A Burden Too Heavy to Bear
by Diane Sommerville
New York Times, April 2, 2012
In late December 1861 Northern newspapers buzzed with rumors about a high-ranking Confederate officer who had committed suicide. Within days the victim was identified as Philip St. George Cocke, one of Virginia’s wealthiest and largest planters. Cocke, a West Point graduate, had been appointed commander of Virginia’s state forces by Governor John Letcher in the earliest days of hostilities. He lost his coveted rank of brigadier general, however, when Southern state militias were folded into the Confederate Army.
Although he received a promotion to brigadier general after the First Battle of Bull Run, Cocke never recovered from being demoted to colonel and felt that his battlefield successes were not sufficiently acknowledged. The perceived slights, on top of the strain of war, combined to take a huge toll on Cocke’s psychological and physical health. He retreated to his plantation a broken man, and on the day after Christmas 1861, he shot himself in the head with a pistol.
Cocke may well have been the highest-ranking Confederate soldier to die by his own hands during the Civil War, but he was not alone. The historical record is peppered with cases of soldiers, Northern and Southern, taking their own lives. While most suicides likely occurred as a consequence of what was then called “battle shock,” quite a few took place in camp, even before being shipped off to the front.
The Richmond Dispatch, for example, reported that a soldier identified only as E. White committed suicide while in camp near Savannah, Ga., in October 1861. The grandson of Kentucky Senator John Crittenden, a 26-year-old private named Coleman, who was attached to the 1st Florida Regiment, cut his throat in late August 1861 while stationed near Pensacola. No explanation was offered other than he had been “under a state of mental derangement.” A prominent lawyer from Mobile, Ala., had enlisted in one of the volunteer companies formed in that city in early summer 1861; he, too, slit his throat while making his way to the front.
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