Exempt from the Ordinary Rules of Life: Researching Postwar Adjustment Problems of Union Veterans

Article excerpt

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared that "the generation that carried on" the Civil War--his generation--had been "set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing." Holmes expressed his insight twenty years after the war ended, when he was already a successful lawyer and member of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He could look forward to many more decades of a productive and cherished life, with all the fame and wealth that came with it.(1) But not all of Holmes's fellow veterans shared this satisfying post-war existence; indeed, many suffered from physical and mental disabilities that can be traced back to their own traumatic wartime experiences.

A number of the veterans whose physical, psychological, or emotional handicaps raised obstacles to adapting again to the civilian world, found havens in the asylums established for them by the federal government. The fragmentary hospital and disciplinary records of the Milwaukee branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers (NHDVS) provide glimpses into the dysfunction displayed by the men living as wards of the government. They also reveal a more balanced alternative to the cheerful accounts by contemporaries and by most historians of Civil War soldiers' postwar lives. Within the pages of these incomplete volumes are striking stories of depression, decline, and disaffection that suggest how deeply the war affected some of the men who had fought it. These records, and undoubtedly similar ones from other homes, raise a host of possibilities for future research into a postwar world that required a far more complicated adjustment for veterans than most histories currently tell.

Because of the lack of attention to this subject beyond a few good works mentioned below, historical fiction may provide some clues into the kind of impact the Civil War could exert on soldiers. As imagined by Stewart O'Nan, in his recent novel, A Prayer for the Dying, Jacob Hansen is the sheriff, minister, and undertaker of Friendship, Wisconsin. Although he is a well-respected and competent public servant with a loving wife and daughter, remembered hardships and tragedies lurk just beneath his calm exterior. He is frequently reminded of eating horseflesh and taking desperate shelter in the warm, bloody carcass of a horse during "the siege" he endured during one hard Confederate winter, of the ruined farms he marched past, and of the accusing women and children staring hatefully at him. These experiences affect him in myriad ways--he never rides a horse, for instance, rather improbably making his rounds on bicycle. But his war experiences also give this veteran strength to face the horror of a diphtheria epidemic, during which he enforces a draconian quarantine ("no one in, no one out"); boards up a dying and hysterical woman in her own house; and tenderly prepares the dead for burial until they become too many. To make matters unimaginably worse, an approaching forest fire threatens those few survivors under his protection, forcing him to choose between the worst of two great evils. Yet his wartime experiences also make him unable to process the grief and horror that cascade down on him. As he heroically tries to deal with an impossible situation in town, he carries on normally at home, cooking meals, visiting with and reading to his daughter and wife--even though both have died in the epidemic and are now merely embalmed ghosts. Ironically, by the end of book, he is the community's lone survivor; even the boxcar load of townspeople he helps to escape by killing the sheriff of the neighboring town at the quarantine line are trapped by the racing fire. The book ends with the veteran staggering back toward his decimated and empty town, still struggling with his past.(2)

Although he is only a literary representation of one veteran's life, it is not difficult to fit Hansen into the recent, suggestive work of Eric T. …