SHA 2018 Report: "War Trauma and the American Civil War: A Roundtable Discussion"

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Elusive Consensus? War Trauma and the American Civil War, at the Southern 2018

Amidst ongoing debate among historians about the nature and extent of war trauma in the Civil War era, this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association featured the session “War Trauma and the American Civil War: A Roundtable Discussion.” The timely roundtable was chaired by Diane Miller Sommerville (Binghamton University), organized by Dillon Carroll (writer, independent scholar), and featured as panelists Carroll, Matthew Christopher Hulbert (Texas A&M University–Kingsville), Angela M. Riotto (Army University Press), and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh (United States Naval Academy).* The standing-room-only session was well attended and lively. The panelists responded to the audience’s questions about war trauma, and suggested new directions the field might take to move past the divide between historians who embrace the “dark turn”—with its emphasis on the “dark” side of the Civil War, including the forms of war trauma experienced by survivors of the Civil War such as PTSD, suicide, and addiction—and those historians who reject this approach.**

In good form for a roundtable, each panelist spoke briefly for about ten minutes at the beginning of the panel. They explained the basic elements of the debate between the pro and anti-dark turn camps, and, importantly, suggested new analytical lenses and areas of investigation that might move this debate forward. The majority of the session consisted of Q&A between the panelists and audience members, and after a lively conversation, the panelists concluded with brief closing remarks.

Carroll suggested that in order to move past the impasse between pro and anti-dark turn camps, historians could employ an expanded framework of “haunted” veterans. As an alternative to “traumatized” veterans, Carroll suggested, this “haunted” framework would allow historians to assess negative emotional ramifications of the Civil War for survivors that do not necessarily meet the modern medical definition of trauma. As evidence, he provided examples of soldiers and veterans were “haunted” by dreams—or rather, nightmares—of their wartime experiences. Carroll also suggested that historians should now, at this point in the scholarly conversation about war trauma, focus on how veterans coped with war trauma, rather than merely investing its extent. Hulbert suggested that there were multiple experiences of war trauma for veterans. He suggested several analytical lenses that might allow historians to flesh out these experiences, including, among others, space (irregulars fought at home, so how did the inability to have a homecoming affect them?) and timing (when does wartime hypervigilance, acceptable behavior for soldiers, qualify as post-wartime trauma, unacceptable for veterans?). Riotto suggested that rather than assessing manifestations of trauma among survivors of the Civil War, such as PTSD, historians should begin to investigate the ways in which veterans employed trauma as a tool in their postwar lives. For example, immediately following the Civil War, former prisoners of war cast their ordeal as one of victimhood, but as the decades progressed, they shifted to casting their time as POWS as a badge of honor; a useful narrative for obtaining entitlements. Here Riotto sees parallels with Brian Matthew Jordan’s argument that Union veterans employed such narratives for obtaining special pensions. In contrast to the other panelists, Hsieh rejected the premise that Civil War veterans suffered from war trauma. He argued that historians’ analysis of Civil War-era war trauma has thus far employed a 20th-century view that trauma results from the unnatural act of killing, a view popularized by Dave Grossman in On Killing. Rather than experiencing psychological damage from the act of killing, Hsieh asserted that some Civil War soldiers overly enjoyed killing, precluding them from potential psychological trauma. When pressed on the issue by Leslie Gordon (University of Alabama), however, Hsieh could not provide evidence supporting this assertion.

The most salient audience question concerned the use of retrospective medical diagnosis to investigate war trauma in the Civil War era. As the audience member and Hsieh noted, nineteenth-century Americans did not possess modern medical terminology in which to express war trauma, leading to the potential danger of presentism when investigating the extent of war trauma among Civil War survivors. As Sommerville, Carroll, and Riotto, noted, however, Civil War-era Americans used nineteenth-century terminology to express war trauma in their own words. Historians can employ these terms to investigate the extent of war trauma in the Civil War era, precluding the need for retrospective diagnosis. Furthermore, as Sommerville and Carroll noted, historians do not have to reject modern medical science as an investigative tool. Rather, if used carefully, they asserted, modern medical knowledge can be a beneficial tool for investigating war trauma in the Civil War era.

Unfortunately, the roundtable failed to bring resolution to the impasse between those historians who embrace the dark turn, and those who reject its methodological approaches and conclusions. While there was much value in bringing this debate off of social media and back into the realm of academic conferences, as Hulbert noted during the panel, the roundtable mainly served to air points of disagreement between the opposing camps, rather than providing some common ground on which the two sides could meet and move the conversation forward. There were several compelling potential lines of inquiry floated during the session that might accomplish this goal, especially Carroll’s “haunted” veterans and Riotto’s “experiences” of trauma frameworks. However, as the conversation among the panelists themselves and between the panelists and audience members indicated, the field still lacks consensus about the basic premise of the debate: the very existence of war trauma among survivors of the Civil War. Furthermore, historians lack a common definition of war trauma, which is necessary if an elusive consensus is to be reached. The panelists each operated under different, although not mutually exclusive, definitions of “war trauma.” Hulbert’s definition of war trauma includes neurological disorders, while Carroll and Riotto employed a definition that foregrounded psychological and emotional factors. Although he vacillated somewhat on the premise, Hsieh largely rejected altogether the notion that Civil War veterans suffered from war trauma under either of these definitions. It will be difficult for the scholarly discourse about war trauma in the Civil War era to move forward without a common definition of “war trauma." 



*Disclaimer: As they noted during the session, the views expressed by Riotto and Hsieh are their own and do not represent the views of their employers.

**To quickly get up to speed on this debate, see: Brian Matthew Jordan, “The Future of Civil War History,” Emerging Civil War, June 23, 2016, For an example of “dark turn” scholarship, see Diane Miller Sommerville, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), especially 14-15 and 271n13. For an opposing perspective on the “dark turn,” see Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh, “‘Go to Your Gawd Like a Soldier’: Transnational Reflections on Veteranhood,The Journal of the Civil War Era 5, no. 4 (December 2015): 551-577

Correction: The original post incorrectly spells the name of Lesley J. Gordon. Because of H-Net's terms of use, the original post cannot be amended. However, please note the correction.