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On Friday March 12, Anthony and Joe Russo’s film Cherry was released on Apple TV+. Adapted from Nico Walker’s mostly autobiographical novel of the same name, it stars Tom Holland as Cherry, a Cleveland native who enlists in the Army and deploys to Iraq. There, he is traumatized by the violence of combat and returns to Cleveland with a roaring case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although Cherry has been self-medicating with prescribed and unprescribed drugs since his return, an inept VA doctor prescribes OxyContin. Cherry plunges into a full-blown opioid addiction which leads him and his wife to heroin abuse. Desperate for money, the drug-addled veteran turns to bank robbery to support them and pay off their drug dealer.
Cherry is an important story about the perils of soldiering, the damage it can inflict on the human psyche and the challenges posed by demobilization. But these challenges are old ones. Civil War soldiers faced psychological trauma, as well as the challenges of returning to civilian life. Some historians actually trace the extreme anti-Black violence of Reconstruction to southern veterans’ inability, or unwillingness, to make that transition.
But families on both sides welcomed back soldiers dramatically changed by pain and fear. In 1863, Napoleon Perkins career as a soldier came to a painful end in Virginia at the Battle of Chancellorsville. The New Hampshire native was wounded in the leg while trying to unhitch and replace an injured horse that was pulling a battery assigned to the 5th Maine Artillery. Comrades carried Perkins to the fringe of the battlefield, where he spent a long, painful night at a field hospital set up in an old plantation house. After refusing an amputation, Perkins was taken to St. Alosyius Hospital in Washington, D.C., where his leg took a turn for the worst and was eventually amputated.
After a long recovery, Perkins was discharged in 1864. Now a veteran, Napoleon Perkins returned to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where he moved in with this sister and her husband. Unsure what to do, he briefly enrolled at Kimball Union Academy in Plainfield. But by the spring of 1865, his money was gone, and he was forced to leave school to look for work.
Like Cherry, Perkins was expected to care for himself after his combat service. Instead, he joined the thousands of Yankees who returned home to the cities of the North and the Midwest hoping to resume their careers as clerks, accountants, or factory workers. But many failed. Wage labor was limited, and returning Union soldiers were particularly suspect as employees.
A slumping economy was partly to blame. In 1866, a postwar recession struck, one that slid into a major economic depression in 1873. On top of that economic contraction, many employers were hesitant to hire veterans. Many believed that after years of marching, fighting, drinking and other unsavory activities, soldiers would never settle back into the dull, disciplined peacetime. In May 1865, The New York Times commented on this stigma: “It is taken for granted,” one article proclaimed, “that the bulk of them can do nothing hereafter for a living but fight.”
Veterans were frustrated by this stereotype, and by the notion that men who had fought for the nation’s survival could be so easily discarded. “Why is it that so large a number of the business men throughout the country hesitate to employ the returned soldier?” asked one veteran in a newspaper editorial. “There is no disguising it boys; the people are afraid of us! They heard many strange and bad stories about us while we were in the army-stories which did us no good, but were heard greatly to our disadvantage.”
Like other veterans, Napoleon Perkins struggled to find steady work in the sagging postwar economy. He traveled to East Haverhill, New Hampshire, where he briefly worked as a clerk until he was laid off. In 1866, he split his time between New Hampshire, Maine, and Boston, always looking for work. He scoured Lewiston, Maine, but every cotton factory and shoe shop that he applied to turned him away. The owners “all seemed to feel sorry” for young Perkins, but “they had no work that a one leg man could do.”
The lack of prospects for the war’s sick and wounded reduced many to dire poverty. Riding the ferry from Manhattan to Jersey City, an “ex-soldier of the Union” in a “soiled and worn” uniform from which hung a “mutilated limb” often greeted a minister whenever he made the trip. The veteran would slink through the cabin with cap in hand, the minister wrote, making “a mute appeal for charity.”
