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Thursday, February 26th, 2015


Contributed by Rachel Ravago, Guest Services Coordinator.


At one time or another, most of us have longed for the good old days. Today we consider these feelings to be pleasantly nostalgic in nature, but did you know that 150 years ago nostalgia was actually treated as a mental disorder among soldiers of war?


Photo courtesy of BNHV Archives. Corporal Jacob Frick wrote letters to the Western New York press during his service in the Civil War, providing a first-hand account of the hardships of army life and the chaos of war.

Prior to the twentieth century, nostalgia was considered a plague upon soldiers around the world for hundreds of years. Interest in nostalgia appeared as early as the seventeenth century in the medical community, with the 1688 publication of German medical student Johannes Hofer’s dissertation on the psychological and physiological characteristics of nostalgia. Hofer’s research was based on occurrences of nostalgia in Basel, as well as Swiss mercenaries serving in France. From the seventeenth and into the nineteenth century, nostalgia remained a point of interest within the medical community. Examples of nostalgia were recorded within militaries throughout Europe, such as those of Switzerland, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Spain, and Finland.

America’s soldiers were no exception. In diagnosing mental disorders, Civil War physicians employed the use of three main diagnostic categories: insanity, nostalgia, and irritable heart (or sunstroke).  Within the category of insanity, the further diagnostic system of mania, melancholia, and dementia was used. Nostalgia was considered by Civil War physicians to be a mental disease which branched off of melancholia, which was categorized as involving a depression or lethargy in the patient. The 1863 Manual of Instructions for Enlisting and Discharging Soldiers described nostalgia as follows:

“Nostalgia is a form of mental disease which comes more frequently under the observation of the military surgeon…Considered as a mental disease, – and there can be no doubt that the primary phenomena of this state are mental, – it belongs to the class Melancholia. The extreme mental depression and the unconquerable longing for home soon produce a state of cachexy, loss of appetite, derangement of the assimilative functions, and finally, disease of the abdominal viscera, – in fact, the objective phenomena of the typhoid state…As Nostalgia is not unfrequently fatal, it is a ground for discharge if sufficiently decided and pronounced.”

Nostalgia was considered to be both an emotional and physiological affliction, as the emotions associated were believed to affect one’s whole health. The three groups considered to be most susceptible to nostalgia were young men, married men, and rural dwellers, as these three groups were seen as having the strongest ties to home. It was this closeness to home that made men vulnerable to a longing for it considered so strong that it could manifest itself as a mental disease.


Image courtesy of BNHV Archives. Civil War draft notice from the State of New York to Jacob Snyder, 1864.

Naturally, an intense debate settled over the best treatment for nostalgia. The three most popular suggestions for treatment were battle, mockery, and furlough. Battle and mockery were considered to have a curative power, as they encouraged men to embrace their masculinity and the disciplined strength believed to be associated with it. Furlough, while largely unsupported by military physicians due to the great and continued need for men on the battlefield as the Civil War raged on, did find some support within the medical community and civilian population. The harsh treatment of soldiers afflicted by nostalgia stood in stark contrast to the period of “moral treatment” in place within insane asylums of the era. It was this difference in treatment that inspired a call for softer, more humane treatment of mentally ill soldiers of war, which would be more in line with the treatment received by mentally ill within American insane asylums of the day.

Official military records from May 1861 to June 1866 reveal 5,213 documented cases of nostalgia, resulting in 58 deaths.

The Civil War would be the last conflict in which nostalgia was diagnosed and treated among soldiers. The effects of war brought on by World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam would see the introduction of shell shock, post-traumatic stress, and others, respectively, as diagnoses which addressed the psychological casualties of war.

The changing concept of nostalgia demonstrates not only changing tides within the medical community regarding the treatment and understanding of mental disorders, but it also stands as an example of the ever evolving nature and use of language.

For more information or further suggested reading on nostalgia throughout history, please contact Rachel Ravago at rravago@bnhv.org. And don’t forget to attend the 150th Anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9th at 7pm, with special guest Tom Schobert; the WNY Civil War Regimental Symposium on June 27th beginning at 12pm; and our kid-friendly School of the Civil War Soldier program being held on July 11th from 10:30am to 4:30pm!


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