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Combat Trauma in the American Civil War

Shell-shocked - a phrase redolent of the Western Front and the Great War. But was it also a reality fifty years earlier on the killing fields of Virginia? John Talbott investigates.

When Civil War soldiers 'saw the elephant,' as they called going into action, some of them sustained injuries they could not name. Wounds to the mind left them open to imputations of malingering, allegations of cowardice or charges of desertion. For the Union army had no label like shell shock, battle fatigue or post- traumatic stress disorder to help explain and legitimise a mysterious condition, no category short of lunacy to account for peculiar behaviour. In late November 1864, for instance, Captain J. McEntire, a provost marshal, wrote of Private William Leeds, a prisoner in his charge:

He has been strolling about in the woods, and has procured his food from soldiers... He has a severe cut on his nose and his eyes arc in mourning for the loss of his character.

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