My research has had me reading a lot over the past few months about trauma, specifically combat related trauma. As I prepared my remarks for a presentation at the New England Modern Language Association (NEMLA) conference a few weeks ago on this subject, I was particularly struck by the conundrum presented to scholars by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
On the one hand, PTSD has now made a vast field of study possible in non-medical and non-scientific disciplines that simply was not there prior to the 1980s. Without PTSD’s seemingly stable foundation, it’s hard to imagine “trauma studies” finding much ground in academic and public circles. Yet, on the other hand, PTSD prevents us from seeing and understanding a wide range of responses to horrific events that simply do not fit within its paradigm.
These thoughts came to me most strongly in relation to Ulysses S. Grant. The former President and Union General’s Personal Memoirs (1885) played a minor though significant role in my dissertation. His experience of combat was so different from that of front line soldiers such as Ambrose Bierce and Sam Watkins that I hesitated to include him in the same chapter with those authors. Our current conception of trauma seemed to exclude him from the kinds of troubled and troubling memories that marked much of Watkins’ and Bierce’s work.
Nonetheless, I persisted in my curiosity at what impact (if any) combat trauma had on Grant’s narrative. What I found in his chapter on the battle of Shiloh rewarded my persistence.
On the night after the first day of battle Grant says:
“During the night rain fell in torrents and our troops were exposed to the storm without shelter. I made my headquarters under a tree a few hundred yards back from the river bank. My ankle was so much swollen from the fall of my horse the Friday night preceding, and the bruise was so painful, that I could get no rest. The drenching rain would have precluded the possibility of sleep without this additional cause. Some time after midnight, growing restive under the storm and the continuous pain, I moved back to the log-house under the bank. This had been taken as a hospital, and all night wounded men were being brought in, their wounds dressed, a leg or an arm amputated as the case might require, and everything being done to save life or alleviate suffering. The sight was more unendurable than encountering the enemy’s fire, and I returned to my tree in the rain.”
Throughout most of Grant’s memoirs, he maintains a firm hand on the narrative. Even though Grant wants his readers to see him as a man driven by the dictates of fate (“Man Proposes God Disposes” are the first words of his text), his narrative technique is strictly controlled by the author. It is only in rare moments such as the one above that Grant drops his public persona and we gain a glimpse at the ordinary man behind that name.
What we see is a man who may not fit the paradigm associated with PTSD. However, he is clearly touched by what he has witnessed, so much so that he writes about it over 20 years later. Grant is confronted in that log-house with the consequences of military command. He doesn’t like what he sees.
Would it cheapen what soldiers at the front line experience to consider this trauma rather than simply garden variety guilt or regret? I don’t know. It’s still an issue I’m puzzling over as I consider the traces of war in Civil War veterans’ writing.
What I do know is that it’s time for scholars to find a way to talk about trauma that doesn’t automatically gravitate towards PTSD.