Diane Miller Sommerville. Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 448 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-4356-4; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-4330-4.
Reviewed by Daniel J. Wilson (Muhlenberg College)
Published on H-Disability (March, 2019)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Diane Miller Sommerville’s Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South is an impressive contribution to the growing scholarly literature on the physical and psychological costs of the American Civil War. It joins Drew Faust’s The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), Jim Downs’s Sick for Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (2012), and Michael C. C. Adams’s Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War (2014) in exploring the ways in which the war and its aftermath exacted a significant toll on the health of Southerners beyond those killed and wounded on the battlefield. Sommerville focuses on suicide among Confederate soldiers and veterans, Confederate women, and African Americans under slavery and freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Because data does not exist for a statistical portrait of suicide in the period, Sommerville bases her conclusions on the study of hundreds of individual cases revealed in diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, and legal documents. These documents give her insight into the mental and physical distress that led white and black men and women to voluntarily end their own lives. She found that suffering and suicide in these years was often related to wartime effects and their long-term consequences. She also discovered that suffering and suicide were racialized and gendered. Whites suffered differently than blacks, slave or free, and consequently ended their lives for different reasons. White Confederate soldiers and veterans, whether they had experience in battle or not, suffered their own set of mental and physical pains that sometimes led to suicide. These differed significantly from those of white women, whose distress often lay in the challenges and hardships of maintaining family and plantation in the absence of their husbands and then rebuilding after the war. Blacks, Sommerville writes, took their own lives to end suffering or to avoid punishment, not as acts of resistance against their masters or against the slave system. Sommerville acknowledges that she cannot know for certain why any of her subjects committed suicide, but she makes a compelling case that the effects of the war and its troubled aftermath contributed substantially to the psychological and physical suffering that led men and women to take their own lives.
In chapter 1, “A Burden Too Heavy to Bear: War Trauma, Suicide, and Confederate Soldiers,” Sommerville argues that the war must be considered a direct or indirect cause for the suicide of Confederate soldiers and veterans. She uncovered “bountiful evidence” of “widespread mental duress experienced by Civil War soldiers” (p. 26). She interrogates the “relationship between suffering and suicide generally and gendered notions about manhood, cowardice, and martial success, all of which came into play for Southern men in the military” (p. 25). Interestingly, the soldier suicides contributed to a heightened level of understanding and sympathy for those who killed themselves during or after their military service. Both battlefield and non-battlefield experiences, such as being away from home for the first time, training camp, or capture and imprisonment could induce the suffering that led to suicide. Sommerville also documents the changes in Southern attitudes toward soldier and veteran suicides. She argues that “suicide offered Southern men a way to maintain mastery and control over their deaths amid circumstances that were disordered, frightening and capricious” (p. 47). They chose the manner and timing of their death. For some, suicide came to be seen as a way of preserving honor; it “replaced a coward’s death with that of a hero” (p. 48).
Chapter 2, “A Dark Doom to Dread: Women, Suicide, and Suffering on the Confederate Homefront,” details how “feelings of despair, frustration, and foreboding plagued many Confederate women” and led some women to end their suffering by ending their lives. Women, however, were more likely than men to consider suicide than to actually do the deed. Contrary to the Lost Cause mythology of resilient Confederate women, many fell apart under war and postwar stress. Many women were admitted to Southern insane asylums in these years. Social, economic, political, and financial factors associated with wartime conditions were not the only precipitating factors for white women. Post-partum depression often contributed to suicidal thoughts and actions. The war and its chaotic aftermath were key catalysts driving women to self-harm. Depression and anxiety resulted from the absence of their husbands and the burdens of unexpected and unwanted responsibilities for families and farms.
