Suicide in the Civil War South

2012-04-03

BINGHAMTON, NY – A Binghamton University historian is contributing to new ideas about the Civil War and its consequences. Diane Miller Sommerville’s latest project, “Aberration of Mind: Suicide, the South and Civil War,” shines new light on an under-examined topic.

“I wondered how 19th-century southerners dealt with these problems that are so difficult for us in the 21st century,” she says. “Because I am a southern historian, it immediately took me to the place where a large number of people would have been taxed psychologically — the end of the Civil War.”

Sommerville received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship Award to support her work on the topic.

In examining the personal and societal costs of the Civil War in the South, Sommerville found that southern men and Confederate soldiers were “constrained by ideas of manhood that are shaped by ideas about courage and honor.” In the 19th century, courage was defined as not acknowledging fear. “It was manly not to acknowledge that you were afraid,” she says. “By the 20th century, courage is actually knowing that you are scared but are managing it. The 19th-century soldier had not yet realized that.”

This led some soldiers to commit suicide before going off to war, en route to battle or after the fighting. “To go home a failure or a coward was not an option because it would taint them for the rest of their lives,” Sommerville says. “The dilemma for many young men was: ‘What do I do? I’m afraid to fight but I can’t go home because I’ll be labeled a coward.’”

Southern women, meanwhile, were sometimes drawn to suicide because of the deaths of loved ones. They often found themselves in the unusual situation of no longer being protected or provided for by their husbands. “In war, that arrangement is thrown out the window, and these women are asked to deal with new roles in society,” Sommerville says. “They have to protect their homes and children, and they have not been prepared to do this.”

It is important to understand that there was significant psychological suffering in the South during and after the war, Sommerville says. "There was a generation of men and women, especially in the South, who really suffered," she says. "This was a social consequence of the Civil War, and so much war research has focused on the military and emancipation. This is an opportunity to learn something more about the Civil War. I don't think these questions have been adequately raised and answered."

Last Updated: 9/17/13