Aberration of Mind

Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War–Era South

By Diane Miller Sommerville

448 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 15 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-4330-4
    Published: October 2018
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-4357-1
    Published: September 2018
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5456-8
    Published: September 2018
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-4356-4
    Published: October 2018

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Awards & distinctions

Willie Lee Rose Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians

Finalist, 2019 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize

More than 150 years after its end, we still struggle to understand the full extent of the human toll of the Civil War and the psychological crisis it created. In Aberration of Mind, Diane Miller Sommerville offers the first book-length treatment of suicide in the South during the Civil War era, giving us insight into both white and black communities, Confederate soldiers and their families, as well as the enslaved and newly freed. With a thorough examination of the dynamics of both racial and gendered dimensions of psychological distress, Sommerville reveals how the suffering experienced by Southerners living in a war zone generated trauma that, in extreme cases, led some Southerners to contemplate or act on suicidal thoughts.

Sommerville recovers previously hidden stories of individuals exhibiting suicidal activity or aberrant psychological behavior she links to the war and its aftermath. This work adds crucial nuance to our understanding of how personal suffering shaped the way southerners viewed themselves in the Civil War era and underscores the full human costs of war.

Open Access ebook sponsored by an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships Open Book Program.

About the Author

Diane Miller Sommerville is associate professor of history at Binghamton University and author of Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South.
For more information about Diane Miller Sommerville, visit the Author Page.


“Sommerville gives a well-researched, powerful monograph that paves the way for other historians doing research in this field. She presents the experience of suicide from many angles and grounds that examination in the words and experiences of southerners themselves. The resulting analysis is a valuable contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century American society, the impact of the Civil War on the South, and the understanding and treatment of mental illness in the Civil War era.”--H-Net Reviews

“A worthy contribution to the scholarship on the experiences of ordinary citizens during the Civil War era and to the literature on the trauma of war.”--Journal of Southern History

“Cutting across the pages is a skillful discussion and understanding of Civil War South, women’s history, racial history, and the history of medicine.”--Journal of American History

“Like the human mind, the subject matter of this work is deeply complex, yet Sommerville has produced an eminently readable analysis and made an important contribution that will doubtless become required reading for students and scholars of the Civil War era and the history of mental illness.”--Journal of Arizona History

"In recent years, the suicide rate among American soldiers in Afghanistan surpassed the rate of combat deaths, making work like Aberration of Mind enormously timely and important. War, we are learning, is not just destructive but self-destructive work. In combining the lenses of history, psychology, and medicine, this book takes us to the root of how and why war has, apparently for centuries, left deep mental scars in the minds of the people who waged it and the populations who experienced it. This incredibly arresting and richly researched book will remain significant for a long time to come."--Stephen Berry, University of Georgia

"Sommerville's research is robust, her evidence formidable, and her analysis insightful, probing the complex intersections of gender and race. This book is full of fresh interpretations--a timely and welcome addition to the scholarship."--David Silkenat, University of Edinburgh