness as a narrative strategy for dealing with traumatic events by appealing to non-visual, “inner” truths.

The Blindness of Technologized Vision

Art historians have usually only analyzed one of Homer’s Civil War scenes with explicit attention to vision: the artist’s earliest known oil painting, Sharpshooter of 1863 [Fig. 1]. Since the 1988 publication of an important article by Christopher Kent Wilson, academic discussion of Sharpshooter has tended to hinge on its relation to the new technology of the sniper’s long-range rifle and the intensified looking that the sharpshooter, armed with a highly accurate scope, embodied.  Randall C. Griffin, for example, connects Sharpshooter with “the theme of intense looking” and Homer’s compositional “passion for clarity,” both of which would seem to be diametrically opposed to an interpretation of the work as a figuration of blindness. And yet, two key elements of the composition suggest blindness of different kinds. First, the very close-cropped, intense focus on the body and weapon of the sharpshooter actually serves to obscure the viewer’s larger frame of reference. In addition, the very weapon that enhanced the sharpshooter’s natural vision, the long-range rifle with its high-intensity scope, acts to create a new and fearful moral blindness in the body of the sniper himself.

By focusing his composition so intently on the isolated sharpshooter, high in his treetop vantage point, Homer excludes us from any engagement either with the man depicted or with the greater context of battle going on around him. Despite art historian Julian Grossman’s praise of “the sharpness of the soldier’s eye,” Homer paints that eagle eye as an obscured smudge under the shadow of the marksman’s cap. We are completely cut off from the consciousness of this soldier and from what he actually sees through the scope of his rifle. Bierce might give some hint. In “One of the Missing,” he composes the inner monologue of just such a reconnaissance man, Jerome Searing:

After a keen reconnaissance from the safe seclusion of a clump of young pines Searing ran lightly across a field and through an orchard to a small structure which stood apart from the other farm buildings, on a slight elevation. This he thought would enable him to overlook a large scope of the country … Searing looked across the open ground between his point of view and a spur of Kennesaw Mountain, a half-mile away. A road leading up and across this spur was crowded with troops—the rear-guard of the retiring enemy, their gun-barrels gleaming in the morning sunlight.

Bierce encapsulates the extremely long range of Searing’s view and the precision with which his “searing” vision appreciates his surroundings, elements intentionally excluded from the composition of Sharpshooter. Technological advancements in riflery, as Wilson notes, greatly increased the speed and accuracy of long-range marksmen; Civil War sharpshooters were feared because they could bring instant and unseen death, as one Confederate lieutenant later reported: “I’ve seen them pick a man off who was a mile away. They could hit you so far you couldn’t hear the report of the gun. You wouldn’t have any idea anybody was in sight of you.”  However, the viewer can only speculate as to what Homer’s sharpshooter sees. Homer’s deceptively simple composition cleverly blinds the viewer to the larger context of the sharpshooter’s situation.

The emphasis on his role as a highly-trained marksman, in combination with the importance to the war of sharpshooters’ technologized vision, leads to the second blindness represented by this painting: that of the moral blindness of the sharpshooters and of the war itself. As Wilson argues, the technological developments in marksmanship were crucial to Northern successes, but they were also connected in the contemporary mind with a troubling new phenomenon: that of the machine-like killer, uncaring of human life, who, rather than using his newly-accurate weapon as a tool, was himself becoming a dispassionate extension of that weapon. In a much-quoted letter, Homer later wrote that he regarded sharpshooting “as near murder as anything I ever could think of in connection with the army.”  Bierce was no fan of these marksmen, either, having been severely wounded by one at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. In his 1888 essay “Modern Warfare,” he complained that humankind was “taking a deal of pains to invent offensive weapons that will wield themselves … A modern battle is a quarrel of skulkers trying to have all the killing done a long way from their persons.”  His evocation of the interior life of the Union sharpshooter in “One of the Missing” is less snide but far more chilling: “Jerome Searing drew back the hammer of his rifle and with his eyes upon the distant Confederates considered where he could plant his shot with the best hope of making a widow or an orphan or a childless mother,—perhaps all three, for Private Searing, although he had repeatedly refused promotion, was not without a certain kind of ambition.”  Fears about these marksmen’s distance from the sites of the deaths they caused gave many civilians a complicated reaction to their skills. Though they look with exceptionally sharp eyes, they are blind to the suffering they cause. They were represented in the press, indeed, as terrifyingly calm and dispassionate.  A soldier should do his duty in wartime, true, but a kind of moral panic indicted sharpshooters for suspected ethical blindness and even, most fearfully, an enjoyment of killing like that of Bierce’s Searing.

