Studying Civil War Trauma through the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry

Hugh Dubrulle's picture

In this post for the H-CivWar Author's Blog, Hugh Dubrulle introduces his research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and how individual soldiers in the regiment, along with the unit as a whole, dealt with trauma during the Civil War.

 

I suspect that I am the ugly duckling in this group of bloggers because my research interests have metamorphosed quite suddenly, and I find myself surveying unfamiliar ground. In graduate school, I was interested in British attitudes toward the American Civil War, and I studied as a historian of modern Britain (with the Civil War as one of my fields). I eventually wrote Ambivalent Nation: How Britain Imagined the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2018). As I reached the end of that project, I taught a class on the Civil War for the first time in years and hoped to craft a course research project that students would find appealing. I teach at a small, liberal arts college in New Hampshire, and I sought to find an interesting link between the state and the Civil War. That’s how I stumbled upon the story of the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry.

 

This unit is notorious for having suffered 295 combat fatalities during the Civil War, more than any other regiment in the Union armies. These fatalities, to quote Lt. Col. William F. Fox’s Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, 1861-1865, “occurred entirely in aggressive, hard, stand-up fighting” (p. 2). The regiment’s story, however, is interesting for more than just this reason. The original colonel, Edward E. Cross, was a colorful and forceful personality. It is ironic that one of the toughest units in II Corps (which was widely considered the hardest fighting corps in the Army of the Potomac) was initially led for about 18 months by this idiosyncratic and vociferous Democrat who admired Franklin Pierce (Cross was mortally wounded at Gettysburg). The men were recruited from across all ten counties of New Hampshire, which meant that they reflected the profound political divisions that characterized the state. The company and field officers were riven by various disputes that found their way into courts-martial or courts of inquiry. By 1863, the enormous losses suffered by the regiment compelled it to draw the great majority of its recruits from among substitutes. Desertion skyrocketed. Although the regiment turned in a courageous performance at Cold Harbor, it suffered from numerous disciplinary problems as native-born Anglo-American officers (many of whom were original volunteers promoted from the ranks) struggled to command a unit consisting mainly of substitutes (a very large proportion of whom were foreign born). The 5th New Hampshire’s story is eventful; the regiment confronted many difficulties and hardships, a number of which were of its own making. I found this tale compelling, and I wanted to share it with my students.

 

It soon became clear to me that if I wanted to do an adequate job of guiding student research, I had to master the story of the regiment as well as relevant historiography. That task would prove impossible if I simultaneously sought to maintain a separate research agenda of my own. And so I started doing research on the regiment in earnest. I’m still at the stage where I’m collecting data about the soldiers in the unit, locating their letters (and transcribing them), looking for useful secondary works, and sorting out the primary sources that are probably so familiar to those scholars who study soldier life during the Civil War. In other words, I’ve just started.

 

If I had to explain in one sentence what I hope to accomplish with my research project, it would be a cross between what Susannah J. Ural did in Hood’s Texas Brigade and Peter Carmichael’s The War for the Common Soldier—but with a focus on trauma and the way in which the soldiers of the 5th New Hampshire dealt with it. How did men in this regiment keep body and soul together while undergoing the vicissitudes of service in a unit that suffered enormous losses? The answers lie far afield. They involve the attitudes of individual soldiers, the internal workings of the 5th New Hampshire, and experiences of soldiers both within and without the regiment. In studying how the regiment dealt with trauma, it makes sense to look at many dimensions of soldiers’ experiences. These include: the different ways in which soldiers were recruited throughout the war (and the social background of the men thus yielded); camaraderie among soldiers; the exercise of leadership and imposition of discipline by officers; the nature of the soldier economy; soldiers’ political opinions and the pervasive influence of politics in their lives; the ties that bound soldiers to the home front and their feelings toward folks back home; the encounter with combat and how the regiment fought on the battlefield; how soldiers experienced the roles of captor and captive during the war; the medical treatment they underwent for wounds and sickness; the motives and impetuses for desertion; and the reintegration of soldiers into civilian society, the lives led by veterans, and the ways in which they remembered the war.

