Sunday, June 15, 2014

Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Battle of the Little Bighorn


In his book A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn -the Last Great Battle of the American West, James Donovan details what are clearly manifestations of Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder among the survivors.  The case of Captain Thomas Weir is illustrative.  Weir died less than six months after the battle, “rapidly destroying himself with alcohol (Weir) spent most of his days in a state of depression and nervous exhaustion.”  Donovan attributes Weir’s condition to “battle fatigue, the traumatic loss of so many close friends, the method of their destruction, (and) the slander of Custer’s good name….”(Donovan, 348)  Captain Thomas French appears to have suffered a similar fate.  In 1879 French was found guilty of three counts of drunkenness and one count of conduct unbecoming an officer.  He was suspended at half pay for a year.  In 1880, he was determined to be “mentally unfit and physically incapable to perform any military duties.”  He died two years later.  “Like Weir, his breakdown was likely brought on by ‘soldier’s heart,’ the era’s phrase for combat fatigue or shell shock.”(Donovan, 365) 


For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.



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