Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Post Traumatic Symptoms in the Civil War

I recently came across this in Louisa May Alcott's Civil War Sketches [Dover, 2006, 34-5]. She worked as a volunteer nurse at a hospital in Washington shortly after the battle of Fredricksburg. This is a layperson's description. The role of psychological trauma was not established medically in the production of symptoms such as these until after the Civil War. I'm not sure how a Civil War doctor would have diagnosed this "… New Jersey boy, crazed by the horrors of that dreadful Saturday. A slight wound to the knee brought him there; but his mind had suffered more than his body; some string of that delicate machine was over strained, and, for days, he had been reliving in imagination, the scenes he could not forget, till his distress broke out in incoherent ravings, pitiful to hear. As i sat by him endeavoring to sooth his poor distracted brain by the constant touch of wet hands over his hot forehead, he lay cheering his comrades on, hurrying them back, then counting them as they fell around him, often clutching my arm, to Drag me from the vicinity of a bursting shell, or covering up his head to screen himself from a shower of shot his face brilliant with fever; his eyes restless; his head never still; every muscle strained and rigid; while an incessant stream of defiant shouts, whispered warnings, and broken laments, poured from his lips with that forceful bewilderment which makes such wanderings so hard to overhear." Perhaps a febrile delirium.


  1. Thanks for this fascinating quote. Clearly, both physicians, army officers and laypersons encountered what we would now see as PTSD, if they had no diagnostic category to explain and legitimise it.

    I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the psychosomatic Da Costa's syndrome, which was based on observations of patients during the American Civil War (later known as effort syndrome or soldier's heart).

  2. I ran across your blog and read the scene from Alcott's Sketches with interest. The Civil War brought great strides to the medical field, but psychiatry was still in the dark ages.

    Like so many others, I'm writing a blog about my field of interest--specifically insane Indians. Maybe you have a few leads of your own to share.

    Carla (at)www.cantonasylumforinsaneindians.com/history_blog