 

I hope that readers of my finished work will learn much about the 5th New Hampshire and life in a Civil War regiment, but what I propose is not a traditional regimental history. Rather, this project will use the 5th New Hampshire as a case study about how one regiment and its men engaged with trauma. I recognize that while the example of a single regiment can be illustrative, none can bear the burden of being “typical” in this way or that. For example, it’s clear to me that the 5th New Hampshire derived its strength and resilience from very different sources than, say, the Texas Brigade that Ural portrays. Clearly, there was more than one way to build an elite fighting unit that could absorb tremendous punishment.

 

Although I’m a newcomer to this aspect of the Civil War, I’m no stranger to blogging. For almost a year, I’ve maintained a blog (https://5thnewhampshirevolunteerinfantry.home.blog/). I see blog posts as a means of generating questions or provisional ideas while “thinking aloud” about various matters. Blogging is also a means of eliciting useful suggestions or constructive criticism, so I look forward to hearing from you. 

Dear Hugh,

Thank you for your blog post--this sounds like a great project and one up the alley of many H-CivWar subscribers. I know you gave a brief feel for your project by referencing Carmichael and Ural, but I wondered the extent to which you are engaging with emotions history as well. For context, I am working on Civil War women nurses and their recorded feelings of "numbness" to the traumatic experiences they faced. How often are your soldiers' letters directly mentioning their reactions to trauma, and how often must you read within the silences? (I find, for example, that much can be learned about numbness by tracking mentions of traumatic experiences in diaries and letters. Even if they do not explicitly mention that they have become "used to" these experiences, they find them less noteworthy over time and thus no longer not recount them in depth.)

To read into the emotional reactions--or lack thereof--to traumatic experiences, I've found myself doing quite a bit of almost literary analysis. I think you will find Christopher Hager's "I Remain Yours" very helpful for this, as he examines the newly-developed letterwriting habits of common soldiers and their efforts to maintain an intimate connection to home through writing.

I look forward to hearing more about this project. I have a feeling that this response may go out to all of H-CivWar (eek!) so I can also be reached at develvis@email.sc.edu.

Best,
Melissa DeVelvis

Dear All,

Thanks for this great post, Hugh! As I read through it I found myself thinking about how you might organize your study. It would be tempting to do it thematically, given your many interests, although chronology is clearly key to the evolution of the unit. I'm sure managing the options will be a bit of a head scratcher as you eventually transition from research to writing.

I also found myself wondering whether you were going to follow the soldiers into the post-war period (not that you didn't already have enough on your plate). I recently read Brian Jordan's Marching Home, which is no doubt familiar to many H-CivWar subscribers, and wondered how your soldiers managed their lives as veterans. 

Melissa, you work also sounds fascinating, thanks for sharing! 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

As one of your fellows in the Civil War Author's Blog, I'm struck by the "different similarity" across our projects, particularly in terms of trauma. I do not recall trauma ever being discussed during my graduate training, yet clearly its currency now is critical to your project, in which there is an intense, acute experience of trauma shared across a group of individuals, although they might each experience and respond to trauma in their own ways. By contrast, with a project focused on excavating the varied chapters of one person's life, I am at risk of looking too much at "what she did" (which is what general readers *think* they want to know -- tell me about the spying!!!), when what seems more intriguing and also more difficult to discern is what she thought and what she felt. The former can be addressed through a careful study of everything written by and about her; she was adept at persuading an audience and thus in the process of demanding others join her in addressing racial injustice what she thought was indeed part of what she "did." But what she felt is more elusive, for many reasons. And yet, trauma seems quite likely, given what she experienced.

Perhaps one shared question is what is the operating definition of "trauma" for historians of the Civil War? How do categories like gender and race -- a unit of white male soldiers, an individual African American woman whose life reflects a pattern of lack of "group affiliation" -- affect our operating definitions?

-Lois

Dear Melissa,

Thanks so much for your response. This is a great question, and I feel that it warrants more than I can provide in this forum. What I find really interesting about your message is that I was just remarking to somebody the other day that I needed to locate works on epistolary history to help me interpret the material I’d found. Your recommendation that I engage with emotional history is also spot on.

