“He Was a Stout Hearty Man before the War”: Family, Mental Illness, and Civil War Veterans
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM
Room A706 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
The American Civil War was an incredibly costly conflict, totaling $3.2 billion to the federal government, and taking the lives of an estimated 750,000 soldiers. However, the war exacted a deep social cost from those who fought and survived it. We have learned from David Courtwright that many Civil War veterans came home with opium and morphine addictions. We have also learned—from scholars such as Eric T. Dean, Jr., James Marten, Jeffrey McClurken, and Diane Miller Sommerville—that thousands of Civil War veterans came home damaged from their experience as soldiers. Their postwar lives were marked by alcoholism, fits of rage, violence, and depression. The most unhinged of these veterans were committed to state insane asylums for rehabilitation or custody. This story is becoming increasingly—if not disturbingly—familiar as more research comes out on Civil War veterans. But lost in this story, is the experience of the families of these veterans when they came home. This paper explores the experience of the families of the most damaged Civil War veterans, those who eventually were committed to St. Elizabeths Government Hospital for the Insane. This paper argues that mental illness and commitment to an asylum were extremely difficult for a 19th century northern family. First, families struggled through distressing behavior, erratic financial decisions, and sometimes, violence. Mental illness could create an unstable home environment. Second, families struggled with the decision to commit a loved one to an asylum. Commitment could reduce a family unit into unrecoverable poverty. Moreover, hereditary implications of a commitment were embarrassing. Finally, mothers, wives and children struggled to understand what happened to their sons, husbands and fathers. Some accepted the diagnosis of asylum physicians, while others speculated that the brutality of the war had something to do with their loved ones’ mental breakdown.