Monday, July 25, 2011

Medical Department #40 - Homesickness and Nostalgia

My "Medical Department" column this month for the Civil War News is about "nostalgia" - or "homesickness" - among soldiers during the Civil War. They call it homesickness for a reason, as you will see below.

I've also included links to some period material, not included in the print column.


By James M. Schmidt
Civil War News

“Medical Department” – August 2011

“Would you believe – and yet it is true – that many a poor fellow in this Army of the Cumberland has literally died to go home; died of that terrible, unsatisfied longing, homesickness? That it lies at the heart of many a disease bearing a learned name?...Who shall dare say that the boy who ‘lays down and dies’ a-bungered and starving for home does not fall as well and truly for his country’s sake as if a Rebel bullet had found his heart out?"Cedar Valley Times (Cedar Rapids, IA) – November 26, 1863

“Nostalgia is supposed to be the technical term for homesickness, a case which occurs now and then. Recently a cowardly Lieutenant in one of the Ohio regiments asked a discharge on the grounds of ill-health. The surgeon recommended the discharge and in these words: “Said Lieutenant being so sadly affected with the nostalgia as to be useless in camp and worthless in the field.” The language was put in the discharge, and the Lieutenant gladly left the service on those terms.”Daily Zainesville Courier (OH) – October 17, 1861

Most doctors and surgeons of the Civil War era entered wartime service holding conventional, even primitive, ideas about the nature of psychological illness. Today, we take for granted that psychiatric casualties are an inevitable byproduct of warfare. But whatever we call the affliction--shell shock, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or something more poetic, such as “soldier’s heart” - it is not limited to modern combat. Recent research has made it clear that many Civil War veterans, even ones who appeared healthy on the outside, bore emotional and mental scars every bit as debilitating as physical ones. (See my April 2006 column, here, for a previous discussion on this topic).

Still, there was at least one illness with a psychological component – clinical nostalgia, or homesickness – that was already recognized as a contributing factor to disease, if not a disease itself. However, “nostalgia” – from the Greek nostos (a return home) and algos (pain) – has an important distinction from the ailments listed above: it did not require exposure to the horrors of combat, but rather resulted from the trauma of separation (and, especially: disconnection) of soldiers from their homes and families, at a time when some historians argue those very connections had an unprecedented importance in American culture.

Reports and advice about clinical nostalgia among troops in the field appeared in official and unofficial documents. Statistics in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion indicate more than 5,000 cases and nearly sixty deaths were attributed to nostalgia. The Manual of Instructions for Military Surgeons on the Examination of Recruits and Discharge of Soldiers (1864) included a section on nostalgia, describing its symptoms – “appetite fails…excretions are impaired…sleep is disturbed…emaciation comes on…stupor and delirium” – with recommendations for furlough or discharge. Reports of nostalgia were also discussed by regimental surgeons in period journals, such as The Medical and Surgical Reporter. (see links at end of post)

In his excellent recent article, “Dying of Nostalgia: Homesickness in the Union Army during the Civil War,” in Civil War History (Vol. LVI, No. 3, 2010, pp. 247-82), David Anderson, Ph.D., examines this interesting subject: from its ancient roots to the first detailed accounts in the 1600s of its medical effects to its prevalence among the European armies in the 1700s (it was once known as the “Swiss-disease”) to the implications of nostalgia in the Civil War armies by his study of a variety of primary sources, including official correspondence, wartime letters, period medical literature, inspection reports, and other interesting material. Dr. Anderson was kind enough to answer some questions about nostalgia and his other research interests.

(I also highly recommend Frances Clarke’s recent scholarly article, “So Lonesome I Could Die: Nostalgia and Debates Over Emotional Control in the Civil War North,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 41 (Winter 2007), pp. 253-82).

Dr. Anderson (website here) graduated from the University of Dundee in Scotland in 2001, where he received a first class MA (Hons) degree in American Studies and History. He was awarded a Ph.D. in 2005, also from the University of Dundee, where he was a Teaching Fellow in the History Department (2006-2008). Dr. Anderson joined the American Studies Department at Swansea University as a lecturer in 2008. His research focuses primarily on the social and cultural history of the American South – before, during, and after the Civil War.