Bierce addressed the impersonality of technologized vision in “The Coupe de Grâce,” a story in which Captain Downing Madwell performs a mercy killing on his childhood friend Sergeant Caffal Halcrow, whom he finds lying on the ground partially eaten by roving pigs but still, painfully, alive. Both Halcrow and Madwell exhibit a kind of temporary blindness; Halcrow, half-conscious “stared blankly into the face of his friend,” while above him Madwell’s “tears splashed upon the livid face beneath his own and blinded himself.” Recognizing that the kindest gesture would be to kill his old companion, Madwell finds himself unable to do so and departs. Seeing a wounded horse nearby, he shoots it quickly and then noting how its “sharp, clean-cut profile took on a look of profound peace and rest” after its agonized death throes, he changes his mind and returns to where Halcrow lies wounded. “Apparently lost to all sense of his surroundings,” Madwell takes the pistol he has just used to execute the horse, holds it to his friend’s head, “and turning away his eyes pulled the trigger.”  The sharp irony of the story comes from the fact that his gun is empty; he has used his last bullet to put the dying animal out of its misery. Determined, however, to complete the deed, Madwell next takes out his sword and plunges it into his friend’s chest. “This time he did not withdraw his eyes,” Bierce records, despite the gruesomeness of the death.  It seems telling in this atmosphere of technologized warfare and heightened vision that Madwell cannot bring himself to watch Halcrow’s death by pistol—surely the more humane, if not the more human, method—but looks directly at his friend as he skewers him with a saber. Guns, by which the killing of men had become no different than the killing of animals, had rendered slaughter impersonal and thus terrible to witness, while Madwell’s final execution of the wounded man becomes a deeply personal and thus moral act from which he need not look away.

To return to the figure of the sharpshooter, a final example from Bierce’s “The Mocking-bird” depicts the cruel impersonality of shooting at distant enemies. Posted on picket duty, Union Private William Grayrock spends his night “staring at the darkness in his front and trying to recognize known objects.” Upon hearing the approach of someone he cannot see, Grayrock shoots blindly into the night and is certain he has hit a man in the darkness. For, as Bierce informs us, “he had a marksman’s intuitive sense of having hit; for he was one of those born experts who shoot without aim by an instinctive sense of direction, and are nearly as dangerous by night as by day.”  Grayrock is an even more terrifying version of Homer’s Sharpshooter, because not only is the reader blind to the enemy he shoots at, but Grayrock himself shoots blindly and still manages to execute his man. The danger of this blind shooting becomes apparent the next day when Grayrock searches for the enemy soldier he is certain he has wounded and finds the dead body of his own twin brother John, a Confederate soldier. Shooting blindly at invisible enemies was not particular to the marksman’s routine, however. It was woven into both the symbolic meaning and the lived experience of Civil War battles.

“A Battle Which No Man Saw”

The Battle of the Wilderness, a fight Homer probably witnessed firsthand, was described in 1888 by participant Robert Stoddard Robertson as “the strangest and most indescribable battle in history.” Robertson added that as it was fought in an impenetrable forest at close hand, “the lines of battle were invisible to their commanders … the enemy was also invisible.”  Homer famously rendered this obscurity in his only oil painting of a Civil War battle in progress, Skirmish in the Wilderness, which shows indeterminate clusters of men lost in a dark thicket of trees, puffs of smoke from rifles providing the only clues to the action. It was indeed, as another eyewitness, William Swinton, described it, “a region of gloom and the shadow of death.” But such opacity of battle was not specific to the Wilderness action; Bierce also utilized the theme of visual impenetrability in the autobiographical essay “What I Saw of Shiloh.” Throughout the piece, Bierce and his men experience the bewildering attacks of unseen enemies as they fight through dense, gloomy forests. “What I Saw of Shiloh” may, indeed, be titled ironically, as much of the piece chronicles the difficulty of viewing what is going on around the narrator. First, as Bierce and his men wait to be ferried across the Tennessee River to relieve embattled troops, he records the confused impressions of the battle going on nearby, “obscured … by blue sheets of low-lying smoke.” Bierce continues: “The farther edge of the water could not be seen; the boats came out of the obscurity, took on their passengers and vanished in the darkness.” The air is lit with “blinding flashes” and the soldiers on the opposite bank are seen only as “moving black figures.”

