Recently, the topic of nostalgia has again appeared in the literature of the Civil War. In my unit’s hospital records, we list a case of nostalgia so we can discuss the topic with the public.
Nostalgia, or homesickness, was originally a disease diagnosed in 1688 with a Swiss Guard at the Vatican. Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student coined the term at the University of Basel.
The Swiss mercenaries were frequently diagnosed after being reminded of the sights, sounds and tastes of home. The autumn was an especially dangerous season for nostalgia.
The falling leaves reminded the soldiers of their impermanence. Many of them began to wonder why they are spending their time in foreign lands instead of being at home with others.
The “cure” was to be sent home to the Alps. By the 1700’s the “disease” was being diagnosed across Europe.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, many soldiers were “homesick.” While many were fighting to protect their homes and towns, these soldiers missed their wives, sweethearts, mothers, and children. The Civil War occurred in a time when modern psychiatric terms and understanding of the mind did not yet exist. The combat field of the Civil War was close up and personal.
There were large scale battles with thousands maimed, injured, or killed by bullets, not shells.
Fighting on foot in tight formations, the soldier saw those whom he killed or wounded. Many times units were cut down in masse. Those who did survive were covered with the blood of their pards or friends that they had enlisted with at home.
In some cases, entire units disappeared in battle and there were no longer any young men left in that town. Men were haunted by the possibility of an agonizing, slow death on the battlefield or in the hospital from shot, shell, or disease.
One Civil War veteran described nostalgia as an extreme homesickness.
He said that it,”fastens upon the breast of its prey, and sucks, vampire-like, the breath of his nostrils.” Sometimes it was called “Soldier’s Heart,” other times it was known as “incurable blues.” Many times, it was influenced by the fact that letters from home were received sporadically.
It was typical that soldiers wrote in their letters home, “You must write to me every so often. If I were to get a letter from you today, I would look for another tomorrow as anxiously as if I had not received one for a month.” Letters on the Union side included over 180,000 shipped daily through the military post office system.
The Philadelphia Inquirer paper told women that by receiving mail, soldiers would fend off disease.
One Confederate soldier wrote, “Jane this is the fift letter I have rote to you and got no ancer yet Jane I don’t know what to think. Jane you sed you would write to me every week…if you node how bad I want to hear from you, you wood write to me (spelling from the original letter).
Private Robert Christie wrote home saying that, “he was getting homesick, everything is so strange. We have to cook our own meals – that is, all we get. It seems to me they are trying how small a quantity of food they can give us without starving us.” Many men wrote home stating that they “wished that I could be home tomorrow to eat Christmas dinner, but you must eat a double portion so as to have enough for me and you both.”
Some of the more complicated cases were those of married men. Wives during this period were confidants, lovers, caretakers, and more.
Married men that left home for the first time were the second largest group to suffer from nostalgia. The fact was that the wife had to care for the farm, the children, and many times find work as the average soldier was irregularly paid by the government.
Hundreds of soldiers wrote their wives a derivation of these words, “I am always thinking of you and the children. I hope I will return to see you again. I want you to raise them right if I should not return from the War.”
Union and Confederate surgeons recognized the disease as a legitimate mental disease. While the records are spotty on the Confederate side, Union records in the massive Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion in 1888, indicated that over the course of the war, there were 5,213 cases reported to the Surgeon General’s Office with 58 deaths.
Nostalgia reported in USCT’s was 334 cases with 16 confirmed deaths. The only Confederate report that exists is in the Confederate State Medical and Surgical Journal. It noted that there were a number of Confederate soldiers recovering in Virginia Hospitals who were “oppressed with nostalgia.” Dr. Francis Porcher of South Carolina noted, “The promise of a furlough…would literally rescue a sick or wounded soldier from the jaws of death.”