The short answer to your question is that soldiers in the regiment left behind a wide variety of written material—not just letters, but also correspondence to newspapers, memoirs, official reports, and so on. Each of these formats had its own “rules” that shaped the act of writing and influenced the expression of trauma. Different soldiers, of course, understood these rules differently. Moreover, I am here reminded of Peter Carmichael’s caution (which applies to all kinds of soldier writing) that

Soldier letters are neither transparent windows into the workings of the author’s mind nor unmediated statements that reveal why men fought. The act of writing registers an expression of reality filtered through cultural lenses and the idiosyncratic tendencies of the writer.

Carmichael also quotes Arlette Farge to the effect that historians should spend more time

understanding how a narrative came to be articulated in the way that it was. How was it shaped by the authority that compelled it to be given, the speaker’s desire to convince, and his or her pattern of speech?

The benefit of focusing on one regiment is that a scholar can better understand the “idiosyncratic tendencies” of writers, comprehend the “authority that compelled” narratives to be written, and immerse himself or herself thoroughly in the context in which they wrote.

What I seem to have discovered is that trauma was discussed by different people in various ways using diverse forms. It was certainly expressed through silence, and I’ve seen several letters remarking on how traumatic experiences that had made a deep impression, say, six months before were now so commonplace as to not be worthy of mention. But trauma is also articulated repeatedly and fairly blatantly in all manner of circumstances. It is conveyed through letters of condolence written to families of men who had been killed; ghoulish tales of having walked through the aftermath of battlefield carnage; lamentations of the regiment’s misfortune; accounts of deathbed scenes; ragings at the incompetence of the army’s leadership; official reports that indicated regimental losses; simple prose that attempted to record precisely what had occurred; determined efforts to remember and memorialize the deeds of the regiment; and so on.

I’m only at the beginning of this project, and I have much more work to do, so if you email me in a year or two, I’ll probably have a better answer. Thank you so much for recommending Hager’s book.

Best wishes,

Hugh

Hi David,

Great questions. I have been scratching my head over the chronological versus thematic question. Thus far, I think the solution is to provide a narrative of the regiment in the first chapter and then proceed thematically with the other chapters—but pick up themes in chronological order insofar as that’s possible.

I have a much better or more satisfying answer to your other question: yes. Using FarmilySearch I have tracked a randomly selected pool of 403 original volunteers who survived the war. I’ve attempted to find information on them in 35 different fields. These include:

Company
Recruiter
Birth Year
Age on enlistment
Date of pension
Age at pension
Death year
Age at death
Cause of death
Height
Birthplace
Residence in 1860
Postwar mobility
Death place
Initial rank in the 5th New Hampshire
Terminal rank in the 5th New Hampshire
Total length of service in the 5th New Hampshire
Reason for termination
Number of wounds suffered
Description of wounds
Disabilities listed in the 1890 Census
Service in other units
Family status in 1860
Marital status
Year of first marriage
Age at marriage
Children
Occupation of father in 1860 (if living with father)
Real estate and personal estate of father in 1860
Occupation in 1860
Real estate and personal estate in 1860
Occupation in 1870
Real estate and personal estate in 1870
Highest occupation attained
Comments

There are many limitations in the source material (e.g. much of this information was self-reported). The sources I used were not always accurate, and some men were impossible to track over time. But I did learn a great deal about certain individuals who would make for excellent case studies and fantastic stories (e.g. what happened to amputees, men who ended up in branches of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers, those who had brushes with the law, etc.)

But what does this information tell me about trauma overall?

The main problem with using this data is the lack of a control group. It’s difficult to say how these veterans fared when I’m not sure who to compare them to. For example, I found lifespans for 361 men in my pool, and the average was 64.1 years. Is that high or low? I don’t know. As I understand it, there is some dispute among historical demographers over average life expectancy in this period. But I definitely need to immerse myself in historical demography to figure this question out. Another issue is Survivorship Bias. I’ve started surveying the men who were killed in action and those who died of disease. While I haven’t finished looking at these groups, they seem to differ in substantial ways from the men who survived the war.

