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Dispatches From The Front #8

After Action Report

We are home again and I am mostly recovered from the trip. We learned a lot; at least I did. I came away with a greater understanding of the American Civil War and how very difficult it was on those who fought it, especially the Confederates, who were not nearly as well supplied as the soldiers from the North—not that they had it easy-peasy either, but they were better equipped and supplied. Late in the war, many Confederates were shoeless and their uniforms were rags or a mixture of military and civilian clothing.

I also came away with a greater understanding of the brutality of the war and its staggering loss of life. For those who survived and returned home, it is hard to imagine most did not suffer from PTSD or “nostalgia” as they called it back then. I have seen no records on that, and likely they don’t even exist. I suspect it was the faith of many that precluded at least some of that. Which brings me to ….

I brought back only one souvenir, a book I purchased in the gift shop at the Gettysburg Battlefield, Christ in the Camp by J. Williams Jones, first published in 1886. Jones was a chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia (ANV), and his book is about the Awakening or Great Revival that took place during the war, especially in the ANV. I devoted a whole chapter to this in An Eternity of Four Years (Chapter 16). Ethan was a man of faith, and also a man “fallen from grace” because of his loss of Rachel and the situation he found himself in (the war) that prevented his searching for her. That chapter was one of the moments he recovered his faith, at least for a while, and attempted to respond to God’s calling for him. It gives some details on this Great Awakening that took place.

Christ in the Camp is full of interesting stories from many soldiers of many denominations. I am barely through about 20% of the book and will be writing more about this in future posts. If these men in the book are examples of what Christianity is suppose to look like, then we are badly missing the mark today. Their faith pervaded everything they did. They lived what they believed. For example, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s application of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 …pray without ceasing… was eye-opening for me. (I will explain that in a future post.) Today, we often just go through the motions of being spiritual.

Did they get everything right? No, because like us they were fallen men. They got slavery wrong, for one thing, and used Scripture to support their position. But keep in mind, not everyone then was an ardent Bible-reading/believing Christian that lived the Life of Christ through faith. Some were merely “Bible-thumpers” that used Scripture for their own ends. We sometimes have a tendency to read into Scripture what we want to see there, and I suspect a lot of that was happening in the South. It would be unfair to judge all Christians by those kinds of “Christians.”

One thing that has come out in what I have read so far is the issue of slavery is rarely if ever mentioned associated with the war. What they speak of in the many letters and comments is their desire to build a new nation free from a tyrannical government seeking to subject them through force and protect their homes and families from the invaders. For them, the fight was a “good fight.” Today, we look back and see that “good fight” tarnished by the issue of slavery, but that was not their perspective.

I hope you have enjoyed this series of Dispatches From The Front. I certainly enjoyed writing and experiencing them.

I will close with an excerpt from An Eternity of Four Years, Chapter 16 – The Awakening.

*****

Cornfield

The Cornfield

The long line of caissons and cannons, ambulances, supply wagons, and weary men crossed the Potomac and slowly plodding south away from the killing fields of Sharpsburg, Maryland. The army was both physically and mentally spent, incapable of taking the field again anytime soon. It needed to rest, to recover, rebuild and re-equip before it would again be an army.

In that September of 1862, the giddy victories of the year before had given way to the soul-numbing realities of a brutal and bloody war. Beginning with the Valley Campaign in the early spring and continuing all summer through to Sharpsburg, what had seemed glorious the year before became for all a dreaded experience that promised only more pain, suffering, and death. Those who believed this war would be over quickly came face-to-face with the sobering realization that it would likely go on for a long while and cost many more lives.

Thomas Paine once said of another war, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” When a man’s soul is tested by the worst of what life can throw at him, especially when he looks death in the face, he becomes contemplative of his mortality. Unnoticed by all but a very few, a change was taking place; an “awakening” was slowly spreading over the army. It would begin in the Army of Northern Virginia and eventually spread to all of the armies of the Confederacy. It would profoundly impact the lives of the many soldiers touched by it, and it would eventually be felt elsewhere in the nation long after the war ended.

I first became aware of its presence during our withdrawal from Maryland. I was dismounted and walking along with Blue as we led our weary mounts south. One of the Tigers from the 1st Louisiana, his face still blackened with gunpowder from biting off the ends of the paper cartridges to reload his musket, a bloody bandage around his head, shoeless, and his uniform in tatters, stepped out of the formation and approached us. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Captain, may I have a word with you?”

“Of course,” I replied. “How may I be of service?”

That is when I noticed he was weeping though he tried to hide it. “Sir, I understand you are a good man, a godly man who knows the Scriptures, an’ I need to ask ya something.”

“What is it?”

“I ain’t much for church-goin’. Preachers just seem to preach, but I‘ve seen the Lord in you. I seen you in that bloody-awful Cornfield, how you helped the wounded, protected them, and gave comfort to the survivors when we were driven back to Dunker Church. You weren’t ‘fraid a nuthin’. They was balls flying all around you, but you weren’t scart at all. But I was scart, plumb scart of dying and especially knowing I’m going to hell. An’ I don’t want to go there. I been through enough hell right here, and I reckon the one in the Bible has be a whole lot worse.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “Something happened to me in that Cornfield, and some of the boys said you were the man I need to speak to about it.”

