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 Post subject: PTSD "Shellshock" in the Civil War
PostPosted: Thu Jan 19, 2012 8:25 am 
I was recently watching "The Best Years of Our Lives" and thinking about how it was one of the first movies to really deal with the psychological issue of returning veterans and PTSD. In the past 60 years there have been many studies, books, films, and documentaries about returning veterans and PTSD. But of all the things I have read or seen on this issue it seems that before modern studies (really only since the post-Vietnam era) the issue is largely either unknown or has not been studied in great detail.

Our old friend wikipedia explains it "In the early 19th century military medical doctors started diagnosing soldiers with "exhaustion" after the stress of battle. This "exhaustion" was characterized by mental shutdown due to individual or group trauma – prior to the 20th century, soldiers were expected always to be emotionally tough and show no fear in the midst of combat. The only treatment for this "exhaustion" was to relieve the afflicted from frontline duty until symptoms subsided, then return to battle. During the intense and frequently repeated stress, the soldiers became fatigued as a part of their body's natural shock reaction." One can almost picture Pickett after the charge on July 3, 1863, telling Lee that he had no division.

[For those in the Club that feel a unit should naturually lose men as a battle progresses due to exhaustion and other natural causes - you have a very good point!]

Civil War battles were seldom things. Most soldiers only fought in one or two major engagements in a year. Those "lucky" enough to survive until 1864 experienced a much more brutal form of warfare than those in the early stages of the war. Their coping abilities learned through three years of war may have been essential to keeping them going on after the greenhorns had taken cover or cowered at places like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor ect.

It would be a fascinating study to read if a historian could go back and find enough material to write a book on the effect of PTSD on Civil War soldiers in the trenches and after the war. Finding the material would be the hardest part as most cases of the disorder would have been written off as cowardice, desertion, or fatigue during the war. Ex-soldiers experiencing PTSD in the 1860s and after would be an interesting group to look at if the resources were there.

The soldiers returning home in the film "The Best Years of Our Lives" find their families relatively unscathed by the war. More women are working and more college kids have jobs but thats about it in the film. For those CSA soldiers returning home in 1865 the shock must have been infinitely more extreme.

There's a good book there somewhere.


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