Like this beggar many injured veterans were reduced to living in squalor. Edward Crapsey found them when he began poking around New York’s slums. One dusty room in a Manhattan tenement house on Cherry Street that Crapsey estimated was around 12 square feet, housed a family of four plus two extra boarders. Each paid fifteen cents a day for the right to sleep in the dark musty room. One man was missing an arm. Crapsey assumed he had lost it in a work accident, but when he inquired he was shocked to learn the man had lost it at the Battle of Spotsylvania. “Here was a hero,” Crapsey lamented, disgusted at witnessing a noble veteran reduced to such levels of poverty.
Cherry’s drug addiction would also have been familiar to the 19th century observer: many Union veterans came home addicted too. During the war, opium and morphine were liberally used as painkillers. Philadelphia neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell estimated that in the course of one year, he and his colleagues at that city’s Turner’s Lane Hospital delivered 40,000 injections of morphine to sick and wounded soldiers.
The pain didn’t go away for many of these men, and even when it did, they were left dependent on the drug. In The Opium Habit, Horace B. Day estimated that eighty to one hundred thousand Americans were addicted to opium, and he believed many of them were veterans of the war. “Maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battle-fields,” Day wrote, “diseased and disabled soldiers released from hostile prisons…have found, many of them, temporary relief from their sufferings in opium.”
Not surprisingly, many of these men joined the ranks of a rising class of homeless citizens. Prior to 1873, Americans had not been aware of what Jacob Riis called “the great army of tramps.” But the 1873 Depression swelled the number of “tramps,” out of work men who rode the rails in search of work.
Americans were shocked at the scale of this problem. Many blamed veterans, claiming that most tramps were former Yankee soldiers. “This tramp system is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the war,” stated one Massachusetts police official in 1878. “The bummers of our armies could not give up their habits of roving and marauding, and settle down to the honest and industrious duties of citizen.” The use of the word “bummer” or “bum” always implied a veteran, since it referred to the Civil War soldiers in William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee who had been turned loose to sack plantations and forage for food on the famous 1864 March to the Sea.
Some Civil War veterans also suffered from what we would call PTSD today. A disorder that can afflict survivors of a traumatic event such as war, rape or natural disasters, PTSD includes a range of symptoms including hyper-vigilance, hyper-alertness, and emotional numbing. The signature symptom though, is reexperiencing the traumatic event through unwanted and invasive nightmares, flashbacks or hallucinations.
In his memoir, Napoleon Perkins hinted at this. The memory of his long sleepless night in the field hospital on the outskirts of the Chancellorsville battlefield haunted him for years afterwards. He was tortured by memories of his “badly swollen & inflamed” leg, as well as vivid recollections of the other wounded soldiers around him. “Some were groaning, others were praying, while others were singing, while still others were swearing…others delirious,” Perkins recalled.
“On my left lay a Rebel soldier,” Perkins wrote about the noises and images seared in his memory and returning in dreams. “He was badly wounded in the head and crazy as he could be. He would lay and scream, then he would mutter to himself. At times, he would attempt to get on his feet but being very weak would fall across me…he suffered so much.” His recovery in the field hospital was a disturbing experience, which gave him nightmares after his departure from the plantation house. “I shall never forget that night and have often dreamed of it,” he later wrote.
Many soldiers simply stopped being able to cope. A small number of Civil War veterans were so affected by their memories of the war they were admitted to an insane asylum. Nearly 3,000 Civil War soldiers became patients in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., a hospital devoted exclusively to their care. Thousands more veterans probably became patients in private and state insane asylums throughout the country.
But the vast majority of Civil War soldiers never set foot in an asylum, and were left to deal with their painful memories alone.
Stories like Cherry need to be told: they remind is that the cost of war lingers long after a soldier has left the battlefield. But they are not unique to the 21st century, nor is the reluctance to care for men—and now women—who return from the battlefield forever changed.
Veterans of the American Civil War would have understood Cherry’s retreat to heroin and bank robbery: and we should too.
Dillon J. Carroll is an instructor in the history department at Butte Community College and author of the forthcoming book Invisible Wounds: Mental Illness and Civil War Soldiers published by LSU Press and available in December 2021.