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Aberration of MindSuicide and Suffering in the Civil War-Era South$
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Diane Miller Sommerville

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781469643304

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: May 2019

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469643304.001.0001

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Cumberer of the Earth

Cumberer of the Earth

The Secularization of Suffering and Suicide

(p.235) Chapter 8 Cumberer of the Earth
Aberration of Mind

Diane Miller Sommerville

University of North Carolina Press

This chapter surveys the long nineteenth century with an eye toward assessing how suffering and suicidal activity during the Civil War ushered in cultural and religious changes in ideas about suicide and the importance of those changes in laying groundwork for a new Confederate identity. The psychological crisis that grew out of the Civil War remapped the cultural, theological, and intellectual contours of the region. The scourge of war-related psychiatric casualties altered long-held axioms about suicide yielding a more tolerant, nuanced understanding of self-destruction as a response to suffering, one that found expression in sympathy and compassion for suicide victims. More routinely, denunciations of suicide were replaced with compassionate resignation. The writings of fire-eater Edmund Ruffin’s about suicide -- on the suicide of Thomas Cocke in 1840 and his own suicide note in 1854 -- are a window into how southerners thought about self-murder. His more tolerant views toward suicide before the war were out-of-step with most, but by war’s end more and more southerners dissented from rigid religious doctrine that cast self-murder as a mortal sin and came to share his view that sometimes circumstances justified death by one’s hand.

Keywords:   Edmund Ruffin, attitudes toward suicide, mortal sin, religion, attitudes

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