Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Civil War Trauma

by | April 8, 2011 | 12 comments

Post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a timely subject, considering how many young men and women are serving in the military all over the world today. But what of the men who fought during one of the bloodiest conflicts of the time, a war that pitted brother against brother, father against son?

What of the American Civil War? Surely the suicidal frontal assaults, troops marching forward in formation to be decimated by rifle and artillery fire, battlefields littered with the dead and dying, must have had a horrific effect on those soldiers. Yet surprisingly little has been written on the subject.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychological syndrome which results when a person is exposed to a traumatic event such as warfare. Although PTSD only really emerged as a psychiatric diagnosis in the 1970s, it’s clear that veterans of the Civil War also suffered from it. Its symptoms include anxiety, a dread of calamity, depression, flashbacks and nightmares; emotional numbing or apathy. PTSD can include social pathologies, as well, including suicide, drug or alcohol abuse, and domestic violence.

One study states that among the typical symptoms of PTSD in Civil War soldiers, the most common is fear, specifically the fear of being killed. This fear would often lead to a man barricading himself in his house, often at night, and stay up watching and waiting for the imagined foe to appear. Others would keep weapons at their side at all times, and sometimes sleep with an axe or other such weapon under their beds. The usual treatment of the day was heavy doses of sedatives to keep them calm.

In Coming Home, my new release from Highland Press, my hero, Cavan Callaghan, is a veteran of Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade who fought at Antietam. He’d lost a lot even before joining up, and I knew he couldn’t have come through that bloody conflict without at least a few scars. But I decided to make his scars the internal, rather than the external type. Cavan’s PTSD manifests itself in an extreme possessiveness of those he loves, even as he tries to deny the extent to which he cares for them. He’s sure my heroine, Ashleen, will eventually betray him. And he’s pursued by the fear that the fragile happiness he’s discovered in Ireland will be snatched away

“The more things change, the more they stay the same…”

~ Alphonse Karr, 1808-1890

Here’s an excerpt from Coming Home:

The Atlantic Ocean, 1867

He was going home.

Home. Such a simple word. And for so long now, such an unattainable dream.

Yet as he stood on the deck of the Mary O’Connor, he thought maybe he’d finally find a real home once again.

When Johnny comes marching home again . . .

He looked seaward. The salt wind tugged at his hair. Spray stung his eyes. Gulls wheeled and shrieked overhead. Open water lay beyond the horizon, and beyond that still, his new life. In a few weeks, the Mary O’Connor would dock in Galway Bay, and from there he’d head for the small village his parents had spoken of with such love. He felt a stirring of emotion, the first spark of excitement since—

Deliberately he cut off the thought. He was no longer a soldier. There would be no more Rebel yells, no more guns, no more battles. He was no longer Captain Callaghan, so-called hero of the Irish Brigade.

He was just plain Cavan Callaghan, an Irishman searching for peace.

What would Ireland be like? For as long as he could remember, he’d heard his parents speak wistfully of the country they’d left behind. The green fields and sea-swept coast. The heather-strewn countryside filled with wild strawberries and prickly gorse. They’d spoken of the people, too, but especially of his father’s brother.

The last of the Flynns now, except for himself.

His mother had said the village of Ballycashel lay some nine miles from Galway City. What would he find there? He knew about the Hunger, of course. Had any of his family survived?

Or would he find the same devastation he’d confronted on his return from the war?

A ripple of sound floating on the briny breeze told him he wasn’t alone. Recognizing the delicate notes of a penny whistle, he glanced around. One of his fellow passengers, obviously an Irishman, lowered the instrument from his lips and smiled, his foot tapping in jig time.

The piper began playing anew, and a raw slash of anguish ripped through Cavan’s gut. He knew the words well, and the tune the man played so effortlessly and with such emotion.

He’d prayed never to hear them again.

The minstrel boy to the war has gone,

In the ranks of death you’ll find him . . .

He squeezed his eyes shut, the ‘ranks of death’ marching through his memory. So many friends, his comrades-in-arms, who would never return . . .

His brother.

With a hard shake of his head, he strode away from the haunting melody.

He was going home. And there he would find peace.

There would be no more war.


  1. Julie Robinson

    Hi Cynthia,

    As a phone crisis counselor, I deal with PTSD continually. Thanks for writing about it. I've tried to write a story using PTSD, but with a little difficulty—probably because it's too close to home.

  2. Julie Robinson

    BTW, great excerpt!

  3. Cynthia Owens

    Hi Julie,

    Glad you stopped by. I've never had to deal with PTSD personally, but I've read stories about how people can be affected by it, and I wanted to reflect a little bit of that in Cavan. I hope I've done it justice. And yes, I can imagine it might hit a little too close for you. Then again, we sometimes write what's closest to us. Glad you enjoyed the excerpt!

  4. Julie Robinson

    That may be true about writing what's closest to us, but then the difficulty lies in hoping you're not unconsciously repeating someone's confidences.

    Though, when I think about it, I guess they're all similar to a degree.

  5. Chicks of Characterization

    What a wonderful post! Loved the excerpt!


  6. Allison Knight

    Something I've never thought about.
    Hmmmmm, I'll have to take a look at the hero for my Civil War tale.
    Thanks for bringing something that
    should be considered even in the novels about wars fought much earlier.

  7. Cynthia Owens

    Thanks, Andrea, glad you could stop by!

  8. Cynthia Owens

    Hi Allison, glad you enjoyed the post. I think PTSD, no matter what you call it, resonates as deeply today as it did a hundred years ago. People haven't changed much throughout history, and I don't believe feelings and emotions have either. Thanks for visiting!

  9. Susan Macatee

    Great post, Cynthia! And it's true, no one thinks of PTSD in the case of Civil War soldiers.

    Great excerpt too! Your new book looks to be an intriguing read.

    The hero in my newly contracted post-Civil War romance was a soldier too, and it caused him to leave the heroine at the altar and disappear for years before returning home. It's a story of reunion.

  10. Cynthia Owens

    Thanks, Susan. It's funny, I didn't really plan to write a hero with PTSD, it just happened that way. I love it when my characters tell me their stories. I hope you'll check out Coming Home – it should be released any day now, and I can't wait!

    Your story sounds inteiesing, too. I love reunion stories!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  11. Pat McDermott

    I love the way you worked a modern psychological condition into a Civil War character, whether you intended to or not! You have a very moving story on your hands, Cynthia. Looking forward to its release.

  12. Cynthia Owens

    Thanks so much, Pat! Of course, as you know, I don't actually give PTSD its "modern" name, or even really focus on it too much – it's a romance, after all! But I wanted to show a little bit of what had happened to Cavan – and so many other men – during that war. As for looking forward to its release, believe me, so am I! Any day now – and counting the hours!



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