Part 2 of Aberration of Mind considers suicide among African Americans during the Civil War era. Chapter 3, “ De Lan’ of Sweet Dreams: Suffering and Suicide Among the Enslaved,” addresses suffering and suicide among slaves while chapter 4, “Somethin’ Went Hard agin Her Mind: Suffering, Suicide, and Emancipation,” takes up self-destruction among freed men and women following the war. Sommerville discusses the evidence for and causes of suicide by slaves as well as white attitudes about slave suicide. She argues that the master class discounted the possibility of slave suicide because to accept the possibility that slaves killed themselves meant accepting that the supposedly happy slaves were in fact suffering and deeply unhappy. They also believed that slaves were too cowardly to take their own lives. Suicide, she argues, became a “marker of racial identity and white superiority: whites killed themselves, the enslaved did not. Suffering was an attitude of whiteness, not enslavement” (p. 88).
The evidence that Sommerville presents is irrefutable: “The enslaved did suffer and, on occasion, kill themselves despite white claims to the contrary” (p. 88). For her, “documenting incidents of slave suicide … constitutes one step toward reclaiming the full array of experiences, moods, and feelings of the enslaved, while taking seriously the psychological effect of the multitudinous conditions of slavery on the enslaved” (p. 88). Although Sommerville documents numerous instances of slave suicide, she also acknowledges that we cannot know “exactly” how common slave suicide was. However, “testimony by the enslaved and formerly enslaved suggests that slave suicide in America occurred regularly” (p. 93). She argues that slaves who took their own lives were “individuals whose personal suffering rendered voluntary death a plausible response” (p. 98). Sommerville concedes that it is very difficult given the paucity of slave suicide notes to know the reasons an individual slave committed suicide. The evidence she has, however, suggests that “the most common reason attached to slave suicide was an attempt to avoid punishment and physical pain” (p. 99). Slave men and women became suicidal when “they reached a saturation point after protracted periods of abuse and ill-treatment, a limit that is both highly individual and subjective” (p. 115).
Sommerville also critiques a theory developed by a number of historians that slave suicide represented an act of resistance against a particular master or against slavery in general. She argues convincingly that the resistance theory of slave suicide “is both flawed and unsatisfying, as it risks ignoring or discounting slaves’ suffering as a motive for suicide” (p. 97). Her research led her to conclude that “slaves who contemplated or effected suicide” likely gave “little thought, if at all, to the impact of their deaths on their masters. Instead, suicide brought an immediate end to emotional or physical pain” (p. 99).
In the four chapters of part 3, Sommerville addresses the suffering and suicide of whites in the post-Civil War era. Chapter 5, “The Accursed Ills I Cannot Bear: Confederate Veterans, Suicide, and Suffering in the Defeated South,” explores the challenges Confederate veterans had in adjusting to civilian life in a defeated nation. She argues that these veterans exhibited symptoms and behaviors that today would be labeled as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that they contributed to a crisis of manhood in the postwar South. Although data does not exist for a systematic study of suicide, she found that “anecdotal accounts and asylum records substantiate significant suicidal activity among Confederate veterans” (p. 156). In addition, she uncovered numerous asylum records of insanity and violent behavior as well as alcohol and drug abuse in this population. Surviving suicide notes suggest that feelings of desperation and hopelessness about the future led to self-destruction. Interestingly, most Southern commentators on individual suicides failed to make a connection between postwar suicide and wartime service. Suicide seems to have occurred in part, at least, as a way to restore “limited elements of mastery and control,” end “emotional or physical suffering,” and provide an “exit from failed manhood” (p. 178).
Chapter 6, “The Distressed State of the Country: Confederate Men and the Navigation of Economic, Political, and Emotional Ruin in the Postwar South,” takes up the toll that postwar conditions had on the Southern male psyche. Sommerville demonstrates that “the combined weight of financial ruin and embarrassment, on top of political banishment and festering anguish from combat memory, proved too much for some ex-Confederates” (p. 179). Business failures proved particularly hard to withstand. While women “worried about their families’ financial well-being,” men “experienced economic misfortune personally” and sometimes chose suicide as an escape (p. 181). Self-inflicted death, she observes, “promised relief from the dreaded Yankee subjugation, from untold suffering, and from the humiliation of being unable to protect or provide for their families, as sanctioned by the nineteenth-century code of masculinity” (p. 196).