*****

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Nostalgia – The PTSD of the Civil War

Recently I wrote a post about a malady back during the Civil War called “nostalgia.” I commented that both Ethan and Rachel ended up dealing with it. You may want to read that post before reading this excerpt from An Eternity of Four Years.

*****

Book 2 1I lost consciousness after the fight and did not regain full awareness of my surroundings until I awoke in a hospital in Richmond nearly a week later. I had only some vague memories of being jostled around in an ambulance on the way to Richmond but nothing more of how I got there. Blue told me I had a fever much of the time and spoke nonsense about all manner of things, mostly Rachel and someone named Tom Sullivan.

The fight in that bottom slowly began to come back to me, and I recalled what I had done. In my mind’s eye, I could see him lying there on the ground, bleeding out from my knife thrust to his heart, and I again became sick at my stomach and nearly threw up, which would have been exceedingly painful with my broken ribs. Of all the men in the world I could come face-to-face with on a battlefield, why him? I sank into a melancholy that was deep and long.

*****

“I’m worried about you, Captain Ethan. The doc say you ain’t getting any better. In fact, he told me you was getting worse. I can tell something is paining you in the head. Maybe you should talk to Old Blue about it?”

He was right. I was getting worse, but I did not care any longer. “Not something I want to talk about, Blue. Just leave me alone.”

“You already alone—inside your head, and you need to come out where the rest of us are.”

I became angry and replied sharply, “I said, leave me alone!”

He snorted a half laugh. “That ain’t goin’ to happen, Captain Ethan. I told you way back in New Orleans I’m responsible for you now. I’m not going to let you just go crazy. Now, tell Blue what happened out there?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“I’m making it my bidness.”

“Well, don’t bother!’

“Then let’s try this: where is your God, Captain Ethan? You should be prayin’ and callin’ on Him right now”

I snorted a half laugh. “Why? He doesn’t care about me.”

“Look at you, a sorry mess of a man all soaked with sweat and talkin’ crazy. God does care ‘bout you! Where’d you get that silly notion? God loves you!”

I turned over and glared at him as hard as I could in my addled state …

“You need to get him out of here.” I heard a surgeon tell Blue. “This place is doing him no good.”

“I can see that, but where’ll I take him?”

“Some of the local citizens are taking in the wounded to convalesce, perhaps one of them? If he stays here, he’ll die—or go insane, if he hasn’t already. You need to get him out of this melancholy state he is in. To do that, he needs to be away from the war for a while.”

Then I heard a woman’s voice join the conversation. “And what have we here?”

“Ma’am, the captain here is badly hurt,” the surgeon replied. “His body is slowly healing, but his mind is not. He is suffering from nostalgia. There’s nothing more I can do for him. You know anyone who can take him in until he heals?”

“Oh, dear.” She bent over and touched me on the shoulder, expecting I would turn to face her. “Captain?”

“Go away!”

She paused, making no reply as she cocked her head.

“Somethin’ wrong, Missy?” asked Blue.

“I thought…” she started to say something then shook her head. “Captain, I’m here to help with the wounded. Won’t you let me help you?”

That voice sounded familiar. I turned over to face her, and she gasped, “Ethan?”

*****

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“Nostalgia” AKA PTSD

Cover B1“Nostalgia” plays a significant role in the lives of both Ethan and Rachel in my books The Last Day of Forever and An Eternity of Four Years. It was officially defined and named Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1980 to describe the mental issues suffered by Vietnam veterans. But it existed long before that, at least as long as war and trauma have been visited upon mankind. It was known by other names during different periods of history. It was called “shell shock” in WWI and during WWII, it was called “battle fatigue.” In the mid 19th century, during the American Civil War, it was called “nostalgia.”

That term was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was described as a form of melancholy.

The Greek origin of the English word is nóstos álgos. Nóstos is usually translated “homecoming” but carries the idea of returning home after a long journey to find that everything is the same, yet just a shadow of what it had been before. Álgos refers to pain. Literally, we have “homecoming pain.”

I think that 17th century medical student had in mind the pain of a soldier returning home after a war to find that while everything may look as it did before he left, he sees things differently because stressful wartime experiences have changed his life perspective, usually not for the better. Depression, nightmares, and anger are often symptoms.

Book 2 1I believe nostalgia is related to the saying, “seeing the elephant,” often used by soldiers during the American Civil War and since. The idea behind “seeing the elephant” is that of the profound disappointment and disillusionment associated with having one’s “grand” notions about war dashed by the brutal reality of the killing fields. It suggests the soldier has seen enough, and he is sick of all the misery, pain, and death. He has “seen the elephant,” and it was an exceedingly ugly beast.

Nostalgia, or known by its current title PTSD, is not limited to veterans of war. It can be caused by any manner of stressful conditions such as rape, witnessing something terrible like an accident or death, a near death experience, or really anything that can leave a profound and lasting impression of fear or anxiety. Ethan suffered his first bout of nostalgia as a result of his witnessing the death of Cornelius as a child of three, and later as the result of losing Rachel, followed by what he saw and did during the war in places like the Shenandoah Valley, Sharpsburg, Chancellorsville, and especially Gettysburg and its aftermath. Rachel also “saw the elephant” and it affected her as well.

Both Rachel and Ethan had come from a comfortable lifestyle of plenty in a time of peace to one of horror and death in a time of war, a war described by author Paul Fussell as “long, brutal, total, and stupid.” Should we not expect such might affect a sane person?

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