As hinted at in the newspaper abstracts above, there was significant disagreement among the public, the military, and medical professionals as to how the disease should be treated; responses ranged from the callous diagnosis of cowardice in the Zanesville account to the more sympathetic views of the Cedar Rapids report. “Certainly, contemporary opinion differed on approaches to alleviating – and treating – homesickness,” he told me. “On the one hand, some military and medical men promoted discipline: men were to be kept active, involved, absorbed; those who did fall victim to bouts of homesickness could be chastised out of their depression.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “Union spokespersons – along with concerned citizens and charitable organizations – found these practices insensitive and cruel, and instead recommended a more considerate and caring approach intended to reconnect soldiers to unraveled family networks or weakened community ties.”

One of the biggest surprises for me in reading Dr. Anderson’s article was that nostalgia was mentioned (with concern) in official reports. “Gen. James Shields wrote Gen. McDowell in June 1862 to express his fears that Union volunteers ‘are like the Swiss troops . . .; if not [allowed] to go home and see their families they droop and die,’” he told me. Dr. Anderson said that while Shields respected the soldiers’ expression of “human feeling,” he still regarded homesick soldiers as wholly useless to the Union war effort. “Doctors, surgeons, and officers were determined, I think, to meet the challenge of the circumstances facing them head-on,” Dr. Anderson added, but notes that any prevention and care still had to be practical enough to be reconciled with the military considerations.

I love it when a historian acknowledges that theirs is not the last word on a subject and – happily - Dr. Anderson described to me some opportunities for additional research on clinical nostalgia in the Civil War: among hospital staff, Confederate soldiers, and possible connections between nostalgia and desertion. Especially interesting, according to Dr. Anderson, would be additional study of nostalgia and homesickness among sailors on both sides of the conflict.

“Life on-board ship for the typical Civil War sailor comprised routines of sameness – not swashbuckling excitement that many had expected,” he told me. “Moreover, Union sailors, for example, had little opportunity to read current newspapers and other printed materials and thus gradually lost touch with northern society and news from home. The lack of social connectedness especially affected blockade sailors given their length of service and their prolonged isolation from the shore. Before long, these seamen began expressing feelings of emptiness and futility,” he added.

In the article, Dr. Anderson mentioned that anniversaries, seasons, and holidays – especially Christmas – had a tremendous effect on soldiers during the war with a probable increased incidence of nostalgia. “Christmas tends to assume a strong sense of its own significance in times of protracted conflict, especially when the meaning of Christmas itself is clouded,” he told me. “That this is the case was not lost on Civil War soldiers during the Civil War. Indeed, for those southerners who remained at home – predominantly wives, mothers, and sisters – Christmas was a time of loneliness, constant worry, and ominous foreboding.”

He added that children probably felt the temper of the times more than most: toys and decorations were usually homemade because of the scarcity of materials and crippling wartime prices.

Dr. Anderson’s current research project is a study of the celebration of Christmas on plantations in the antebellum years and the war and its impact on Lost Cause literature and implications for scholarship in “Southern memory” studies, by a careful study of plantation memoirs and reminisces.

I thank Dr. Anderson for kindly sharing his time and expertise!

Additional Links You Might Enjoy:

Article (here) - Medical and Surgical Reporter - February 27, 1864 - Vol. XL—No. 9, pp. 130ff - "Nostalgia as a Disease of Field Service" - A paper read before the Medical Society of the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps, Army of Potomac, February 10th, 1864, by J. Theodore Calhoun, M. D., Assistant Surgeon of the U. S. Army, and Surgeon-in-Chief 2nd Division, 3rd Corps.

Article (here) - Medical and Surgical Reporter - March 5, 1864 - Vol. XL—No. 10, pp. 150ff - "Discussion on Nostalgia" - Medical Society of the 2nd Division, 3rd Corps, Army of Potomac

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