Many students of the American Civil War often wonder what it must have been like. What did a battle look and sound like? What sights, sounds and smells did the average Civil War soldier experience during a battle? What is it like to face hostile enemy fire, to face life on a second by second basis, where to move of a fraction of an inch could mean the difference between life and death? What goes through a soldier’s mind during a battle? What does it feel like? What does it do to you, to your mind?
Walt Whitman wrote, “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books.” To a large degree, Mr. Whitman was right. For nearly a century and a half students of the war have combed through archives and libraries, read soldiers diaries and letters, official reports and newspaper accounts; scholars have written thousands upon thousands of books about Civil War. From these sources we try to extrapolate what it was like for the fighting men of both sides. And yet what we think we know cannot possibly compare to the experiences of those who participated in it.
How did the war, where killing could be random and from a distance or at point-blank range during hand-to-hand combat, affect the mental capacities of the soldiers who fought it? It is a question that can never be fully answered. The American Civil War occurred in an era before modern psychiatry, and “post traumatic stress” would not be a clinically diagnosed disorder for the next one hundred years.
A Charleston, South Carolina psychiatrist, Perry Trouche, has attempted to answer the question of how the war affected the mental health of the fighting men, not through a scholarly dissertation or a medical journal article, but instead though a work of fiction. A historical novel can take its reader places where works of nonfiction cannot: the inner world and thoughts of its characters.
Mr. Trouche’s protagonist, Conner DuMont, is a Confederate soldier, the “new boy” in the 12th South Carolina Infantry, a regiment of veterans in Samuel McGowan’s Brigade. It is May, 1864 in Spotsylvania, Virginia and the regiment has just taken its position in the salient which gives Mr. Trouche’s novel its name, “The Mule Shoe.” Surrounded on three sides by the Federal Army, the Mule Shoe salient was the scene of severe fighting and thus Mr. Trouche has succeeded in placing Conner, whose mental status, from the very beginning of the novel, is questionable at best, in the vortex of hell.
Written in a first person stream of consciousness style “The Mule Shoe” is a fascinating view of a Confederate soldier whose mental stability is on an ever increasing downward spiral, while experiencing all the horrors that 19th century warfare has to offer.
Throughout the novel Conner hears voices and sees hallucinations. He both converses and interacts with them, and they offer a running commentary, evaluating Conner and his actions, and occasionally giving conflicting pieces of advice. At first the voices and visions are of relatives and friends of his past, but as the battle rages on, and death occurs all around him, others join in. Reality and delusion blur and blend together. Eventually Conner’s inner psyche comes to his rescue, pulling him back, literally and figuratively, from the horrible carnage of the Mule Shoe salient to a place of calmness and serenity, a place of safety, where the horrors of war have been removed, where he can begin to heal.
Mr. Trouche has masterfully written a novel blending history and psychiatry. His characters are artfully crafted, and though much of the dialog is written in dialect, it always rings true. He may not have written the real war as soldiers on both sides may have experienced it, but he has done something very much like it.
ISBN 978-1932842333, Star Cloud Press, © 2009, Hardcover, 230 pages, $29.95