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The Civil War – PTSD And The Child Soldier 

“Their immature nervous systems and diminished capacity to regulate emotion give even greater reason to shudder at the thought of children and adolescents serving in combat.”

Researchers have identified an increased risk of post-war illness among Civil War veterans, including cardiac, gastrointestinal, and mental diseases throughout their lives. In a project partly funded by the National Institutes of Aging, military service files from a total of 15,027 servicemen from 303 companies of the Union Army stored at the United States National Archives were matched to pension files and surgeon’s reports of multiple health examinations.

The Youngest Soldiers were Hardest Hit. The study at the University of Irvine found that the youngest soldiers (ages 9-17 at enlistment) were 93% more likely than the oldest (ages 31 or older) to experience both mental and physical disease. The younger soldiers were also more likely to show signs of cardiovascular disease alone and in conjunction with gastrointestinal conditions, and were more likely to die early. Former POWs had an increased risk of combined mental and physical problems as well as early death.

One problem the researchers grappled with was comparing diseases as they were recorded during the latter half of the 19th century to today’s recognized diseases. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not recognized by doctors–although they did recognize that veterans exhibited an extreme level of ‘nervous disease’ that they labeled ‘irritable heart’ syndrome.

Sources: Harvard psychologist Roger Pitman And Archives of General Psychiatry 63:193-200. 

Roxane Cohen Silver and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine published their results in the February 2006 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.


The Psychological Effects of Trauma & The Civil War Soldier

“They were put on trains with no supervision, the name of their home town or state pinned to their tunics, others were left to wander about the countryside until they died from exposure or starvation”

Accounts throughout history tell of nightmares and other emotional problems associated with the horrors of war. It seems that we repeatedly discover the effects of trauma on humans every time we go to war. Terms like “combat fatigue” and “shell shock” were used in the past to describe some of the effects of combat.

Many consider the Civil War the first step on the road to modern warfare. Civil War soldiers made the first frontal assaults into repeating rifles and pistols, as well as the Gatling gun and delayed-time artillery rounds that allowed air bursts. Civil War technology also included telescopic sights and rifles with spiral barrels that greatly increased their accuracy and destructiveness in battle.

The immediate result was that psychological symptoms became so common, field commanders as well as medical doctors pleaded with the War Department to provide some type of screening to eliminate recruits susceptible to psychiatric breakdown. Military physicians, at a loss to treat the problems, simply mustered the extreme cases out during the first three years of the war. “They were put on trains with no supervision, the name of their home town or state pinned to their tunics, others were left to wander about the countryside until they died from exposure or starvation,” reports Richard A. Gabriel, a consultant to the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and one of the foremost chroniclers of PTSD.

Gabriel’s research tells us that in 1863 the number of insane soldiers simply wandering around was so great, there was a public outcry. Because of this, and at the urging of surgeons, the first military hospital for the insane was established in 1863. The most common diagnosis was nostalgia. The government made no effort to deal with the psychiatrically wounded after the war and the hospital was closed. There was, however, a system of soldiers’ homes set up around the country. Togus, Maine, was designated as the eastern branch of this system, and in 1875, its director noted that, strangely enough, the need for the hospital’s services seemed to increase rather than decrease.


Private Charles L. Sewell