Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War

Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War

Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War

Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War


The American Civil War is one of the most documented, romanticized, and perennially reenacted events in American history. In Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War, Lisa A. Long charts how its extreme carnage dictated the Civil War's development into a lasting trope that expresses not only altered social, economic, and national relationships but also an emergent self-consciousness. Looking to a wide range of literary, medical, and historical texts, she explores how they insist on the intimate relationship between the war and a variety of invisible wounds, illnesses, and infirmities that beset Americans throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and plague us still today.

Long shows how efforts to narrate credibly the many and sometimes illusory sensations elicited by the Civil War led writers to the modern discourses of health and history, which are premised on the existence of a corporeal and often critical reality that practitioners cannot know fully yet believe in nevertheless. Professional thinkers and doers both literally and figuratively sought to rehabilitate--to reclothe, normalize, and stabilize--Civil War bodies and the stories that accounted for them.

Taking a fresh look at the work of canonical war writers such as Louisa May Alcott and Stephen Crane while examining anew public records, journalism, and medical writing, Long brings the study of the Civil War into conversation with recent critical work on bodily ontology and epistemology and theories of narrative and history.


But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart

Walt Whitman, “The Wound-Dresser

On July 21, 1861, hundreds of Washington, D.C., residents packed picnic lunches and headed to a country hillside to watch the first large-scale battle of the Civil War. Able to see little but smoke, spectators soon panicked as the performance on the field threatened those in the audience; shells began to explode around them, and in the hazy stampede of equally frightened, inexperienced Union forces retreating to Washington, soldiers became indistinguishable from civilians. As one agitated Harper’s Weekly observer later explained to shaken Northern readers:

It is impossible yet to tell the story of the day. The newspapers have teemed with
differing accounts. Apparently there was victory at hand, if not in possession,
when a sudden order to retreat dismayed the triumphant line. The soldiers, who
from exhaustion or whatever cause had been sent to the rear, and the teamsters
and civilians who hovered along the base of our active line, were struck with
terror by a sudden dash of cavalry from the flank. They fled, panic-stricken, in a
promiscuous crowd: while the soldiers who were really engaged fell back quietly
and in good order. It was the crowd of disengaged soldiers, teamsters, and civil
ians in the rear who rushed, a panting rabble, to Washington, and who told the
disheartening story that flashed over the country at noon on Monday.

This relatively brief but telling account of the first battle of the Civil War reveals much about the war, though it conveys little information about the details of the military engagement—conventionally thought to be the stuff of Civil War narrative. Rather, the anonymous author introduces the concern that I argue compels subsequent rewritings of the . . .

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