Bierce’s description of the scene at Shiloh matches Homer’s evocation of the Battle of the Wilderness, a small and obscure canvas showing a tangled cluster of soldiers taking cover from enemy fire behind a tree. The viewer sees the scene from a vantage point a little behind them, facing the ongoing action. Homer outlines their figures against a haze of white smoke from the discharge of their weapons. The color of the men’s uniforms—whether a grey darkened by the gloom of the forest, or a blue made grey by the sickly yellow light filtering through the leafy canopy of the woods—is indistinguishable. From the right, a column of Union soldiers marches into the scene; in the space between the central grouping and this more orderly formation, an undulating mass in the green-black murkiness of the background may herald approaching enemies or may merely be tangled vegetation. The “blinding” flashes of gunfire do not serve to elaborate the positions of either friendly or unfriendly troops.  Grossman writes of Wilderness that it “gives some idea of the difficult terrain, in which dense thickets broke up battle lines and the enemy, more often than not, remained unseen … in the tangled woods.”  Homer’s indistinct topography contrasts with Bierce’s own visual renderings of the war: the maps he produced as personal cartographer to General W. B. Hazen were “meticulous” with “never an erasure, never a smudge.”  Their sharp black lines differ starkly from the chaotic, indeterminate milieu of Homer’s Wilderness.

And yet Bierce’s exquisite maps are explicitly dissimilar from his descriptions of the confusing sights that greeted him and his men when they eventually reached the scene of battle at Shiloh. Sensory deprivation strikes both the eyes and the ears of his unit as he notes: “A few audible commands from an invisible leader had placed us in order of battle. But where was the enemy? Where, too, were the riddled regiments we had come to save? … What protected our right? Who lay upon our left? Was there really anything in our front?”  Bierce’s litany of questions speaks to the confusion of this contentious battle—considered a failure of strategy on the part of Ulysses S. Grant, despite the Union’s eventual victory on the second day of fighting—but also to an epistemological instability inherent in the condition of battle more generally. Throughout the piece, Bierce speaks of troops—enemy and ally alike—that are “screened from view,” woods “impervious to sight,” men directed “we knew not whither.”  Homer’s visual articulation of the confusion of battle suggests the contingency and confusion of modern warfare and, through its sketchy and episodic character, the failure of traditional narratives of heroism. Conn’s theory of “narrative trauma” comes again to mind. A fragmented, indistinct canvas reflects the unpleasant realities of this fragmented, indistinct war in a way that no traditionally composed history painting could. In Skirmish in the Wilderness, Homer uses visual confusion, limited sight range, and intentional obscurity of figures in relation to the landscape and to one another to represent the actual conditions of this 1864 clash, but he employs them in support of a larger argument that the Civil War proved to be “impossible to paint” because it “stood as the great, glaring, and unarguable challenge to any facile notion of American progress.”  Bierce’s writings, Sharon Talley asserts, “reflect not only his own psychic conflict but also the related national crisis in sensibilities, marking the transition between concepts of the heroic.”  Likewise, as both Conn and Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., argue, Homer succeeded as a painter of the Civil War precisely because he turned away from the traditional narrative conventions of wartime representation.  But the turn from battle painting to the domestic side of war—what art historian Elizabeth Johns terms “American males in social relationship with each other as men”—had its areas of blindness as well.  The homosocial camaraderie and ersatz domesticity created by wartime conditions enabled observers to contrast soldiers’ lived realities with their idealized visions of prewar household life.

