For those who read my last blog post, our Civil War reenacting group marched and did fire a dozen musket volleys in a small-town festival parade last Saturday. Two of us marched as Yankee soldiers in blue, at the end of the long rank of men in Confederate gray.
Now, to a new topic: The Civil War was fought in the Victorian Age, an era that authors and historians have dubbed a ‘romantic’ period. I’m not sure I agree with the ‘romantic’ brand in regards to most facets of life in the 1860’s. I mean, I love air conditioning and my refrigerator, my car and my computer.
I love modern medicine, including that one of my grandsons came about through the science of an ‘in-vitro’ egg donor. We live in an incredible age, and growing more so every day. Far more ‘user-friendly’ than the 1860’s.
All that good stuff aside, this morning, for the first time, I read of an 1860’s medical term that does strike a quaintly romantic chord. It is a very genteel term for a common and awful outcome of war: Soldier’s Heart.
After the Civil War, men who suffered from debilitating mental conditions resulting their time as Civil War soldiers were said to suffer from Soldier’s Heart.
That term has now changed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder –PTSD, a much more scientific sounding term. During World War I, when artillery barrages were horrifying in the frequency and duration, Soldier’s Heart was labelled Shell Shock. Alliterative, but not a romantic term at all, but not yet a scientific acronym either.
In follow-up to reading “soldiers heart” used for the first time, I googled the term and found a fascinating article on the KLRU public TV station website that traced our American soldiers’ history with the anguish of their war experiences. Here’s the link:
Quoting one paragraph here with my annotations: “These people, (combat soldiers, now old and near death. Phil) their spirituality is deeply affected by what they've done…they start talking about things that happened 50 years ago. Many are looking for forgiveness. Some have given up looking for forgiveness. (which is likely why so many combat veterans permanently seal off those memories and never speak of them. Phil) They just feel this is something that does not fit with how they've lived their lives. Part of the work of dying is putting your whole life in context, looking at how it all fits together, and for people like this, this (having to kill in combat in circumstances when the moral rules of civilization are set aside. Phil) doesn't fit. This is not how they lived. This is not how they were raised as children; it's not how they have functioned as adults. It's an interlude that lasted a year or two, and it does not fit anywhere. And (confronting and justifying those actions. Phil) it’s very hard work. …”
I’m not a military veteran. I’ve not confronted Soldier’s Heart personally, nor have I included characters visibly suffering from Soldier’s Heart in my Civil War novels. It’s one place where I know I’m not qualified to tread, to presume enough insight to introduce a character who is coping with this dreadful outcome of combat. But I am touched deeply by the archaic term.
Moving on once more: Here is a photo taken a couple of weeks ago of two reenactors at a big Civil War reenactment in Virginia. It is an uncommon image of two reenactors in the roles of body-servant and officer, a common aspect of the Confederate army that is not often seen at reenactments.
African-American “body-servants” who accompanied affluent Southern soldiers to war were prevalent throughout the Confederate army. Most body-servants were slaves who cooked, kept house (kept tent, rather), and drove supply wagons.
For obvious reasons, spending a weekend as a body-servant is not a reenacting impression that we often see. I wish I’d had a chance to visit with both these reenactors to learn how they felt about the experience.
Thinking of body-servants, the inspiration for the main character in my three Civil War ‘honor’ novels was an ancestor who served as a Confederate infantry captain, and who most certainly did have an African-American body-servant who was a slave.
The real body-servant of my ancestor is recorded as being a ‘mulatto.’ At the time, the term ‘mulatto’ meant a white father and black mother, such children being the unavoidable by-product of the peculiar institution of human slavery in the American South. Gag.
While I don’t feel competent enough to write about “Soldier’s Heart,” I did feel compulsively drawn to construct a fictional relationship between two such men who I’d found in my family tree.
I don’t know if ‘owning’ a slave puts that person in the family tree of the ‘owner,’ but it was enough for me to grow a sense of kinship with Levi Miller, the historical slave and body-servant to my ancestor, Captain J.J. McBride. And the result is in my three novels: Tangled Honor, Redeeming Honor, and Defiant Honor.
Thankfully, I’ll never know what my ancestors, men and women, felt about the enslaved African-American human beings they ‘owned.’ I’m sure to read their justifications for owning slaves would be deeply depressing.
Nor do I know what the McBride’s slaves thought about those who ‘owned’ them. I do know from primary source newspaper articles that Levi Miller for many months nursed his ‘master,’ my ancestor, through the captain’s lengthy recoveries from two serious battle wounds.
Yet, after the war ended and the slaves were freed, Levi Miller didn’t stay around. He quickly moved to another town in Virginia and found a job, many miles away from the McBride family. And Levi certainly did not go back to Texas with my first Texan ancestor—the Confederate captain, even after three years of serving and nursing him, and close daily contact during the war years.
Even knowing those historical facts, in my novels I built a slowly-growing positive relationship based on a possible blood kinship between the 20-year-old mulatto body-servant and the 42-year-old master.
Most likely, that sort of personal relationship between the two real men didn't exist, even if they might have been blood-relatives, based on the unwritten rules of the time, and what each of the two men did after the Civil War ended.
Perhaps I wrongly applied 21st century attitudes that rarely ever existed in the 19th century South. Acknowledging that likelihood saddens me, but I sure had fun creating a ‘what-might-have-been-if-only…’ relationship between Levi and Captain J.J.
And to close on a more upbeat note, here’s a new photo of grandson Rory, whose 21st century spoon is involved in an ageless messy job.