Symptoms of this disorder were varied. Melancholy, loss of appetite, fever, suicidal thoughts, cardiac arrests, and brain inflammation. The nature of nostalgia was debated by medical personnel in the 1700-1800’s. One Russian General in 1833 buried alive sufferers of nostalgia. He did this as a warning to other men in his units.
Both in Swiss Guards and Civil War Soldiers, certain types of songs were forbidden because they were thought to cause nostalgia. The Swiss Guards were forbidden to sing “Kuhreihen”, an old Swiss milking song, since it lead to desertion, illness, or death. During the Civil War, the following songs were though to promote nostalgia and were forbidden by many officers. Some of the lyrics demonstrate why.
Carve on the wooden slab over his head, “Somebody’s darling is slumbering here.”
Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground
We’ve been fighting tonight on the old campground, Many are lying near; Some are dead and some are dying, Many are in tears.
Weeping Sad & Lonely
Weeping sad and lonely, Hopes and fears how vain (Yet praying,) When this cruel war is over, Praying that we’ll meet again.
Who Will Care For Mother
Soon with angels I will be marching, With bright laurels on my brow, I have for my country fallen, Who will care for mother now? When the men returned from the war, there was still the mental vision of what they had seen. Physical wounds were not the killers that mental “wounds” had upon these men. Many returned with “broken bodies and minds.” Some became invalids, emotionally numb, or abusive to their families. One headstone of Wallace Woodford read, “8 months a sufferer in a Rebel Prison, He came home to die.” Others carried on for years suffering in silence or committed to state run insane asylums.
Until next month,
Surgeon T.T. Steinbach
17th Corps Field Hospital
The danger was quite real. Since the Civil War had begun, Washington had been threatened three times by large armies under Robert E. Lee’s command. After the Union defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, a rebel force under Lee’s lieutenant Stonewall Jackson had come within twenty miles of the capital while driving the entire sixty-thousand-man Union army back inside its fortifications, where the bluecoats cowered and licked their wounds and thanked heaven for all those earthworks and cannons.
A year and a half later, the same fundamental truth informed those lively parties. Without that cordon militaire, they could not have existed. Washington’s elaborate social scene was a brocaded illusion: what the capital’s denizens desperately wanted the place to be, not what it actually was.
This garishly defended capital was still a smallish, grubby, corrupt, malodorous, and oddly pretentious municipality whose principal product, along with legislation and war making, was biblical sin in its many varieties. Much of the city had been destroyed in the War of 1812. What had replaced the old settlement was both humble and grandiose. Vast quantities of money had been spent to build the city’s precious handful of public buildings: the Capitol itself (finished in December 1863), the Post Office Building, the Smithsonian Institution, the US Patent Office, the US Treasury, and the Executive Mansion. (The Washington Monument, whose construction had been suspended in 1854 for lack of funds, was an abandoned and forlorn-looking stump.)
But those structures stood as though on a barren plain. The Corinthian columns of the Post Office Building may have been worthy of the high Renaissance, but little else in the neighborhood was. The effect was jarring, as though pieces of the Champs-Élysées had been dropped into a swamp. Everything about the place, from its bloody and never-ending war to the faux grandiosity of its windswept plazas, suggested incompleteness. Like the Washington Monument, it all seemed half-finished. The wartime city held only about eighty thousand permanent residents, a pathetic fraction of the populations of New York (800,000) and Philadelphia (500,000), let alone London (2.6 million) or Paris (1.7 million). Foreign travelers, if they came to the national capital at all, found it hollow, showy, and vainglorious. British writer Anthony Trollope, who visited the city during the war and thought it a colossal disappointment, wrote:
Washington is but a ragged, unfinished collection of unbuilt broad streets.… Of all the places I know it is the most ungainly and most unsatisfactory; I fear I must also say the most presumptuous in its pretensions. Taking [a] map with him… a man may lose himself in the streets, not as one loses oneself in London between Shoreditch and Russell Square, but as one does so in the deserts of the Holy Land… There is much unsettled land within the United States of America, but I think none so desolate as three-fourths of the ground on which is supposed to stand the city of Washington.
