Tragic Heroes: Gouverneur Warren Part Four

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Going back to the leadership series and the fourth installment of my work dealing with Union Major General Gouverneur Warren.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

warren-and-staff

Warren With his Staff

Corps Command in Virginia and the Evidence of Combat Stress

Warren was promoted to be the acting commander of II Corps after Gettysburg as Hancock had been wounded and then was appointed to command V Corps.  He served well as a Corps commander, although his often “quick and sulphurous temper which he displayed in the Virginia campaign of 1864 worked against Warren by making him unnecessary enemies and dismaying his friends.” [1] Warren was so short tempered during the campaign, probably, due to the result of the strain of it that Colonel Charles Wainwright complained that Warren “had a screw loose and is not quite accountable for all his freaks.”  [2] In high command Warren’s “fellow officers respected his ability as an engineer, but disliked his arrogance and insolence. Warren’s temper was legendary, and when his anger boiled over he sputtered out profanities that, said one colleague, “made my hair stand on end.” [3] To be fair to Warren that last outburst followed the disaster inflicted by Grant on the army at Cold Harbor, when Grant threw it up against strongly entrenched Confederate troops with great loss. Warren who could not abide meaningless slaughter found it reprehensible.

The interesting thing about all the accounts of Warren’s temper being so violent is that they do not begin until after he is in Corps command, and he gives no hint of such anger and rage in his letters until after his experiences on the Peninsula, Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg and finally Gettysburg. During the Army of the Potomac’s inaction during the fall of 1863 it became clear that the war was taking a toll on Warren. Alcohol became a problem, so much that once after drinking a whisky punch with his staff he was “falling down drunk” and had to be told of his actions the following night by one of his staff members. [4]

His letters to Emily display a sense of depression and sometimes even despair. He wrote Emily:

“I repine a great deal. I begin to feel myself giving out in spirit. I need so to rest where I could be contented. So long now my life has been one continued worry or excitement that I am losing my elasticity and I am getting almost afraid for I am apprehensive that I cannot uphold my position…. Every day shows me more and more how this war is severing my old affiliations and making me lonely…here I sit all alone in this great camp (for so I feel) and the memory of my dear friends comes over me and I am morbidly depressed. Indeed I feel I am a very small man that I can endure no more, for I am well and not a prisoner…and have been honored more than I deserve. I have not the heart of a good soldier.” [5]

Since so many people that knew Warren after Gettysburg describe the fearsome and nearly volcanic nature of his temper we can accept that as a fact. Likewise his arrogant, insolent and even haughty attitude towards those that he believed himself to be intellectually superior is evident even during his early career as are his recurrent struggles with depression which only grew worse throughout the war and in following years.

Dr. Judith Herman, an associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School wrote:

“Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the basic attachments of family, friendship, love and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.” [6]

But it is only after the continued trauma that Warren experienced at Malvern Hill, Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg that we see the evidence of Warren’s anger, bitterness and rage becoming a major factor in his life and relationships. If we are to take into account the findings of modern science, medicine and psychiatry in relationship to the descriptions provided by Warren and those that knew him, we have to at least give serious consideration to the real possibility that Warren’s issues were caused by his experience of war and some type of resultant combat stress injury. This could include PTSD, Moral Injury, or possibly even changes brought about by a traumatic brain or concussive injury.

Jonathan Shay, a psychologist with many years of experience in dealing with veterans afflicted with PTSD wrote that “The social conditions that cause complex PTSD – persistent betrayal and rupture of community in mortal stakes situations of captivity – destroy thumos, destroy normal narcissism and undo character.” [7]

Dave Grossman writes about how such events can become what we now call “Character disorders”:

Character disorders include obsessional traits in which the soldier becomes fixated on certain actions or things; paranoid trends accompanied by irascibility, depression, anxiety, often taking on the tone of threats to his safety; schizoid trends leading to hypersensitivity and isolation; epileptoid character reactions accompanied by periodic rages…..What has happened to the soldier is an altering of his fundamental personality.” [8]

Shay writes about what happens to character when it is damaged by war, and the spectrum of clinical manifestations of an injury to character seen in many combat veterans. Among the manifestation that Shay describes, a good number which are present in what we know about Warren. These include: Demoralization, self-loathing, a sense of worthlessness, pervasive “raw” vulnerability and feeling conspicuous, social withdraw irritability, rage at small slights, disappointments and lapses, coercive attempts to establish power dominance. [9]

Warren’s repeated writings about his isolation; depression and despair to Emily are powerful. He writes Emily in words that he shares with no one else. In those letters he conveys the depth of his injury, an injury that has shaken his faith in himself, his leaders and brought about an existential crisis. It is an injury that with a man like Ulysses S. Grant in command that he could not voice to anyone in the army for fear of what we would now call the stigma of PTSD that is experienced by so many combat veterans. Instead it comes out in a drive to ensure that his soldiers are not sacrificed in senseless battles, a sense of his own unworthiness, and a sense that he has been shunted aside, even betrayed by those commanding the army, including his former friend Meade as well as Grant. His letter to Emily that he wrote in 1866 describes the effects of PTSD and Moral Injury almost perfectly:

“I wish I did not dream that much. They make me sometimes dread to go to sleep. Scenes from the war, are so constantly recalled, with bitter feelings I wish to never experience again. Lies, vanity, treachery, and carnage.” [10]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren p.315

[2] Huntington, Tom Searching for George Gordon Meade: the Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg Stackpole Books Mechanicsburg PA 2013 p.305

[3] Ibid. LaFantasie Twilight at Little Round Top p.73

[4] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren p.104

[5] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: The Life of G.K. Warren p.106

[6] Herman, Judith Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror Basic Books, a member of Perseus Books Group. New York 1992 and 1997 p.51

[7] Shay, Jonathan Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming Scribner, New York and London 2002 p.160

[8] Grossman, Dave On Killing Back Bay Books Little, Brown and Company New York, Boston and London 1995 and 1996 p.48 An epileptoid personality pattern is one that includes irritability, selfishness, aggressiveness and being uncooperative. All of these are demonstrated in the changes that Warren exhibits between 1862 and 1865

[9] Ibid. Shay Odysseus in America pp.160-161

[10] Ibid. Jordan Happiness is Not My Companion: the Life of G.K Warren p.249

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Filed under civil war, History, leadership, mental health, Military, PTSD

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