Suicide among postwar white Southern women is the subject of chapter 7, “All Is Dark before Me: Confederate Women and the Postwar Landscape of Suffering and Suicide.” Confederate women suffered psychologically and physically in their defeated nation following the war and when that suffering became too burdensome it led to insanity and sometimes suicide. These women faced three challenges: surviving the postwar chaos, reconstructing their families as men and boys returned from the war, and rebuilding their communities without slaves and in the presence of freed men and women. While most women suffered to some degree, the causes of individual suicides are often opaque, owing to the lack of documentation. One fairly obvious trigger for a woman’s emotional collapse was the death of a loved one. Some women escaped the psychic stress by using opium, morphine, and laudanum, while others took the more extreme step of suicide.
Chapter 8, “Cumberer of the Earth: The Secularization of Suffering and Suicide,” focuses on the June 1865 suicide of the South Carolina Confederate Edmund Ruffin, who chose not to live under Yankee rule. Ruffin’s widely known suicide and his reasons for deciding to end life resonated throughout the South and led to a reconsideration of the meaning of suicide among former Confederates. His example among the chaos and distress of the postwar era led many Southerners “to reconsider their harsh attitudes toward self-murder and embrace a more sympathetic, compassionate view of suicide and those who killed themselves” (p. 236). Sommerville claims that “suicide in the post-bellum South came to be viewed less as a sin or sign of moral weakness and more as the result of tragic circumstances, a sad but expected result of war-generated suffering” (p. 237). Some Southerners even found ways to glorify war-generated suicide as an honorable response to the suffering imposed on the South and endured by individuals. Suicide “became a badge of honor, for white Southerners, emblazoned unto their refurbished identity” (p. 237). Of course, Southern freed men and women were excluded from this valorization of war-induced suicide.
In her conclusion, Sommerville ties this secularized conception of suicide to the emerging myth of the Lost Cause and a resurgent Southern nationalism. “War’s end,” she writes, “forced a defeated and demoralized people to reconceive the meaning of suicide” (p. 256). Southern whites rejected the negative associates of suicide with “weakness, cowardice, and insanity” in favor of “a new construction of suicide as heroic self-sacrifice, embodied in the self-inflicted death of Edmund Ruffin” (p. 256). This reconception of “heroic suicide helped launch Confederate nationalism and became central to the Lost Cause ethos of sacrifice, instilling meaning into the vast suffering in the failed effort at independence” (p. 261).
Aberration of Mind is a compelling exploration in considerable detail of the psychic suffering endured by white and black Southerners in the era of the Civil War. This suffering ranged from mild to completely disabling and sometimes ended in suicide. Though hampered by a lack of data that could support statistically valid conclusions, Sommerville’s careful mining of individual cases of suicide yields useful insights. In addition, her familiarity with modern theories of wartime stress and their links to emotional distress and self-harm informs her discussions of Civil War-era suicides. She humanizes the men and women who took their own lives even as she acknowledges that she cannot fully know why any of these individuals killed themselves. But she also argues convincingly that Southern white suicide can be understood in larger cultural terms as a response to diminished manhood, threats to masculinity, and challenges to traditional conceptions of women’s role in the family and the nation.
Sommerville advances two important arguments regarding African American suicide in this period. First, she makes it quite clear that contrary to nineteenth-century white Southern opinion, slaves did suffer and did commit suicide when pushed to their psychological and physical limits or when facing certain punishment. Second, she challenges recent historians who have viewed slave suicide as evidence of resistance to particular masters or to the slave system as a whole. She found little or no evidence to support this theory.
Sommerville’s impressive study of Southern suffering and suicide illuminates how disabling psychological and physical pain could become. Though most who were disabled by emotional distress in this period did not commit suicide, Sommerville has given voice to those men and women, white and black, who found they could not go on and chose to end their lives. It is a powerful reminder that the casualties of war extend well beyond those left on the field when the battle ends.
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Daniel J. Wilson. Review of Sommerville, Diane Miller, Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South.
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