Grave diggers collect the remains of the dead on the Cold Harbor battlefield. (Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-04324 DLC.)

Grave diggers collect the remains of the dead on the Cold Harbor battlefield. (Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-04324 DLC.)

Large numbers of Civil War veterans retired during the early 1900s because of poor health. The war left many veterans with scarred bodies or spirits or both. Even after peace, the war continued to take its toll on their health.

A major study of Union veterans found that those who saw harrowing combat were more likely than other veterans to suffer from high blood pressure and heart and stomach problems. More than 4 out of 10 of such veterans suffered mental health problems.

Men who enlisted as teenagers were far more likely than men older than 31 at enlistment to have both physical and mental diseases throughout their lives. Men who enlisted at an early age also died at younger ages than did other veterans. Veterans who served in companies that had a lot of men killed were also more likely to have serious health problems throughout their lives.

At the time, these ailments were called “Soldier’s Heart,” “DaCosta’s Syndrome” or “Nostalgia.” In later wars these ailments would be called shell shock, combat fatigue and post-Vietnam syndrome. More recently they have been called post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

No one has ever made a similar study of Confederate veterans, nor is anyone ever likely to do so. The Confederate records are too fragmented to allow for such research. But the results from such a study probably would be much the same for Southern soldiers.

William B. Poore’s military service fit with those Union veterans who had serious physical and mental health problems during their lives. He enlisted as youth of just 15. At the Mule Shoe he fought in what was probably the grisliest battle of the Civil War. It was hand-to-hand combat for nearly 20 hours.

William’s company suffered heavy casualties until only a handful were left to surrender at Appomattox. William himself was eventually captured and imprisoned, another source of stress for veterans.

There is no evidence to suggest that William suffered either poor physical or mental health during his life. His success in running a farm and three small businesses—a sawmill, grist mill, and cotton gin—suggests just the opposite. He showed stamina and mental agility.

Yet like a veteran of any war, William may have had vivid mental images of combat come back to him in flashbacks and nightmares.

  • Did he sometimes believe he heard the sound of cannon when thunderstorms rolled across the farmland?
  • When a farm neighbor and his sons worked in their cornfield, did William sometimes think he saw a Yankee skirmish line coming through the cornstalks?
  • In the gray darkness of an early morning mist, did a bluecoat battle line seem to appear in the distant treeline?
  • Did William awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night from nightmares about fighting in the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania or Fort Gregg at Petersburg?

There is no way to know for sure. At the very least, William had many memories of some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles.

Have you found any evidence that your Civil War veteran may have suffered from Soldier’s Heart?

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