Having said all that, I did find some interesting facts that I’ll bullet-point for the sake of brevity:
• I found seven definite suicides and two possible ones. That was out of the 248 men for whom I could find a cause of death. That’s a very high suicide rate. To put that in proportion, the current suicide rate in the United States is 14.2 per 100,000. The rate in my pool was 2823 per 100,000.
• Over 10% of the volunteers in the sample were under the age of 18 when they volunteered. I don’t think I caught everybody who was underaged, and the men who were killed in action or died of disease yielded higher proportions of underaged soldiers. I think it’s entirely possible that 15% of the volunteers in the regiment were under the age of 18. And that got me thinking about how trauma influenced these younger soldiers.
• The leading cause of termination from among this pool was disabled discharge. About 55% of the men in the pool were discharged due to illness or wounds.
• Some 39% of the men in the pool were wounded. This figure is probably an undercount.

I will have to scrutinize the data much more methodically. Moreover, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Yet the picture I see is as follows. There was a group of men who failed to thrive after the war. They got divorced or never married (very rare in the pool). They suffered from alcoholism or spent time in a branch of the National Home for Disabled Soldiers (again this was fairly rare). They could not hold onto a job, or their job was menial. Whether these circumstances were due to combat trauma or something else is impossible to determine from the data alone, but clearly, a number of men never recovered from their war experience.

Most of the men in the pool, however, seemed determined to pick up the pieces of their lives after the war. They got married (only 35% of the pool had been married before the war but a total of 92% were married at some point in their lives) They found work, raised families, and got on with their lives. As time went on, the great majority had obtained jobs with better pay and greater responsibility. Many accumulated capital of some sort. Did they suffer from some version of PTSD? Did their wounds bother them? Were they happy? Unfortunately, the data does not provide answers to these questions. Only a resort to different sources can give answers to those questions. And while I have the answers to those questions for a few veterans, I need to find it for more.

Best,

Hugh

Hi Lois,

Determining what someone thought and felt is difficult, especially since letters or speeches do not provide unmediated access to somebody’s mind, so I’m totally with you there. And your question about “trauma” is an important one because I don’t think there’s a universally accepted definition among scholars of the Civil War.

When I was discussing my work with one of my colleagues, she said something to the effect that “oh, those soldiers must have suffered from PTSD.” And when my students encounter this topic, they, too, are quite ready to refer to PTSD. I’m not comfortable applying that term to Civil War soldiers. In a number of forums, I’ve seen scholars discuss this topic (i.e. did Civil War soldier suffer from PTSD?), and I think that as historians, we are (or should be) sensitive to the degree to which people in earlier times did not perceive or process their experiences in the same way we do today. I also believe that we are fully aware of how different labels have been used at various times and the way in which the significance of these labels have changed over time. The foregoing serves as a prelude to saying that I think I’d prefer a vaguer term to a precise one that is located in a particular time and place. The word “trauma” seems to me fairly flexible.

The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines trauma as:

any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion, or other disruptive feelings intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitudes, behavior, and other aspects of functioning. Traumatic events include those caused by human behavior (e.g., rape, war, industrial accidents) as well as by nature (e.g., earthquakes) and often challenge an individual’s view of the world as a just, safe, and predictable place.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2000), published by the American Psychiatric Association defines trauma as:

direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate. The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear, helplessness, or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior).

Neither of these definitions is perfect, and both are the subject of ongoing debate. For example, a number of folks think the latter definition excludes too much when it restricts trauma to “actual or threatened death or serious injury.” And I get that I’m using 21st-century definitions here. But the first definition seems flexible enough to me to accommodate a number of phenomena. Whatever the case, I agree with you; if people experienced trauma differently in the mid-19th century because culture influenced their understanding of it, then it stands to reason that gender and race would also play important roles in shaping the perception of trauma.

Cheers,

Hugh

Hi, Hugh,
Fascinating study. I'm assuming you use a database or spreadsheet for your information? Access, Excel? With more than 3 dozen fields, it sounds difficult to manage- for a dabbler like me.