He might have added that the place smelled, too. Its canals were still repositories of sewage; tidal flats along the Potomac reeked at low tide. Pigs and cows still roamed the frozen streets. Dead horses, rotting in the winter sun, were common sights. At the War Department, one reporter noted, “The gutter [was] heaped up full of black, rotten mud, a foot deep, and worth fifty cents a car load for manure.” The unfinished mall where the unfinished Washington Monument stood held a grazing area and slaughterhouse for the cattle used to feed the capital’s defenders. The city was both a haven and a dumping ground for the sort of human chaff that collected at the ragged edges of the war zone: deserters from both armies, sutlers (civilians who sold provisions to soldiers), spies, confidence men, hustlers, and the like.
Washington had also become the nation’s single largest refuge for escaped slaves, who now streamed through the capital’s rutted streets by the thousands. When Congress freed the city’s thirty-three hundred slaves in 1862, it had triggered an enormous inflow of refugees, mostly from Virginia and Maryland. By 1864 fifty thousand of them had moved within Washington’s ring of forts. Many were housed in “contraband camps,” and many suffered in disease-ridden squalor in a world that often seemed scarcely less prejudiced than the one they had left. But they were never going back. They were never going to be slaves again. This was the migration’s central truth, and you could see it on any street corner in the city. Many would make their way into the Union army, which at the end of 1863 had already enlisted fifty thousand from around the country, most of them former slaves.
But the most common sights of all on those streets were soldiers. A war was being fought, one that had a sharp and unappeasable appetite for young men. Several hundred thousand of them had tramped through the city since April 1861, wearing their blue uniforms, slouch hats, and knapsacks. They had lingered on its street corners, camped on its outskirts. Tens of thousands more languished in wartime hospitals. Mostly they were just passing through, on their way to a battlefield or someone’s grand campaign or, if they were lucky, home. Many were on their way to death or dismemberment. In their wake came the seemingly endless supply trains with their shouting teamsters, rumbling wagon wheels, snorting horses, and creaking tack.
Because of these soldiers—unattached young men, isolated, and far from home—a booming industry had arisen that was more than a match for its European counterparts: prostitution. This was no minor side effect of war. Ten percent or more of the adult population were inhabitants of Washington’s demimonde. In 1863, the Washington Evening Star had determined that the capital had more than five thousand prostitutes, with an additional twenty-five hundred in neighboring Georgetown, and twenty-five hundred more across the river in Alexandria, Virginia. That did not count the concubines or courtesans who were simply kept in apartments by the officer corps. The year before, an army survey had revealed 450 houses of ill repute. All served drinks and sex. In a district called Murder Bay, passersby could see nearly naked women in the windows and doors of the houses. For the less affluent—laborers, teamsters, and army riffraff—Nigger Hill and Tin Cup Alley had sleazier establishments, where men were routinely robbed, stabbed, shot, and poisoned with moonshine whiskey. The Star could not help wondering how astonished the sisters and mothers of these soldiers would be to see how their noble young men spent their time at the capital. Many of these establishments were in the heart of the city, a few blocks from the president’s house and the fashionable streets where the capital’s smart set whirled in gaslit dances.
This was Washington, DC, in that manic, unsettled winter of 1863–64, in the grip of a lengthening war whose end no one could clearly see.
Excerpted from HYMNS OF THE REPUBLIC: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War, by S.C. Gwynne. Copyright © 2019 by Samuel C. Gwynne. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
About the Author:
S.C. Gwynne is the author of Hymns of the Republic: The Story of the Final Year of the American Civil War and the New York Times bestsellers Rebel Yell and Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He spent most of his career as a journalist, including stints with Time as bureau chief, national correspondent, and senior editor, and with Texas Monthly as executive editor. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife. For more information, please visit https://scgwynne.com