The Emotional Toll of War

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

Last week was a first for me – I was part of the team which developed the National Museum of Civil War Medicine’s first traveling exhibit!  R. Gregory Lande, D.O., Terry Reimer, the Director of Research for the NMCWM, and I worked together to create the exhibit titled, “The Emotional Toll of War.”  It was inspired by the recent news stories of our current soldiers who have struggled with issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and even suicide.  Civil War soldiers suffered from many of the same issues, and so this exhibit shows some of the causes of these “emotional casualties” of war.

This Currier & Ives illustration “The Soldier’s Dream of Home” depicts one of the most common afflictions for soldiers, homesickness.  Many Civil War soldiers were away from home for the first time in their lives, and didn’t know if or when they would get to see their families again.  Accounts of homesickness are documented in many newspaper articles and letters from the time of the Civil War.   Library of Congress photo.

This Harper’s Weekly illustration from January 3, 1863 is titled “Christmas Eve 1862.”

A more severe version of homesickness was referred to by Civil War doctors as nostalgia.  Hospital records show that there were patients admitted for nostalgia.  Nostalgia was also reported to have caused the deaths of some soldiers.  According to Potter’s Monthly Journal (1872), “During the late Civil War thousands of soldiers were afflicted with the….melancholy arising from home-sickness, and large numbers died.”

The stresses of war took their toll on the sanity of some soldiers as well.  The U.S. Government Hospital for the Insane (now called St. Elizabeth’s Hospital) in Washington D.C. saw a rise in admissions during the war.  For the year of 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, the asylum admitted 95 patients.  In 1862, 186 patients were admitted, and by 1865 they had admitted 512 new patients.

Sadly, some soldiers became desperate enough to commit suicide.  During the period from June 1861 to August 1865, 268 suicides were reported by Army surgeons.  The Richmond Daily Dispatch of October 8, 1861 reported, “Men in war become more reckless of their lives, and attempt, through a mistaken notion, to relieve themselves of a burden too heavy to bear.”  It is an issue which we are still dealing with today.

Since the exhibit is designed to be moved to different venues, it consists of a series of informational banners.  However, we felt that adding a small display of associated artifacts would enhance the exhibit.

These medicine bottles are included in the display.  Transporting round glass bottles on a rolling cart can present a few hazards, but placing the bottles inside a box and putting strips of ethafoam between them keeps them from rolling into each other.

The display of artifacts includes the medicine bottles, some informational cards on homesickness, and letters from soldiers which include passages about homesickness, nostalgia, and suicide.  Notice that the windows behind this display are closed to protect the artifacts from the sunlight.

This exhibit will be on display at the NMCWM through spring of 2014, after which the banners will be available for loan.  So, if you can’t make it here to see it, perhaps it will come to a museum near you!


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, except where otherwise noted.


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