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Nostalgia During the Civil War: A Perplexing Condition Among Soldiers

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This is a guest post by Amira Dehmani, a student at Stanford University currently working with the Library’s education team as a Liljenquist Family Fellow.

Soldier’s heart, shell shock, railway spine, nostalgia. For centuries, soldiers have experienced trauma after their wartime experiences, but their condition has been known by many names.

Definitions from a Dicitionary of Medical Terminology, Dental Surgery and the Collateral Sciences, Harris and Gorgas, 1867
Harris, Chapin Aaron, and Ferdinand James Samuel Gorgas. A Dictionary of Medical Terminology, Dental Surgery, and the Collateral Sciences. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1867.
Article from the Jeffersonian Newspaper documenting the life of prisoners at Camp Douglas in Chicago
Article from the Jeffersonian Newspaper March 16, 1865

One of the most devastating conditions that affected Civil War soldiers was at the time called nostalgia. Today, the term nostalgia is very different from what it was during the 1860s. When we think of nostalgia, we tend to think of sentimental childhood memories, often associated with joy; however, during the Civil War it was known as a perplexing condition that, according to the Jeffersonian Newspaper, was a frequent killer of soldiers.

Many newspapers available in Chronicling America reported the symptoms of nostalgia at the time. One popular paper, the Cleveland Morning Leader, described a soldier talking in his sleep, hallucinations of wartime, and insanity. It discussed how without treatment–in this instance, being sent home–he would likely have died by suicide. The Daily Intelligencer described a young boy with a pale face who couldn’t stop crying and was bedridden. The Plymouth Democrat wrote of soldiers sinking into “utter inaction and depression” in an “epidemic fashion.” These references are just a few examples of the dozens of accounts that students can analyze to discover the symptoms of Civil War nostalgia.

Article from the Cleveland Morning Leader, July 10, 1862 on prisoner experience with Nostalgia
Nostalgia. Cleveland Morning Leader, July 10, 1862

For further investigation, students might explore these additional articles:

The Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, used in conjunction with the Library’s primary and secondary sources, can help students examine the experiences of soldiers and identify trauma-related conditions that sometimes accompanied or followed their service.

Teaching Activities

  • Ask students to list references to nostalgia and homesickness in newspaper clippings from the Library’s Chronicling America. What are the symptoms mentioned in these newspapers?
  • Why might newspapers have reported on nostalgia? Did Confederate and Union newspapers report on it differently? Is the language in these articles sympathetic or harsh towards those experiencing nostalgia?
  • Some modern historians believe that these Civil War soldiers may have actually been experiencing post-traumatic stress, or PTS. Students might compare the symptoms they found in the Chronicling America articles with the modern symptoms of PTS. Can they find any similarities? Are they convinced that nostalgia is an early form of PTS?
  • How are the articles of nostalgia placed with the rest of their respective newspapers? Do they stand out? What does this say about the importance and priority of this condition at the time?
  • Looking back at history with modern understandings is a tricky thing to do. Some historians believe we shouldn’t “reverse-diagnose” soldiers with modern medicine. Have students think about this question. Should we look back in history with modern lenses to make sense of it? Is it better or worse? Does it help us learn more about their experiences? Does it confuse the past?

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