New Directions in the History of Veterans of the American Civil War

Chair and Commentator: Paul Cimbala, Fordham University

An Organization of Brothers: The Grand Army of the Republic, Civil War Veterans, and Coping with War
Kathleen Thompson, West Virginia University

Mapping Loyalty: The Persisting Social Networks of Civil War Veterans
Katharine Dahlstrand, University of Georgia

“Played Out”: Veterans’ Interpretations of Mental Illness
Dillon Carroll, Hunter College, City University of New York

Since the war ended, Americans have been fascinated with the Civil War. Arguably more books have been written about the conflict than any other event in American history. But for all we have learned about every general and battle of the war, we know remarkably little about the war's veterans. Appomattox marked the end of the war, but not the end for the men who fought it. This panel, filled with diverse young scholars, seeks to point the way for new directions in studying Civil War veterans. Most of the recent scholarship on Civil War veterans has focused on trauma, and deservedly so. Eric T. Dean, Jr.'s "Shook Over Hell" was a groundbreaking monograph that compared Civil War veterans with Vietnam veterans, and argued that veterans of the Civil War may have suffered with PTSD or something like it. Since its publication, a coterie of historians such as James Marten, R.B. Rosenburg, Patrick Kelley, and Rusty Williams have turned their attention to Soldier’s Homes in the post-war North and South. David Silkenat and Diane Miller Sommerville have published research exploring the rising rate of suicide among Confederate veterans. Other scholars, among them Brian Craig Miller, Brian Matthew Jordan and Frances Clarke, have explored physical trauma and how amputees shaped post-war society, culture and the memory of the war. While these works are important and deserve mention, they ignore the inner lives of Civil War veterans. Using archives from around the country, and varying methodologies, the work on this panel explores the inner lives of Civil War veterans after the guns were silenced at Appomattox. Kathleen L. Thompson explores the Grand Army of the Republic as a coping mechanism for Civil War veterans in the postwar years. Katharine Dahlstrand, an East Tennessee native and combat veteran, attempts to understand the social network of Tennessee veterans in the postwar years. She combs through over 1,500 responses of Tennessee Civil War veterans to a questionnaire sent to them by state library archivists, and created GIS maps that document the critical moments of their lives. Finally, Dr. Dillon J. Carroll examines how veterans' perceptions of mental illness was different than that of asylum physicians. Veterans tried to carve out a space of legitimacy to protect themselves and their comrades from the shame of mental illness. In contrast to asylum doctors, many Civil War veterans described mental illness among themselves, and other soldiers as a result of being "broke down" or "played out" a vague term that gave a sense of the multiple stressors of war. "Played out" was less clinical, and organically became popular among the soldiers. This would protect them from shame during the war, and help them win pensions after it. All of this work explores little known aspects of Civil War veterans, namely, what their communities were like after the war, how they coped with trauma, and how they perceived that trauma in new and different ways.

Recorded in April 2018 at the OAH Annual Meeting held in Sacremento, California as part of the Mellon-funded Amplified Initiative.



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Paul Cimbala


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Kathleen Thompson


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Katharine Dahlstrand


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Dillon Carroll


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OAH Members can access all of the recorded panels by logging into the member portal at the OAH website.