Walker: The Grim Aftermath of War

By David W. Walker, President and Chief Executive Officer, Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes

Memorial Day calls us to remember the sacrifices of our fellow Americans who put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms —and often pay a high price for their courage.

I recently ran across a new book that puts a fresh perspective on one of our bygone conflicts the Civil War. A new book by Brian Jordan, “A Thousand May Fall: Life, Death and Survival in the Union Army,” follows the four-year odyssey of a group of Ohio soldiers who saw some horrific combat at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg among other places. 

But unlike other war books I have read, this one included a follow-up of the soldiers who made it back. Their experience, especially in the post-war years, taught me once again the age-old lesson that the more things change, they more they stay the same.

Many of the veterans who survived the battlefield carnage brought home a litany of injuries – physical and psychic-that entailed years of suffering and heartbreak. Of course, back in those days medical science could offer little useful treatment. Many who managed to avoid the worst wounds of battle paid a price for the years marching and sleeping in the mud and snow. They sometimes rode in trains, but they had no airplanes or trucks. Most of the time they walked and walked and walked. They often went for days with practically nothing to eat. (At least the Union soldiers usually had shoes which was more than many Confederates had.) They came home beset by “painful infirmities and chronic diseases.” One fellow named Christian Ricker manifested severe diarrhea which evolved into constipation “so extreme as to scorn every remedy. Wrenching cramps kept him prostrated in bed for days.”  Philip Seltzer “came home feeble and emaciated” laboring under a hard rasping cough that sometimes expelled blood. By the time George Billow reached his home in Akron, he had been “reduced to a physical wreck,” the consequence of “protracted hardships and exposures.”

The condition of many of these young men, all of whom marched off to war healthy and spry, was conspicuous. A fellow named Tom Hoagland returned from the war “a broken down man.” His neighbors attested that “he suffered from ill health and a broken constitution” suffering from constipation and indigestion. Casper Bohrer, Daniel Biddle, Frederick Tonsing and Daniel Whitmer each lost a leg at Gettysburg and returned home requiring the “constant aid and attendance of another person.” 

No less distressing was the sight of so many young men mangled and disfigured. Joseph Kieffer suffered a gunshot wound that destroyed the muscle tissue in his face. He was unable to open his left eye which was “continuously inflamed” and constantly oozing. Ugly wounds prevented Frank Rothermel from opening his mouth more than a third of an inch, Theobold Hasman from raising his hands above his head, and Peter Schieb from extending his arms.

Jordan also chronicles the difficulties many vets had readjusting to civilian life picking up where they had left off. “Injuries and chronic ailments made it especially difficult for many of the regiment’s veterans to find work,” he wrote. “Philip May landed a job replacing track on the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway the second summer after the war, but a rheumatic attack, which he attributed to the gunshot wound he received at Gettysburg, obliged him to quit. Not long after returning home, Arnold Streum began laboring at a ‘coal bank’  but the musket ball lodged in his leg caused him such ‘great and continued pain’ that he found it difficult to remain on his feet more than a few hours.” 

Of course, in Civil War days (1861-1865) the medical community had no concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI), so contemporaries tended to attribute changes in behavior to physical wounds. “Together these men bore witness to the war’s violence; their furrowed brows and unsteady gaits supplied compelling testimony about all they had seen and experienced,” Jordan wrote. “The war was something indelibly inscribed on their bodies – something they were never again able to escape.”

The moral of this story is that the long-term trauma of combat besetting veterans that generates so much attention in our own time is really nothing new. Previous generations knew the same phenomena in their own wars but for various reasons did not accord it as much attention as we do. But the long-term damage wrought by warfare is and has always been a grim fact of life – one political leaders should take cognizance of when contemplating further military commitments. When the guns are at last silenced and the peace treaties are signed, the real damage has yet to be reckoned with. 

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