Summerfield Hayes enlists in the Union army in the summer of 1864, despite his older sister’s objections. Prior to his enlistment, Hayes had been providing his sister, a Brooklyn schoolteacher, with the comfort she needed after the death of their parents. Soon after his training, his unit joins the Army of the Potomac in Virginia. After the battle of the Wilderness, Hayes is abandoned by his comrades. Thinking he is wounded, he winds up in a Washington military hospital. Unable to speak or write, he befriends a visitor, well-known poet Walt Whitman, who is compassionate and tries to heal Hayes of his wounds, both physical and mental. Because he is unable to communicate, the army doesn’t know his name, hometown, or relatives. Nor do the doctors and staff understand why he feels he is wounded when there are no signs of injury.
This literary novel describes the early signs of shell shock before it became a popular diagnosis during and after World War I. Men who faced mental anguish after battles were categorized as cowards for refusing to return to the battlefield.
This story is reminiscent of early novels of the Civil War such as The Red Badge of Courage, where men wounded in war faced more than actual physical wounds and entered into their own private hell of mental anguish. I was impressed with the author’s writing style as he describes the interaction between Hayes and other characters, both during the battle and his convalescence. The hospital scenes are especially well written; I could feel the patients’ compassion as well as their suffering. Many on the hospital staff support the patients, while there are others who take advantage of their mental and physical conditions.
I highly recommend this novel as a character study of the effects war has on the mental state of soldiers after battle. One of the better novels written on the Civil War, this book could become a classic.