Home Sweet Home

For the first time during the Civil War, army doctors treated homesickness as a deleterious illness that affected the troops as they camped far from their loved ones.66 Homesickness can in many ways be defined as visual, and the thought of one day seeing far away people rings out in soldiers’ letters. Aides-memoires such as daguerreotypes or tintypes kept soldiers’ visual memories alive in their homes, while those on the front might have carries likenesses of wives, sweethearts, or mothers with them. But despite its underlying visual qualities, homesickness is, at base, about the absence of persons and scenes one most desires to see. Homesickness is based on a kind of interrupted vision, a blankness on the retina, filled in with snatched glances at a tintype in its protective case or re-imagined with the eyes closed. It is in light of this visually impenetrable homesickness that I reinterpret Homer’s 1863 painting Home, Sweet Home, which one reviewer described as possessing a “hearty, homely actuality.”

Home, Sweet Home, Homer’s first exhibition picture, appears to be a sentimental scene of camp life in which Union soldiers listen to a band play the popular sentimental melody “Home, Sweet Home.”  This supposed focal point is located in the far background of the scene, barely discernable as a cluster of blue-clad men listening to music. Homer instead focuses on the ersatz home of two weary soldiers: a meager fire of twigs, a boiling can of broth or coffee, discarded items of equipment placed on makeshift coat and boot racks. The two central figures seem intensely quiet, contemplative, their faces highlighted with broad strokes of the brush that make out sketchy lineaments rather than identifiable physiognomies. In her recent evaluation of the relationship between “inner” life and observed reality in Homer’s work, Elizabeth Johns interprets Home, Sweet Home as part of Homer’s maturation as an artist. She suggests that this canvas demonstrates the artist’s increased interest in psychological realism rather than the drama of battles, for it “probed other aspects of male psychology in war … [such as] homesickness.”  Julian Grossman agrees that Homer did experience a shift at some point during the war: “like other sensitive artists, he turned away from the face of death, away from the front, to scenes in camp, concentrating on the camaraderie formed during trials suffered together.”  In its rendering of a stand-in for the family hearth, Home, Sweet Home accessed both a generalized mid-century sentimentalization of family life and the fact of homesickness as a particular problem rampant among troops of both armies. In an 1862 letter to his wife, Union soldier John Henry Jenks specifically references the touchstone of the home’s hearth, here abandoned and cold “among all the desolations of war, the sundering of family ties, the deserted hearthstones, the vacant chairs, the intense solicitude for absent freinds [sic].”

The problem of homesickness is not merely the subject matter of the painting. Through numerous lacunae in the viewer’s apprehension of the scene, Homer constructs a quietly powerful narrative of homesickness that imagines “home” as an unknown territory: a blind spot. The first such blind spot is the immediate “home” of the camp as it is shown. The two-man tents that compositionally bookend the men and act as their temporary homes—mobile and ever-shifting sites where they merely rest themselves occasionally—are drawn as blanks: triangular, black gaping holes surrounding the central figures. In the crooks of their arms and the opening of the man on the right’s jacket to reveal a blood-red shirt beneath, the triangular forms of the tent flaps are mirrored in their bodies, physically tying them to these dim openings leading to unseen interior spaces. Barely emerging out of the left hand tent is the sole of a boot, catching a glint of light on its curvature, suggesting the body of a comrade within.

These darkened spots in the composition contrast directly with the beige canvas of the tents’ exteriors and, most dramatically, with the large and tattered piece of canvas hanging behind the standing man like a theatrical backdrop. Literary historian Martin Griffin uses the metaphor of the tableau vivant when discussing Bierce’s manipulation of time and memory in his Civil War stories. In the practice of tableaux vivants, a popular parlor game of the nineteenth century, human actors would recreate famous works of art or, dressed in elaborate costume and standing perfectly still, present a narrative in a series of posed scenes. Griffin argues that Bierce’s war stories may be read as tableaux, series of carefully framed narrative moments, complete with the gaps in memory, the temporal breaks, and the discontinuity this art form necessarily possesses. He writes: “Each tableau in the story is individually loaded with meaning, but exists only in its own context of realization.” It is an art form that is structured around the concept of a narrativity that is by necessity incomplete. Homer’s Civil War paintings, too, particularly the scenes of daily incidents in camp life including Home, Sweet Home, Playing Old Soldier, Pitching Quoits, The Last Goose at Yorktown, Sutler’s Tent, The Brierwood Pipe, and A Rainy Day in Camp, may be interpreted as a series of tableaux played out against sceneries as artificial as painted backdrops. This becomes even more striking when we note that five of these seven canvases feature similar backdrops of hanging or blank fabric.

