The secret of suicide and the Civil War

These Confederate troops, wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg, saw the horrors of war firsthand. A new study of records shows many Confederates suffered mental problems as a result of the stress of war, and a number of them committed suicide.

In July 1879, an East Bay Street barkeep named Diedr Nordmeyer put a pistol to his head and blew his brains out.

His employers said only that Nordmeyer had been ill. He was also a Civil War veteran, a sergeant in the Hampton Legion — although no one thought much of the connection at the time.

A few years before, a Charleston man named Thomas Webb was committed to the state mental institution after doctors found him delusional and fixated on worries of poverty. His illness was blamed on the “condition of the country and a loss of business.”

A Charleston woman who ran a boarding house was sent to the same place after displaying suicidal tendencies and “depression of spirits caused by excitement about the war.”

A New York history professor said the Civil War took an even greater toll on the South than was previously thought.

Diane Miller Sommerville of Binghamton University has found scores of cases of suicide, attempted suicide and mental illness brought on by the war, the economic hardships it brought and a general fear of the brutalities witnessed daily for four long years. She is currently researching and writing a book on Southern suicides during and after the war.

“I was interested in finding to what extent did the Civil War contribute to suicide,” Sommerville said. “About 400 Union soldiers committed suicide, but no Southern state kept such vital statistics, or if they did, they were destroyed.”

What Sommerville has found is a disturbing if unsurprising number of soldiers and civilians alike who buckled under the pressures of war. Some killed themselves after countless battles or debilitating injuries. But she said that there are many instances of soldiers who killed themselves before going into battle, perhaps for fear of not living up to the honor and bravery expected of soldiers.

Many of these Southern soldiers were, after all, teenagers, unprepared for the horrors of war.

“They did not want to be labeled as cowards,” Sommerville said.

In some ways, it was a cultural thing. Any show of weakness was not tolerated, not only by military officers but society.

Sommerville found an account of a young Alabama woman who broke off her engagement to a young man who would not enlist in the Confederate Army. She sent him a package containing a skirt and pantaloons with a note that read, “Wear these or volunteer.”

Washington Easterby, a private in the Charleston Battalion, became ill with a urological ailment and was hospitalized in 1863. As he remained bedridden, he grew anxious, worried that his comrades would think him a “malingerer,” a coward. Sommerville said doctor notes suggested he became incoherent, and eventually had to be institutionalized.

Randy Burbage, past commander of the South Carolina division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said Sommerville’s findings are not all that surprising to anyone who has read extensively about our national tragedy.

“That’s one of those things I’ve often thought of — there had to be thousands of men who suffered from that for years and years,” Burbage said. “You couldn’t see what they saw and not be affected.”

The pressures of war in the 19th century is an area that historically has seen little study. Most historians began to note the mental stress of war during World War I, when troops were said to be shell shocked. And any notion of post-traumatic stress disorder did not come along until the Vietnam War. The first look at this trend came less than 20 years ago, with Eric Dean’s book “Shook Over Hell,” a treatment of PTSD in the Civil War.

Sommerville said that a study of asylum records, diaries and newspapers of the day reveal “a virtual epidemic of emotional and psychiatric trauma among Confederate soldiers and veterans.”

In the summer of 1861, just as the war was escalating, Lt. C.E. Earle of the Palmetto Guard of the 4th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers jumped from the sixth floor of a Richmond hotel, killing himself instantly.

And the Rev. Dr. Robert Woodward Barnwell served as chaplain for a South Carolina regiment. In June 1863, not long after writing “Such a sight as that field of slain I never dreamed of. I counted 100 Yankees and 26 horses in one spot,” Barnwell asked to be committed. After two days in a Virginia asylum, he flung himself out a second-story window.

Peter McCandless, a history professor emeritus at the College of Charleston and author of “Slavery, Disease and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry” and “Moonlight, Magnolias and Madness,” said that even though the number of patients at the state asylum fell during the war (largely due to funding cuts), there were a number of soldiers admitted.

“Some of the new patients admitted during this time were, however, soldiers, and I do recall usage of terms relating their condition to the war, such as war melancholy,” McCandless said. “I suspect that some of them were suffering from what we call PTSD today.”

In the Antebellum South, mental illness and suicide were taboo subjects, the source of shame for many families. McCandless said that views of such conditions were varied but agrees with Sommerville that the Civil War helped change attitudes.

As the war dragged on, some suicides were even hailed as heroic by newspapers of the day. The South’s highest- ranking suicide, Gen. Philip St. George Cocke, was called a “martyr to his patriotism” by a Richmond paper after killing himself over the 1861 Christmas holiday.

And Edmund Ruffin, the fire-eater who stoked the fires of secession, shot himself shortly after the war ended in 1865.

Mythology has it that Ruffin refused to live under Northern rule and wrapped himself in a Confederate flag before shooting himself. Sommerville has found no basis in fact for that claim, and notes that he was suffering a series of physical maladies.

The war expanded the notion of a heroic death, and that extended to some suicides. Sommerville said that few soldiers left behind notes explaining their decision, which makes finding answers about the specific causes of their suicides elusive.

But it’s clear the Civil War created a “community of suffering” that left a lasting impact on the South.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at @BriHicks_PandC.