During Civil War they called PTSD 'soldier's heart'

By JASON BRUDERECK | Reading Eagle, Pa. | Published: November 12, 2012

READING, Pa. — Two soldiers were sitting next to each other during a break in battle during the Civil War.

As one soldier sipped from his canteen, a shell suddenly slammed into the other man, obliterating him.

Blood and tissue dripped from the surviving man, his canteen and his lips.

"He was never the same," said Dr. Michael Gabriel, professor of American history at Kutztown University.

The soldier was haunted by the memory the rest of his life, and it affected everything he tried to do.

The survivor had a case of what at the time was called "soldier's heart," which society recognizes today as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The condition has been acknowledged for centuries, but it struggled to come to prominence until the Civil War and conflicts since.

"Particularly in the Civil War, there were many cases of soldiers noticing behavioral patterns after certain experiences or a culmination of experiences," Gabriel said. "In some cases, those men were relieved of duty. In some cases, the behavior was not manifested until they got home.

"We can find documented cases of alcoholism, they can't hold jobs, they seem distracted, they get angry, they couldn't sleep, they have nightmares. There was some recognition that it might have been related to combat."

In some historical documents, there are references to drifters in the West after the Civil War, Gabriel said.

"Some theorize that these men are vets who have this (condition) and are on the fringes of society," he added.

As there are today, there were some people who dismissed the condition as being caused by a lack of mental toughness or fitness among those soldiers affected, Gabriel said.

"But there was at least this term, 'soldier's heart,' which was the idea that these people weren't the same as they used to be," Gabriel said.

A student of Gabriel who was a double major in psychology and history wrote a paper on the subject several years ago.

The paper outlined cases of soldiers being put in insane asylums.

"There was also this belief that, if they prayed and focused on positive things, that they could be rehabilitated, but that was very hit and miss," Gabriel said.

Some men who were dismissed from duty were awarded pensions because it was believed they had a problem during or related to the war, Gabriel said.

"Gains were made in physiology and psychology, and it was recognized that an exposure to elements, artillery and other conditions can wear units down," Gabriel said. "In the Civil War, it was not just being exposed to combat but also extended periods of marching, sleeping outdoors, being cold and hungry. In that era, soldiers marched much farther than in the more modern era when planes and trains came into use. There was some Indiana units that marched, during the course of the war, 2,000 or 3,000 miles."


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