But, particularly in Home, Sweet Home, which contains the largest and most prominent usage of this feature, these canvas curtains evoke not merely tableaux but also veils that block access to what lies behind, creating sites of indeterminacy. The representation of painted fabric curtains in the Western artistic tradition goes back to Pliny the Elder, and it has become a shorthand for epistemological uncertainty.  In a contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius to paint the most convincing illusion, the latter wins by producing a painted curtain so lifelike that his competitor attempted to lift it to see the painting underneath. American artists and audiences were familiar with this story, most famously articulated by Raphaelle Peale in his painting Venus Rising from the Sea: A Deception.  Oddly for Homer, who was known and often mocked by contemporaries for his somewhat clumsy modeling and large, flat planes of color, the effects of light bouncing off the folds in the large swath of canvas in Home, Sweet Home are rendered in precise and almost illusionistic detail. The care lavished on this expanse of fabric—the largest single section of the painting other than the sky—suggests its importance in Homer’s composition. It serves here less as Parrhasius’s actual curtain than as a test for the viewer’s eye. Instead it cuts off the “home” of the painting from that larger home beyond. As Grossman writes, “Perhaps because home was around the corner, just up the road but still agonizingly far away, the longing was greater.”  As soldiers’ letters suggest, the true home ceased to feel real after a certain length of time in the “home” given by the army. One unknown young man wrote back to his mother in 1862: “What a day it was,—and a Sunday too! … I think of you all at rest, with the sound of church-bells in your ears, with a strange, distant feeling.”  Many wrote of home as a place they could only dream of, as Josiah B. Corban told his wife in a letter of 1863: “I dreamed of being at home how I wish it might come to pass. I wish George and Julia [their children] would write often they cant think how much I want to see them they seem very dear to me all the time.”  In Bierce’s story “The Mocking-bird,” which, as we have seen, ends with the tragic murder of John Grayrock by his twin, the main character “dreamed … himself a boy, living in a far, fair land by the border of a great river.”   Bierce slowly reveals this vivid dream as an actual memory of his happy home life before the war. The heartrending juxtaposition of the two homes—family home and army home, with neither feeling entirely real—the knowledge that home may be just beyond the curtain (but, then again, it may not), is what creates the claustrophobic homesickness of Homer’s scene.

A final void appears in the foreground: a sheaf of white papers on the knee of the seated man. He rests his hand on the paper, not clutching it to him, but not careless enough that it could fly away. What can be seen of the paper is merely blank whiteness. But it is easy enough to guess that here is yet another reference to Homer’s title: a letter home, perhaps unfinished. Homer does not pay special attention to these papers, except that, folded in the shape of a rough triangle, they are the only place where he has used a large quantity of true white in the painting. Homer had received the English translation of the French chemist M. E. Chevreul’s The principles of harmony and contrast of colours from his older brother Charles in 1860. He referred to the book as “my bible” and carefully studied Chevreul’s analysis of the relationship between visual perception, artistic communication, and use of color.  On the relationship between dark and light, he later told John W. Beatty, “It is wonderful how much depends upon the relationship of black and white. … The construction, the balancing of parts is everything.”  In Home, Sweet Home’s small patch of paper, Homer utilizes such a contrast for great effect. He surrounds this flash of white with darker hues—the black of the tent openings, the deep blue of the uniforms—to highlight its importance but also its emptiness. Soldiers sometimes emphasized that they did not know what to say to their loved ones, or how to say it. In 1863 Harrison Clarke wrote a friend that “I have frequently made the attempt [to write you] and as often failed.”  The page in Home, Sweet Home trumpets its blankness. There was no good way to describe the sights of war in a letter. But more importantly, home was a blind spot in the soldier’s mind, no matter how faithfully he attempted to conjure it in his imagination.

