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Life and Limb: The Toll of the American Civil War home

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Class 4: Escaping Battle


Introduction:

Not all men were able to uphold the high standards of heroism and courage demanded by the army and expected by comrades. This class continues to develop the students’ exploration of the psychological impact of war by looking at how men evaded battle and why the military establishment found it so difficult to recognize so-called cowards as psychiatric casualties. The line between cowardice and courage was not as clear cut as people had imagined after Fort Sumter. This led to a great deal of confusion when trying to prosecute men for misbehavior in front of the enemy. For context on this subject, students should begin by reading R. Gregory Lande, whose chapter explores strategies of combat evasion. Such tactics, if carefully employed, allowed many a man to avoid the charge of cowardice. From here students need to evaluate the court-martial case of Andrew Mandeville, a New Jersey soldier charged for misbehavior in front of the enemy at Gettysburg. His trial illustrates the challenges the military establishment faced in trying to prosecute those charged with cowardice.

Army surgeons played a critical role in prosecuting supposed cowards, as the Mandeville case shows. The medical community’s perspective is offered to students in John Ordronaux’s Manual of Instruction for Military Surgeons. This class concludes by asking students to consider the assumptions that the medical community operated on, when judging whether a man was legitimately unable to perform his duty or was trying to escape battle. Such a line of inquiry will lead students to explore why it was so difficult for surgeons to tell if a man was suffering from a specific illness, exhaustion, psychological breakdown, or a mixture of all of these conditions.


Readings:

Primary:

Transcript of Court-martial of Andrew J. Mandeville, 8th New Jersey Infantry, MM 3415, RG 153, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Online Transcript.

Ordronaux, John. Manual of Instruction for Military Surgeons on the Examination of Recruits and the Discharge of Soldiers. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863. Chaps. 3 and 4. Available online at http://collections.nlm.nih.gov/pageturner/viewer.html?PID=nlm:nlmuid-62430640R-bk (accessed 11/1/2011).

Secondary:

Lande, R. Gregory. Madness, Malingering & Malfeasance: The Transformation of Psychiatry and the Law in the Civil War Era. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2003, Chap. 5, Notes for Chap. 5.


Discussion Questions:

  • In the Red Badge of Courage, protagonist Henry Flemming runs uncontrollably from the front. This iconic scene in American literature creates the impression that cowardice inspired utter recklessness in men who were hell bent on fleeing the battlefield for the cause of self-preservation. How does Lande’s work complicate our understanding of how Civil War soldiers evaded combat? What does Lande’s work tell us about the motivations, strategies, and experience of those considered shirkers, malingers, and cowards by the military establishment?

  • What were some of the factors that could lead a soldier to suffer a breakdown in the field?

  • How did the need for military discipline and efficiency influence the ways that surgeons diagnosed and treated patients? Did this make it impossible for the military establishment to serve the needs of their patients? Lande’s article, Mandeville’s trial transcript, and Ordronaux’s Manual of Instruction for Military Surgeons should help students respond to these questions.

  • Why was it so difficult for surgeons and the military establishment to perceive purported cowards as psychiatric victims? How did the prevailing sentimental culture and the need for military discipline create blind spots for surgeons? Both questions prepare students for the readings in Class 5, which focus on the difficulties the medical community had in evaluating a man’s character without also considering the impact of a military environment that relentlessly assaulted soldiers psychologically and physically.

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