I have two databases of Civil War people with about 300 Connecticut men (and a few women) each- one for East Windsor and one for South Windsor with about half of the same fields you have (plus info about their burials).

Do you link your info to other databases or files to limit the amount of detail in a main data set?

Any tips for a non-programmer or newbie to creating data bases?

Thanks,

Mike Salvatore
East Windsor Historical Society
South Windsor Historical Society

Hi Mike,

That’s an interesting question that I was not expecting! I keep all the values on one spreadsheet in Excel, but I’m by no means an expert in its use. The very best thing I ever discovered was the capacity to freeze panes which allows me to see my veterans’ names (located in the first column) no matter where I am in the spreadsheet (that makes the sheet much more manageable). I have been able to determine averages and median values through Excel fairly easily I've also used Excel to generate graphs and charts representing the information I've found. That is the extent of what I know how to do thus far.

I have several colleagues in the sociology and economics departments at my college who are far more familiar with statistics than I am, and they inform me that I can easily transfer data collected in Excel to software such as SPSS that can enable me to perform more sophisticated statistical analysis. One of these days, I will either have to learn how to use that program myself or find a student who is conversant in SPSS and hire him or her as a research assistant.

Best wishes,

Hugh

Dear All, 

Although it's been a while for me, I would say the following about Excel vs. a stats program like SPSS or Stata. In my experience, Excel is really good at facilitating analysis based on browsing data (freeze panes definitely helps) and doing one- and two-variable calculations (looking at the average of a single variable or adding two columns together). Something like SPSS is going to be much more useful for a dataset that is too large to browse--like, a dataset with 50,000 data points--and for doing more elaborate calculates across multiple variables (a classic example being running a regression). You can actually do many of those calculations in Excel, it's just tedious (or was back in the day when I did them). I would definitely tap your colleagues for advice on the details, especially because the stats programs can be like sausage mills--everything comes out looking like results, but some are better than others. 

I'll also note, in a digression, that I've often wondered what happened to all the "small data" that historians have compiled over the last few generations. Typically, you get to see the summary statisitics in a book (averages, some tables, maybe a few graphs), while all the hard work that goes into compiling the individual data points seems to disappear into the ether. Think of all that data locked away in filing cabinets on old floppy disks. I know there have been a few attempts to preserve this data-from-the-archives, but on the whole the issue strikes me as a real loss to the profession in general. I also wonder if there is a universally available and widely recognized shortlist of best practices for compiling datasets from the archives. 

Best wishes, 

Dave Prior

Typically, you get to see the summary statisitics in a book (averages, some tables, maybe a few graphs), while all the hard work that goes into compiling the individual data points seems to disappear into the ether.

Best practices and professional ethics dictate that researchers should be able to make the datasets supporting published results available for inspection by others.  Far as I know there is no sunset provision or statute of limitations on this.  In a networked age where historians rely very heavily on native digital materials, it's imperative to keep copies of webbed material, scanned excerpts of articles, books, and manuscripts, screenshots of images and text, and other research sources so that one can produce them when asked.  Simply indicating the date of access isn't sufficient -- the reader or inquiring individual or peer reviewer should be able to see what you saw if at all possible.  Even dynamic pages can be captured to disk for this purpose.  This is especially vital given the short life span of networked information.  The good news is that the cost of the tools to do and store all of this continues to decline.

My experience in grad seminars on this matter has been far from encouraging.  I have encountered students who don't have a filing system for their research, delete drafts of papers, don't keep copies of materials they cite, can't locate files on their computers, still say they "got it from Google," and worst of all, don't maintain backups of their data.  To say nothing of colleagues who don't even teach about these practices -- but that's also an old issue in grad training: only one professor among those who taught research seminars during my grad training ever discussed how he compiled, stored, organized, and used his materials.  Everyone else thought you'd just figure it out.

A few years ago a colleague who was about to publish a book asked me to help with his computer because he had never updated its operating system; the deteriorated condition of the disk threatened the integrity of hundreds of images and field notes that he hadn't backed up.

Peter