The Perils of Self-Recognition

Though Homer and Bierce shared a sensibility in their representations of war, they seem almost diametrically opposed when it comes to depicting themselves in their art. Homer never painted a self-portrait; Bierce seems constantly to be re-articulating his own traumatic experiences of the war in his fiction by writing about the battles he fought. And yet, we may consider both of them in terms of a kind of faulty or flawed self-recognition that is expressed through their art and the record of their experiences in the war. Several scholars have commented on and evaluated how traumatic events in the war may have affected Bierce and Homer, based upon the form and content of their works surrounding the conflict. Bierce seemed to cling more tenaciously to the memory of the war than Homer, seeing in the war the experience of a sort of fracturing of the self, from which he retreated with a carefully-cultivated reputation for ironical misanthropy. The prominent twentieth-century leftist intellectual Carey McWilliams wrote of Bierce: “The war was a troubling memory. It never left him; he mused and puzzled about it all his life. … one is impressed with the frequency of his references to war, the constant presence in his mind of its images, and the color that it gave his thinking and even his vocabulary.”  Martin Griffin reminds us of “the persistence of traumatic memory of combat experience within the psyche of the individual veteran,” describing Bierce’s literary output as a post-traumatic symptom characterized by “a merciless, almost nihilistic representation of contingency, violence, and unresolved conflicts of character and environment.”  Similarly, art historian Peter Wood notes that Homer left little record of how the war affected him and that it is probable that “shadows of combat remained a lasting part of Homer’s life.”  If these assessments of trauma seem presumptive or based on a sketchy foundation, we should recall that it was not until Bierce and Homer were both deceased that trauma related to wartime experiences became recognized as a medical condition rather than a constitutional weakness. The nature of historical trauma is complex, as Michael S. Roth reminds us. There is, on one hand, “the part that is repressed, or at least insufficiently attended to,” which can perhaps be seen in Homer’s apparent rejection of or lack of interest in the war later in his career. However, Roth continues, “the problem is not that the past event has been forgotten … but that the event has not been left behind successfully. It continues to have effects in the present.”  It is impossible, of course, to gauge with any accuracy what the actual psychological effects of the war may have been, and whether they led to cases of lingering trauma in these two men. However, as multiple scholars have made clear, we must consider the possibility that the shattering effects of the war inflected their later artistic and literary outputs.

Bierce’s psychological state has been the focus of much scholarship, for the war evidently consumed him until the end of his life. Homer, on the other hand, had a long and prolific career—continuing unabated for almost fifty years after the end of the war—filled with works that seem to have little bearing on the conflict. And yet numerous art historians have focused on Homer’s seeming obsession with the fragility of man in the face of violent and uncontrollable forces, usually the forces of nature such as sea squalls or snowstorms. Jules Prown interprets this thematic fixation as an unresolved quest for spiritual salvation, while Sarah Burns has read it as a response to the late-nineteenth-century cult of rugged masculinity.  But both interpretations may also be applied to the lingering effects of the war, which historians link both to a newly modern atmosphere of spiritual uncertainty around the turn of the century and to a crisis in masculinity brought on by the losses of the war, which was offset by increased focus upon manliness during the same years.  Merely because Homer completed all of his important Civil War paintings within two years of the peace at Appomattox does not mean that he worked through his trauma and got over it. He constantly returned to the theme of conflict in his later paintings of fishermen struggling against violent natural forces; art historian Paul Staiti describes nature in Homer’s late work as “a cold and amoral environment of chance and brutality, devoid of justice.”  Such an inexorable and pitiless conception of fate could almost have come from the pen of Bierce in his descriptions of muddled and terrifying Civil War battles. So also did Homer’s later work reflect continued interest in themes indirectly associated with the war, and can be seen in his dealings with postwar African American life and his focus on farm labor, a theme he began exploring during the war with The Brush Harrow, Haymaking, and On Guard, which portray children taking on grown men’s roles. Regardless of how we interpret the seriousness of the war’s traumatic resonance with Homer, it is clear that it had a lasting impression on the way he looked at and represented the world. The war changed both men greatly, and not only their minds were affected.

