Post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a timely subject, considering how many young men and women are serving in the military all over the world today. But what of the men who fought during one of the bloodiest conflicts of the time, a war that pitted brother against brother, father against son?
What of the American Civil War? Surely the suicidal frontal assaults, troops marching forward in formation to be decimated by rifle and artillery fire, battlefields littered with the dead and dying, must have had a horrific effect on those soldiers. Yet surprisingly little has been written on the subject.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological syndrome which results when a person is exposed to a traumatic event such as warfare. Although PTSD only really emerged as a psychiatric diagnosis in the 1970s, it’s clear that veterans of the Civil War also suffered from it. Its symptoms include anxiety, a dread of calamity, depression, flashbacks and nightmares; emotional numbing or apathy. PTSD can include social pathologies, as well, including suicide, drug or alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.
One study states that among the typical symptoms of PTSD in Civil War soldiers, the most common is fear, specifically the fear of being killed. This fear would often lead to a man barricading himself in his house, often at night, and stay up watching and waiting for the imagined foe to appear. Others would keep weapons at their side at all times, and sometimes sleep with an axe or other such weapon under their beds. The usual treatment of the day was heavy doses of sedatives to keep them calm.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same…”
~ Alphonse Karr, 1808-1890
Here’s an excerpt from Coming Home:
The Atlantic Ocean, 1867
He was going home.
Home. Such a simple word. And for so long now, such an unattainable dream.
Yet as he stood on the deck of the Mary O’Connor, he thought maybe he’d finally find a real home once again.
When Johnny comes marching home again . . .
He looked seaward. The salt wind tugged at his hair. Spray stung his eyes. Gulls wheeled and shrieked overhead. Open water lay beyond the horizon, and beyond that still, his new life. In a few weeks, the Mary O’Connor would dock in Galway Bay, and from there he’d head for the small village his parents had spoken of with such love. He felt a stirring of emotion, the first spark of excitement since—
Deliberately he cut off the thought. He was no longer a soldier. There would be no more Rebel yells, no more guns, no more battles. He was no longer Captain Callaghan, so-called hero of the Irish Brigade.
He was just plain Cavan Callaghan, an Irishman searching for peace.
What would Ireland be like? For as long as he could remember, he’d heard his parents speak wistfully of the country they’d left behind. The green fields and sea-swept coast. The heather-strewn countryside filled with wild strawberries and prickly gorse. They’d spoken of the people, too, but especially of his father’s brother.
The last of the Flynns now, except for himself.
His mother had said the village of Ballycashel lay some nine miles from Galway City. What would he find there? He knew about the Hunger, of course. Had any of his family survived?
Or would he find the same devastation he’d confronted on his return from the war?
A ripple of sound floating on the briny breeze told him he wasn’t alone. Recognizing the delicate notes of a penny whistle, he glanced around. One of his fellow passengers, obviously an Irishman, lowered the instrument from his lips and smiled, his foot tapping in jig time.
The piper began playing anew, and a raw slash of anguish ripped through Cavan’s gut. He knew the words well, and the tune the man played so effortlessly and with such emotion.
He’d prayed never to hear them again.
The minstrel boy to the war has gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him . . .
He squeezed his eyes shut, the ‘ranks of death’ marching through his memory. So many friends, his comrades-in-arms, who would never return . . .
With a hard shake of his head, he strode away from the haunting melody.
He was going home. And there he would find peace.
There would be no more war.