The New York Times’ Disunion (which I’ll be referencing a lot less thanks to the stingier paywall limits) examines suicides in the Confederate army, which it seems was more prevalent than in the Union army. Some excellent points are put forth. (One not suggested was “the cause”; if Emancipation could breathe new life into the Northern ranks, is it not fair to suggest an equal and opposite reaction on the other side?)
Each suicide is a thing unto itself, but we can offer a few conjectures. Importantly, men, especially white men in the South, well understood the expectations Victorian society demanded of them in wartime. Honor and duty required their martial participation. So in the wake of the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops, Southern white men heeded their new nation’s call to arms and flocked to recruiting stations.
The “Boys of ’61” were pulled into military service by rage militaire a sense of adventure, but they were also pushed into service by patriotic womenfolk who, despite reservations, implored their husbands and sons to enlist. To resist would raise questions about one’s manhood as well as commitment to nation. Consequently, thousands reflexively rushed off to war without much deliberation or contemplation.
As Southern recruits mustered in camps, the reality of what they faced set in. While many a green soldier longed to “see the elephant” – a colloquial term referring to engaging in battle – eagerness often gave way to anxiety and a plethora of fears: of dying, of killing, of failure, of the unknown. If any of those fears were made manifest, a soldier’s courage would be called into question…