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The shame and trauma of war 150 years ago

By Tim Olsen

Although separated by 150 years and remarkable differences in weaponry and geography, American soldiers of today and those of the Civil War still share some common consequences of combat, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Dr. James Marten, chair and professor of history at Marquette University, has authored Sing Not War: The Lives of Union & Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America, a book examining the lives of Civil War vets. In Sing Not War, Marten explores how white Confederate and Union army vets attempted to blend back into society and how their experiences were perceived by non-veterans. Based on letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, newspapers and other sources, Marten asserts that many demobilized soldiers had a much more difficult time returning to their civilian lives and reintegrating into their communities than has been previously understood, countering the romanticized vision of the lives of Civil War veterans.

"There was a great deal of information describing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in the documents I examined, although PTSD was not well known and certainly not talked about at that time," says Marten, the author of more than a dozen books.

During this summer, the sesquicentennial of the first year of the Civil War, Marten spoke with Marquette Magazine about his latest book.

Q. Your book notes that veterans "lost control of their legacies." What do you mean by that?  

A. Although veterans had several ways in which they wanted to "remember" the war, their role tended to be subsumed by larger, national "memories" of why the war was fought and what it had actually accomplished. Complicating things for Union veterans, for instance, was the very nasty debate over veterans' pensions in the 1880s and 1890s, which led some Americans to have very negative attitudes about veterans.

Q. What surprised or touched you most during the research process?

A. I was extremely moved by the diaries/letters left by a handful of men who lived in soldiers' homes; they were so clearly conflicted about having to be dependent on others for their daily well-being. Some struggled to explain to their families who felt a certain amount of shame at their fathers or brothers having to be supported by the government why they had decided to enter soldiers' homes.

Q. What inspired you to write this book?  

A. I live about a five-minute drive from one of the original soldiers' homes built by the federal government for Civil War volunteers the big, Gothic-looking building that looms over Miller Park (in Milwaukee) and is surrounded by perhaps 20 buildings built between 1867 and the 1890s, just up the hill from the current Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center (the direct descendant of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers). In the 1990s I wrote a few papers based on sparse records that the librarian at the VA had found. A few years ago I decided to expand that research to larger issues related to veterans in the North and South, since relatively few books have been written about them as veterans.

Q. The book title and book chapters are taken from the Walt Whitman poem The Return of the Heroes. Why did you make that connection?  

A. Whitman is fairly famous for some of his war poetry; he was a nurse in Civil War hospitals and wrote a lot about the soldiers. I wasn't really familiar with this particular poem, which isn't one of his best-known works, but I came across it during my search for veterans in post-war stories, novels and poems. It was written immediately after the war, but it has meaning for the full range of veterans' experiences in the decades after the shooting stopped.

Q. You've spent your career studying the Civil War. What is it about it that fuels your interest?

A. I'm not sure what first attracted me to the Civil War. It actually goes back to a boyhood spent watching Disney movies about the Civil War, reading the Bruce Catton books, and being a Civil War "buff" by the age of 8 or 9. I had a "Civil War corner" in my room that included original drawings of battle scenes.


Copies of the book are available from The University of North Carolina Press.

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