Two weeks after finishing it, and I’m still thinking about Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina by Ernest Dollar Jr. (See my review last week.)
When I read it, I expected to read about the final convulsive moments of the surrender of the Confederate armies and the immediate aftermath. And that’s the thumbnail description. But it’s about a lot more.
It’s the story of the civilians in north central North Carolina, roughly Raleigh to Greensboro, who found themselves in the path of two defeated armies and one victorious one.
It’s the story of the soldiers in those armies, who had to live with what we know today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One thing you don’t read in the general histories of the Civil War period in the rather startling increase in soldier suicides and commitments to insane asylums in the years and decades after the war.
It’s the story of some of the atrocities inflicted on the civilian and military population. In generally, Confederate soldiers were focused on finding food, shoes, and clothes, and they didn’t care where they found them. Confederate soldiers and civilians alike were often desperate for food, and together they were raiding government warehouses and supplies.
The Union soldiers had food. What they were looking for was loot and revenge. There were too many reports of pillaging and looting, and more than a few of rape. Women and often children were brutalized. Houses were burned. It wasn’t only soldiers who developed PTSD. Some of the federal soldiers were disciplined and a few executed for their crimes (especially after the armies surrendered; that meant the civilians were no longer members of a foreign and hostile country).
My great-grandfather was somewhere in that convulsion. Even at war’s end, he was (chronologically) a boy. Too young to take up arms officially, he had enlisted and became a messenger boy for the Confederate army.
What I don’t know is what did he do to stay alive. Did he participate in the looting of government warehouses? Did he steal from civilians? Those questions will never be answered. What we do know is that he had to walk home to southern Mississippi – hundreds of miles across a landscape destroyed in many places and in complete social upheaval everywhere.
When he finally reached home, he learned his family had fled to Texas. So, his trek continued across Louisiana and into east Texas, where he found them. He also discovered that he was the sole surviving son, the youngest child in the family. When his father died four years later, my great-grandfather became the head of the family, which included a widowed sister, two widowed sisters-in-law, and a number of nieces and nephews. And his only family, too – he had married in 1867, and he and his wife had a little boy. He had to take care of that extended family through the rigors of Reconstruction.
My great-grandfather was made of some stern stuff, and that book, Hearts Torn Asunder, helped me understand just how stern it was.
Top photo: My great-grandfather, Samuel Franklin Young, and my great-grandmother, Octavia Montgomery Young.