History professor receives prestigious national book nomination

Sommerville is a finalist for best Civil War-era work of 2018

Diane Miller Sommerville, an associate professor in the History Department, is a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Her book, "Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South" is one of five books nominated for best work of 2018 on the Civil War. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Diane Miller Sommerville, an associate professor in the History Department, is a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Her book,
Diane Miller Sommerville, an associate professor in the History Department, is a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Her book, "Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South" is one of five books nominated for best work of 2018 on the Civil War. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

Diane Miller Sommerville was in the midst of an evening church meeting when she noticed an email on her computer titled “Lincoln Prize.”

“I thought: ‘Should I open it?’ I didn’t want to be reading my mail at a meeting,” said Sommerville, an associate professor of history at Binghamton University. “But I opened it up – and the news was stunning to me.”

Sommerville learned that she was one of five finalists for the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize for her latest book: “Aberration of Mind: Suicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South.” The Lincoln Prize — awarded by Gettysburg College and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History — is given annually to the best non-fiction historical work of the year about the Civil War. The winning author receives $50,000 and a bronze replica of Augustus Saint-Gauden’s life-sized bust called “Lincoln the Man.”

“I had to read the email a couple of times,” Sommerville recalled. “It was stunning to me that my book was listed among the books of four other amazing historians whose work I’ve long admired.”

The finalists were chosen from 102 book submissions. Besides Sommerville, the other nominees included Richard J.M. Blackett (“The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery”); David Blight (“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom”); William Freehling (“Becoming Lincoln”); and Joanne B. Freeman (“The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War”).

The Lincoln Prize was awarded to Blight on Feb. 12 – the birthday of the 16th president. The finalists will be honored at an April gala at the Union League Club in New York City.

“It never dawned on me that I would be a serious contender,” Sommerville said. “I wasn’t even thinking about it.”

‘Aberration’ origins

“Aberration of Mind” examines how suicide and psychological distress shaped and affected Southerners during the Civil War and its aftermath. The book, published in late 2018 from the University of North Carolina Press, looks at the struggles of men going to war and returning from war, their wives and mothers, and slaves and the newly freed men and women.

For Sommerville, the book was nearly 15 years in the making and began when she considered contemporary cases of severe depression and suicidal behavior.

“I began wondering: If it is so difficult treating somebody with severe mental illness today, what was it like years ago?” she said. “As a 19th-century Southern historian, the question naturally took me to the Civil War, when the South was in the throes of war and experiencing profound distress. No historian had tackled the question, how did the war affect the mental health of participants and their families?”

The project was an ideal topic for the “social historian.”

“I’m interested in the ordinary lives of people,” said Sommerville, whose first book was “Rape and Race in the Nineteenth-Century South” in 2004. “I look past political speeches and laws. I want to see what’s happening in the lives of everyday people.”

The research journey

Sommerville spent several years travelling to the South and examining asylum records, newspapers, diaries and coroner’s reports. Among the places she visited were the Georgia Archives in Morrow, Ga., Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.; the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and other cities and towns such as Nashville, Tenn., and Columbia, S.C.

While she mostly travelled in the summer and in between semesters, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship Award in 2011 enabled her to spend a year conducting research and writing.

“As a social historian, I’m happiest when I am knee-deep in sooty 100-year-old documents and letters,” she said. “This project brought me back to what I love to do: archival research and tackling topics that allow us to know more about ordinary people.”

Websites such as Ancestry.com (a genealogy research site) and Fold3.com (a collection of military records) have “revolutionized what social historians can do,” Sommerville said. The sites played key roles in her project.

“It was a bit of detective work,” she said. “I would find a short story in a newspaper that said Colonel So-and-So committed suicide. Then I turned to Ancestry.com or Fold3.com to find information about his unit, where he was from and details about his family life.

“When I started the project 15 years ago, few primary sources had been digitized, making cross-checking nearly impossible. Online access to digitized records allowed me to dig deeper into the lives of men and women whom I identified as suicide victims from short snippets in newspaper accounts, which often provided names and no other information.”

Sommerville also credited history colleagues who shared sources and offered to read her work.

“My colleagues in southern history would send me a suicide reference they came across in the archives while working on their own research projects,” she said. “In many ways, trying to find a suicide in letters and diaries was akin to finding a needle in a haystack, so by sharing their research nuggets with me they were providing me clues to follow up that I likely wouldn’t have found.”

A deeper look

While “Aberration of Mind” features dozens of stories about suicide victims, it also highlights those who either contemplated suicidal thoughts or experienced severe emotional or psychological suffering, be it the death of a loved one or the feeling of failure.

Sommerville’s initial research focused on suicide, but she soon realized that “suffering” was also a major part of the story, especially for women.

“Women tended not to act on suicide as frequently as men did, but they talked about it more,” she said. ”So if I had followed the traditional approach to historical suicide, I would have looked only at those cases of completed or fatal suicide. That approach would have ignored a great deal of suicidal activity and thought among women and slighted them as subjects in my study.”

One example of a suffering Southerner was Emily Harris, an overwhelmed and depressed mother of seven from South Carolina whose husband left for the front — leaving his wife to head the household and oversee the family’s farm and slaves. Harris’ stress, anxiety and despair led her to believe she was going insane and to fantasize about death as an escape, though she never attempted suicide.

“We see through her journal that she’s struggling with ordinary, everyday affairs like slaves being stubborn and recalcitrant,” Sommerville said. “Her husband is off to war and she doesn’t know if he is hungry or tired. There are oats to harvest and hogs to slaughter. All of these things weighed on her and nearly broke her. She survived, but there was an emotional and psychological cost.”

Sommerville also examines how the act of suicide evolved from being looked at as a religious sin to a “cultural marker for white civilization.”

“Before the Civil War, a person who committed suicide was considered weak, a coward,” she said. “Killing oneself was also viewed as a sin because it encroached on God’s prerogative. Only God decides one’s time of death. But the vast and pervasive wartime and postwar suffering and the increased instances of suicide made southerners more tolerant of or sympathetic to those who killed themselves. Suicide thus came to be seen as a noble sacrifice to a worthy cause (for whites) — the failed Confederacy.

“White southerners, however, denied that African Americans suffered or committed suicide, defining melancholy and suicide as attributes of a more advanced (white) people.”

What’s next?

Sommerville believes “Aberration of Mind” is a book that will appeal to those interested in the Civil War, women’s history and African-American history. But she hopes it will provide them with a different perspective and allow readers to learn about the intimate lives of southerners, especially how the war affected their mental well-being.

“I want my audience to understand that Americans were deeply, deeply affected by the Civil War,” she said. “They struggled emotionally as a result. That part of the Civil War narrative is just as important as the Battle of Gettysburg or the revolving door of Lincoln’s commanders.”

Sommerville’s next project will explore the effects of postpartum disorders in female asylum inmates of the 19th century. Before then, she will deal with requests for interviews and blog posts about “Aberration of Mind.” A formal book launch and talk is scheduled on campus for April.

Sommerville said she is pleased that the Lincoln Prize nomination shines a spotlight on Binghamton University.

“Most finalists and winners hail from Ivy League institutions or have reached wide readership outside academia — people like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ken Burns, Eric Foner and James McPherson,” she said. “I’m pleased that this honor will reflect positively on Binghamton University and enhance the standing of the History Department.”

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