Tuesday, January 24, 2017


[Psychological Consequences of the American Civil War by R. Gregory Lande (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2016). Softcover, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:214/253. ISBN:978-1-4766-6737-9. $35]

Combat veterans and societies at large have always struggled to adequately deal with the physical and psychological ravages of armed mass destruction, but scholarly and popular discussion of the topic as applied to the Civil War has generally lagged behind more modern conflicts like the Great War or Vietnam. Independent scholar R. Gregory Lande tests these waters in Psychological Consequences of the American Civil War, which surveys a range of repercussions including depression, suicide, alcohol dependency, and crime while also exploring unconventional coping mechanisms in the form of Spiritualism and a public quest for medical magic bullets.

The many unexpected challenges and rigors of Civil War service frequently resulted in debilitating dysphoria among those in the ranks. In the book, Lande focuses on the qualities of "homesickness" as differentiated from the more severe, enervating version recognized as "nostalgia." Army doctors quickly discovered that furloughs home did wonders for the overall health of soldiers exhibiting nostalgia, with those sufferers typically returning to the army refreshed and fulfilling their enlistment obligations without further incident. Unfortunately, that kind of positive evidence failed to convince military authorities, who feared soldiers would simply desert, and the tragic result of denied treatment was many avoidable deaths and suicides. On the more general issue of suicide, Lande's examination of census data indicates that incidence climbed steadily during the war and well into the postwar years (though he does appropriately recognize the slipperiness of reliable data for issues like suicide that carry heavy social stigma).

Another chapter looks at the temperance movement that gained momentum during and after the Civil War, as well as the intense debates among both the public and the medical community over how much alcohol (over)consumption was to blame for society's ills. The early development of treatment programs is also addressed.

According to Lande, crime rates throughout American society (but chiefly in the North) soared during the 1860s and 1870s, creating the "carnival of crime" theme that's prominently portrayed in the book as one of the worst consequences of the war. The hard data provided is pretty incomplete, and other factors like better record keeping, increased scrutiny, and journalistic manipulation might be involved. Northern prisons experienced an uptick in inmate populations after the war, and many of these prisoners were veterans. The year after demobilization, 2/3 of all penitentiary inmates in New England were ex-soldiers. Most observers blamed the "moral corruption" that army life engendered in callow young soldiers and to a lesser degree the psychologically damaging consequences of combat. On the other hand, given the fact that young males have always committed the vast majority of serious crimes, it should have surprised few that crime would surge during the mass reintegration of hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers into society. Lande also considers some of the prison reform debates of the period, which found officials divided over which methods (punishment vs. rehabilitation) best served the public. Though, as mentioned above, some quantitative data is sprinkled throughout, the author most often uses detailed anecdotal case evidence and media claims to drive home his main point about the alleged "carnival of crime" that was unleashed upon society by a tragic war that disrupted every corner of society and proved devastating to mind, body, and soul. Accurate or not, such a narrative at the very least shines light on social issues of great concern to citizens of postbellum America.

Two of the best sections of the book explain how the Civil War's frightening death toll and the massive numbers of damaged survivors it left behind fueled a growing public interest in Spiritualism and medical quackery. Whenever a society suffers tragedy on a previously unimaginable scale, many individuals either question or discard entirely belief systems that were strongly held beforehand. After the Civil War, some believers lost faith in the ability of organized religion to answer their spiritual needs, and growing numbers turned to mediums, psychics, spirit photographers, and the like for personal solace and communion with the dead. Among many other examples cited in the book are the supposed Spiritualist beliefs of President Lincoln and his wife, with the author himself taking no particular stand on the issue.

After the war, veterans disgusted with the quality of care they received while in the army and society at large both eagerly sought out alternative medical treatments. The book interestingly describes the rise of patent medicine cures in the nineteenth century, and how purveyors effectively used developing mass marketing techniques to sell their wares in great numbers to a receptive audience after the Civil war. Though most patent medicines sold during and after the war were aimed at physical ailments, many others did claim to address psychological problems. As Lande further shows, during this time quacks masquerading as doctors also exploited the budding sciences of electricity and magnetism to lend a "modern" respectability to curative methods of baseless therapeutic value.

In the wake of the Civil War, citizens became increasingly troubled over how the fratricidal conflict might have affected the minds and moral fiber of society, and Psychological Consequences of the American Civil War effectively uses a popular framework to raise awareness of a range of these concerns, as well as some unorthodox means resorted to by those seeking relief. When organizing this introductory study, the author also exhibited a good eye for selecting interesting topics, most of which might merit further standalone treatment.

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