These men’s experiences of the war caused physical changes as well, leading to situations in which the authors’ very bodies became unrecognizable. Homer’s mother wrote to his younger brother that after being starved while traveling with the army on the Peninsular Campaign, her son was “so changed that his best friends did not know him.”  We may interpret this as a mental change, perhaps, but as she comments on the hardships he faced on the front, it seems likely to have been a physical change as well. Homer’s lack of recognition by his friends is nothing to the lack of self-recognition faced by Bierce when, around forty years after the end of the war, he embarked on a tour of the battlefields. This trip seems to have underwhelmed but also disturbed him as he attempted to understand and recapture some of the feelings of his own youth. He described the tour in a letter to poet Herman Scheffauer as a meeting between his present and former selves:

"twelve miles from here, my age and my youth met—the latter a trifle wan, ghostly, and absent-minded, inhospitable to questioning. What I mean is that I was in Oakland (Md.) forty-odd years ago, as a young soldier … This country has been Dreamland to me ever since. I know I should not have sought it again, to dispel the illusions, but I just had to; and I mean to go over all my old campaigning routes and battle grounds…"

The event of finding old familiar places to be strange and of finding the self irrevocably and unaccountably changed is chillingly recounted in the short story “A Resumed Identity,” which Bierce composed after he had taken his trip around those now unfamiliar battlegrounds. When the tale opens, the unnamed character is walking on a moonlit road during summer. Bierce describes how “the man looked curiously about him on all sides, as one who among familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part in the scheme of things.”  During the night he sees a procession of soldiers moving, as he believes, to take Nashville. Meeting a doctor on the road the next morning, he informs the doctor that he is a lieutenant in the regiment of General Hazen (as was Bierce) and inquires about the troops. Learning that the doctor “met no troops” he stumbles further along the road in confusion.  Finally coming upon a monument “brown with age, weather-worn at the angles, spotted with moss and lichen,” he reads that it commemorates the troops of Hazen’s brigade lost at the Battle of Stone River in 1862. Still a sense of recognition does not seem to occur in the man, until he is finally granted direct access to his reflection in “a pool of clear water” just adjacent to the monument. “He uttered a terrible cry” upon recognizing his own elderly face; “he fell, face downward into the pool and yielded up the life that had spanned another life.”  In the beginning of the story the soldier fails to recognize what should be familiar places, accounting his difficulty to a head wound he believes he has recently sustained in action; even the explicit signs of age appearing upon the monument do not seem to allow him to recognize his predicament. It is only the sight of his own time-ravaged countenance—his inner and most inviolate “home,” which he has consistently failed to recognize or know for sure throughout the story—that removes the veil of forty years and, ironically, is the cause of his ultimate death.

Homer offered no such haunting coda to his own wartime experiences, other than in the moody oil sketch Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave of c. 1865.  This quiet work was never exhibited during Homer’s lifetime. Though Homer never painted a self portrait, what the viewer can see of the man’s downcast face bears some resemblance to his own, at least in superficial features such as the “great waving moustache” and “red, or nearly red, hair” noted by Harrison Morris in an amusing description of Homer’s appearance. Covering his downcast eyes, the brim of the trooper’s cap blocks our access to his thoughts. The opening paragraph of Bierce’s “The Mocking-bird” finds Private Grayrock similarly with “his cap downward over his eyes, almost concealing them.”  Homer repeated this strategic marker of blindness in many Civil War scenes, including Sharpshooter, A Rainy Day in Camp, Home, Sweet Home, Sutler’s Tent, and even his supposed masterpiece of psychological insight, Prisoners from the Front. As one critic wrote of Homer, “There is nothing personal, or rather, subjective in his work. … He must give the essential nature of what he sees. He gives the true import … and leaves you there, saying nothing of the effect of the scene upon himself.”  While Bierce might give us too much of himself without ever coming to a resolution about the true identity of his war-shattered self, Homer holds back in indeterminacy, refusing to meet our gaze. Both display a lack of self-recognition. Bruised by the war, seeming to work through the catastrophe in different ways, Homer and Bierce show us continually, through the piercing power of their own ability to observe, that we cannot trust what we see, that we are always blind to the true story of the Civil War.

Image: Winslow Homer (American, 1836-1910), Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave, c. 1865, oil on canvas, 16 x 8 inches. Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska. Gift of Dr. Harold Gifford and Ann Gifford Forbes, 1960.298



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