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Dispatches: Suffering in the Civil War Era

Dispatches: Suffering in the Civil War Era

Much of my current and future work focuses on what I consider understudied aspects of the Civil War Era: trauma, disability and damage of the war. But it's important to understand historical context, and in the nineteenth century, social and cultural ideas of trauma and suffering were much different than our own.

During the American Civil War, Americans-North and South-held that war was terrible and full of suffering. However, they fervently believed that suffering could engender growth and inspiration. As Frances Clarke has argued, during the war, soldiers who were wounded or ill with disease were still valuable to the nation. They were expected to perform, to demonstrate an uncomplaining endurance. In this way they could serve as inspirations, demonstrating that the cause of the war was worth the suffering and sacrifice. This most often played out in the hospitals, and eyewitness accounts of the hospital wards are replete with mentions of gravely wounded and dangerously sick soldiers, who nevertheless never complained or wanted for much. Kate Cumming was a Scotland born, but Alabama raised southerner, who volunteered as a nurse for the Confederacy. When she first walked into a hospital ward in Corinth following the Battle of Shiloh, she was horrified by what she saw. "Mrs. Ogden tried to prepare me for the scenes which I should witness upon entering the wards," she wrote. "But alas! Nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed here." However, Kate was inspired by the way in which those wounded men endured their injuries. "[I]f uncomplaining endurance is glory, we had plenty of it," she wrote. "If it is that which makes the hero, here they were by scores." Kate had a young patient under her charge from Texas who had lost a leg, but nonetheless seemed "as happy as if nothing was the matter." She ministered to another patients in the last moments of his young life who "could not have been more composed." Such behavior was not merely admirable, of course, but politically necessary, and newspapers, Union and Confederate, routinely buried their prescriptions within their compliments. "We have no words to express our admiration of the private soldiers in the ranks of the Southern Army," the Richmond Daily Dispatch wrote. Members of the paper had visited "our wounded soldiers" and had "not met one who complained of his wounds, and it is difficult to find one who complains of his course fair and hard life. Did the world ever see such men before?"

Of course, much of this behavior was a performance, and privately wounded soldiers were not always as uncomplaining and unworried as they pretended to be. At the Battle of Chancellorsville, Napoleon Perkins, a New Hampshire native and private in the Fifth Maine Artillery Regiment, was grievously wounded. As he was unhitching a wounded horse from the guns, he himself was wounded when a Minie ball slammed into his left thigh above the knee. He was carried to a field hospital, where he initially refused an amputation. He then endured a painful trip to St. Aloysius Hospital in Washington, D.C., where his leg gradually got worse until the surgeons prevailed and he consented to an amputation. Following his operation, Perkins befriended a fellow amputee named John Erway. Perkins admired Erway because he "was a jolly good fellow and at times did not seem to mind the loss of his leg." This was Erway's performance of uncomplaining endurance, his service to the nation now that he could no longer bear arms and march in rank. However, when the sun went down and the wards darkened, Perkins and Erway would quietly confess their anxieties to each other. The loss of a leg would change everything, and they knew it. "After getting acquaintedwith him," Perkins remembered. "I could see how much he felt the loss as he told me once it would change the whole course of his life." Erway apparently could confess his deepest anxieties to Perkins, a fellow amputee, because he likely felt Perkins could be nonjudgemental about his worry, as Perkins was now an amputee himself.

Reading the accounts of the wounded, the ill and the dying of the Civil War, and those who cared for them, requires this special parsing. Historians need to recognize the social and cultural landscape in which nineteenth century suffering was perceived, and also the very normal human tension that existed within it.

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