Editor’s Note: WSKG has asked faculty and graduate students in the History Department at Binghamton University to explore the history behind PBS’s new drama Mercy Street. In today’s blog post, Professor Diane Sommerville discusses the topic of suicide and the Civil War.
Warning: this post contains spoilers.
The Battlefield is Hard on a Boy: Suicide in the Civil War
In Episode 4 of Mercy Street, the daring escape of Confederate private Tom Fairfax ends with his suicide. Tom’s boyhood friend Frank Stringfellow spirits him out of Mansion House Hospital under cover of darkness and escorts him to nearby Confederate lines so that Tom can rejoin his regiment. As Frank prepares his departure, Tom begins muttering, looking pre-occupied and anxious.
“I’m sorry,” Tom cries. He confesses that he can not return to duty: “the blood – the smoke – the screaming. You never know where it’s coming from. The eyes in the darkness looking out at you. I can’t go back.”
Frank stands in horror, suddenly aware of what his childhood friend has in store. Tom utters his last words – “Tell Alice I love her” – and pulls the trigger.
The Realities of War
Though uncommon, self-inflicted death among Civil War soldiers, like the fictional Tom Fairfax, did occur. Soldiers committing suicide rarely left behind notes so we speculate about their motives. Through Tom’s storyline, however, viewers witness several factors that contribute to his suicide.
First, Tom is the typical Confederate soldier. He is young, single, and has never left his home state of Virginia. When war broke out, legions of boys and men – the “Boys of ‘61” – hastily lined up outside recruitment centers, eager to enlist. Consumed by rage militaire, or military exuberance, and excited by the appeal of adventure, young men like Tom thought little about what war really entailed.
In short order, enthusiasm for fighting withered in the face of drudgery, cold, hunger, and exposure. Recruits battled lice, typhoid, measles, fatigue, and homesickness. In fact, doctors even attached a medical diagnosis to the most extreme cases of homesickness: nostalgia, a malady among soldiers caused by disappointment and a chronic longing for home.
Tom’s reminiscing about childhood suggests his military experiences and injuries had left him dwelling on a happier time in his life. Even though his capture returns him to his home, it didn’t “’feel like home” to Tom any longer. He is no longer the carefree child who volunteered for duty.
Like many returning veterans, the experience of combat had forever altered Tom’s emotional connection to home and family.
Tom also struggles with emotional trauma. As a patient, he refuses to see his sweetheart, Alice Green, whose sister happens upon Tom in the hospital. Tom bluntly states, “I don’t want her to see me like this.”
Physically and mentally compromised and confined by his captors, Tom has become unmanned. In the nineteenth century, the ideal man was a paragon of strength, independence and courage. Tom’s injuries leave him reliant on others for care, which humiliated him. Because he was captured, he also worries that others would regard him as weak. Or worse, that he was “shirking” – feigning or exaggerating illness or injury to get out of military duty.
Their Comrades-in-arms denounced shirkers as cowards. No accusation cut deeper than to be called a coward, especially on the battlefield. Tom’s physical and psychological circumstances chip away at his manliness and honor, two qualities central to a southern man in the nineteenth century. For some soldiers, death was a far better fate than living with the taint of cowardice or failure.
Finally, Tom clearly suffers psychologically from war trauma (oftentimes referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]). Tom exhibits erratic behavior. He’s delusional, paranoid, and distracted. He presents with respiratory distress, chest pain, sweating, and heart palpitations, classic symptoms of “soldier’s heart,” according to Mercy Street‘s Dr. Foster.
Tom admits to his fear. Like many young men, Tom was ill-prepared for what war required of its soldiers. The memory of having shot “a boy,” with whom he would have played a year earlier, torments him. “I have seen the elephant,” Tom cries, an expression meaning he had witnessed battle.
In the show, Tom shoulders the invisible, psychological scars of bearing witness to the carnage of warfare.
Emma Green recognizes the impact of war on a young man. She explains Tom’s transformation to her naïve sister, “He’s changed. He’s different.” Emma continues, “The battlefield is hard on a boy.”
A Tortured Soul
As Tom contemplates returning to the front, the emotional and psychological pressures emanating from war bears down on him. Returning to his company would mean facing anew the horrors of the battlefield. Admittedly afraid, could he fulfill his duties as soldier? Would he become crippled by fear and unable to fight, thereby exposing himself as a coward to his comrades? For Tom, living with the moniker of coward was unfathomable.
Tortured, Tom makes the lethal decision: dying on his terms, by his own hands, is a fate preferable to failing as a man and a soldier.
Diane Sommerville, Ph.D., is an associate professor of History at Binghamton University. She is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War Era South.