Author Interview--Dillon J. Carroll (Invisible Wounds) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Dillon J. Carroll to talk about his new book, Invisible Wounds: Mental Illness and Civil War Soldiers, published by the Louisiana State University Press in December 2021.

Dillon J. Carroll is a history instructor at Butte College in Oroville, California. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. He has published in Civil War History and The New York Times.

To start, Dillion, how did you become interested in writing a book about mental illness during the Civil War?

DJC: Among Civil War historians, I came to the Civil War late, I took a Civil War course late in college at Cal State University, Chico and quickly fell in love. I wanted to keep studying, and I applied and was accepted to Chico State's Master’s Program, where I worked with the wonderful Dr. Robert Tinkler. I had just finished reading Eric T. Dean, Jr.’s book Shook Over Hell, which I really enjoyed, and I was reading the published letters of James Williams, an Alabama soldier. After the Battle of Shiloh, Williams wrote his wife that he was, and I’m paraphrasing, dreaming of the battle, and those nightmares scared him more than the fight did. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read that, and thought: Williams perhaps had PTSD, or something like it. I was interested in the psychological toll of the war on its soldiers after that. I loved Shook Over Hell, by Dean, Jr., but thought there was a lot of gaps to fill, such as the coping mechanisms of Civil War soldiers, the experience of Black soldiers, the experience of the families of Civil War veterans, and how the medical establishment conceived of mental illness and the war itself. James Williams was a chapter of my Master’s Thesis. I applied to, and was accepted, to the PhD program at the University of Georgia where I worked with Dr. Stephen Berry. I was initially thinking I would write a dissertation on physically and psychologically wounded Civil War soldiers, but with some prodding from Dr. Berry, I eventually focused solely on psychologically injured soldiers and veterans.

Once I finished my dissertation, I spent several years doing additional research, integrating that new research, and then basically re-writing the dissertation into the book that is Invisible Wounds.

This topic interested me because it really challenges the heroic narrative of Civil War soldiers bearing the cost of the war bravely and effortlessly. Moreover, it was interesting to me to think about the psychological impact of the war on soldiers during an era before Freud or modern medicine. And meditating on this issue brings interesting questions to the fore, such as is trauma emotional and reflect society and culture, or is it more universal and unaffected by space and time? I believe the answer is probably the former, that trauma is emotional and reflects society and culture of the time, but we might not ever know for sure.

What do you argue in Invisible Wounds?

DJC: The argument in Invisible Wounds is complex and wide ranging. I argue that some Civil War soldiers were indeed traumatized by the war, in some cases what we might call PTSD, in other cases something like it. However, I suggest that the traumatized soldier was perhaps not as common as prior historians have believed. That is because Civil War soldiers were agents in their own recovery, and employed a variety of coping mechanisms to deal with war trauma, coping mechanisms such as humor, camaraderie, religion and straggling. Moreover, Black soldiers found the war to be a balm for the trauma of slavery, and did not seem to psychiatrically suffer in nearly the same manner as white soldiers. Asylum doctors were slow to recognize the trauma of war, as living in a pre-Freud era, they had no concept of a “traumatic memory.” Instead, they relied on medical beliefs of the time, which stressed mental illness was due to physical causes or moral causes such as alcoholism or masturbation. The families of mentally ill Civil War veterans, however, made more explicit shifts, often connecting the war directly to the mental illness suffered by their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. Ultimately, it was wounded Civil War soldiers who informed the rise of a new discipline, neurology, that suggested economic and social changes might lead to somatic manifestations of mental illness, and thus challenge the orthodoxy of asylum doctors.

You mention how you came to the topic and the market, if you will, for Civil War mental health books has gotten quite crowded in the past few years. I remember an SHA meeting where the question of PTSD or not got quite heated. How do you see your work as distinct from the other ones existing and newly published?

DJC: I was at that SHA meeting that got pretty heated! That was something. I’ve told students about meetings like that, and they always find it quite humorous that historians can get into heated arguments about history. That meeting, and some of the publications that came out it were very helpful to me. There are a few ways I think Invisible Wounds is new and unique on this issue. First off, I think it is important to state, and I mention this in the book, that we will never be able to know for sure if Civil War soldiers were indeed traumatized or had PTSD, because we cannot send a psychiatrist back in time to assess and diagnose them. It is important, I think, to be honest about that. That being said, we can give an educated guess, knowing what we know now, and with the sources available to us. This is not a knock on any previous work, but in Invisible Wounds, I try to be more precise when suggesting that a particularly Civil War soldier or veteran might have had PTSD. The signature symptom of PTSD is intrusive and unwanted nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations of the traumatic event. So I only suggest cases could have been PTSD where soldiers or veterans describe those symptoms, or family members and/or doctors describe those symptoms. That is the only way we can differentiate between a possible case of PTSD and anxiety, depression or something else.

Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier suggested that historians were overstating the amount of trauma in the Civil War. Millions of soldiers served in the war, but the amount of soldiers and veterans who became patients in an asylum is in the thousands. For instance, just under 3,000 became patients at St. Elizabeths Hospital. I thought they made a persuasive case for that. But my argument is that trauma has been overstated because historians have not paid attention to the coping mechanisms of Civil War soldiers. Soldiers, I argue, and veterans, were agents of their own recovery. Often saving themselves from a depressive spiral into mental illness.

Furthermore, in Invisible Wounds, I try to place mentally ill veterans in their communities. When we do that, we find that communities often cared for mentally ill veterans until they no longer could, often due to antisocial or violent behavior. This suggests that perhaps many more veterans remain invisible to us because they were cared for at home or in their communities. This, of course, is only suggestive, there is no way to know for sure.

You are using many of the soldier's letters and diary that previous historians have looked at, how do you read these sources differently to assess their mental state and psychological trauma?

DJC: At some point I read a current manual the Army published on Combat Trauma, where they advised that combat trauma was an unavoidable consequence war and officers needed to be sensitive to the symptoms of it in their subordinates and ready to intervene before a case became too severe. The manual stressed that combat trauma was often a result of the holistic experience of soldiering, which could include: physical stress, lack of sleep, hygiene, illness  food and of course, exposure to death and suffering. This made me read Civil War soldiers letters and diaries with this in mind, thinking about the holistic experience of soldiering in the Civil War, not just exposure to combat. I tried to pay attention to soldiers’ mentions of dreams and nightmares, as again, those are the signature symptoms of something like PTSD. But I was also careful not to think of soldiers as victims, and to try to pay attention to the ways in which they practiced self-care and coped with their trials and suffering. Early on, I was attuned to the way I believed religion served as a coping mechanism for Civil War soldiers. Some soldiers, like James Williams, came to believe that God had directed all events on the battlefield, which served to explain the unexplainable and give order to what was previously a chaotic situation. But I tried to stay aware of other potential coping strategies that soldiers might have employed.