The Smithsonian Magazine investigates post-traumatic stress disorder amongst Civil War vets. The condition was not understood then, and as the article states, “had a long reach”; effects were felt on individuals, families and communities long after the firing ceased.
“We’ve tended to see soldiers in the 1860s as stoic and heroic—monuments to duty, honor and sacrifice,” says Lesley Gordon, editor of Civil War History, a leading academic journal that recently devoted a special issue to wartime trauma. “It’s taken a long time to recognize all the soldiers who came home broken by war, just as men and women do today.”
Counting these casualties and diagnosing their afflictions, however, present considerable challenges. The Civil War occurred in an era when modern psychiatric terms and understanding didn’t yet exist. Men who exhibited what today would be termed war-related anxieties were thought to have character flaws or underlying physical problems. For instance, constricted breath and palpitations—a condition called “soldier’s heart” or “irritable heart”—was blamed on exertion or knapsack straps drawn too tightly across soldiers’ chests.