Monday, July 19, 2021

Civil War Soldiers and Homesickness


An old saying goes, “there’s no place like home,” and for many Civil War soldiers that sentiment rang true. With so many young men in the ranks, most of whom had not ventured far from home before, their time as soldiers strained their sense of independence and self-assuredness and left them longing for the comfort, familiarity, and support of those back home.

Sometimes referred to “nostalgia,” “the blues,” and “melancholia”, homesickness often struck soldiers who were starting the process of seasoning into veterans. Those who returned from furloughs, and thus received a renewed taste of home life, suffered, too. Lt. Samuel S. Elder, 4th U.S. Artillery, wrote in March 1863 to his sister Annie, explaining, “I already feel as though I had not had . . . leave for five years. I really believe that I came nearer being homesick two days after my return to the army, than I did two days before I obtained my leave.”

While mail provided a connection with those at home, that form of communication sometimes only stirred memories and left soldiers yearning to be back home. Tally Simpson, 3rd South Carolina Infantry wrote, “A letter from home renders [the soldier] oblivious of all his trials and sends him dreaming such dreams as thought of home can alone suggest.” Not receiving mail could have a similar homesick effect. African American soldier Sgt. John Collins, 54th Massachusetts, wrote, “You can just imagine how they feel, when finding no news from home, from mothers, sister, wives, nor friends, they exclaim, ‘Well, I’m forgotten.’”

Some soldiers not suffering from the malady viewed homesickness as weak and unmanly. Sgt. Bradford F. Thompson, 112th Illinois wrote to his wife from Lexington, Kentucky in the fall of the 1862 complaining about, rather than empathizing with, some fellow soldiers. “We have a few men who are always ready to shirk and pretend to be sick, but they are troubled only with . . . laziness, and homesickness,” he wrote.

Sgt. John Warrington Caldwell, 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry, penned his sister Kate from near Huntsville, Alabama in February 1864. He explained that he had been away from home for 30 months and only had six more to finish out his enlistment obligation. He wrote, “No person can feel what home is without going away.” However, to perhaps draw himself out of his funk or to refocus, he stated, “But that is enough of such talk. If I keep on, I will get homesick, and that will not do.”

Soldiers vehemently denied claims of homesickness, either to not worry their loved ones or to emphasize their masculinity. Pvt. Bryant L. Vincent, 12th Indiana Cavalry tried to reassure his mother: “You must not worry about me, for I am all right and have probably seen the hardest I will have to see. You said something about homesick. I ain’t homesick.” Similarly, early in the war, Pvt. William H. Morse, 3rd Michigan Infantry, writing to his wife said “the privations of camp life are far worse than the chance on a battlefield. They may say I’m homesick, or afraid, but I am neither.”

When most Civil soldiers enlisted they did not consider the many off the battlefield health threats that they eventually encountered while in service. Survival on the march and in camp required practical measures to endure those environments. However, even fewer probably realized the impact of being away from home for long periods, and the homesickness that often came with it, would have on their mental health and morale.     

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