J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A British Soldier Debilitated by Nostalgia in 1781

In 1786, the British journal Medical Commentaries included an article from Dr. Robert Hamilton (1749-1830) of Ipswich titled “History of a remarkable Case of Nostalgia affecting a native of Wales and occurring in Britain.”

In July 1780 Hamilton, a weaver’s son just out of medical school, was commissioned a surgeon’s mate for the British army’s 10th Regiment of Foot. That regiment had been involved in the very beginning of the Revolutionary War, its light company firing at militiamen on Lexington common. But in 1778 the depleted 10th was sent back to Britain to rebuild.

Hamilton’s case study reported on a young man enlisted in those years:
In the year 1781, while I lay in barracks at Tinmouth in the north of England, a recruit who had lately joined the regiment (named Edwards), was returned in the sick list, with a message from his captain, requesting I would take him into the hospital.

He had only been a few months a soldier; was young, handsome, and well-made for the service; but a melancholy hung over his countenance, and wanness preyed on his checks. He complained of universal weakness, but no fixed pain; a noise in his ears, and giddiness of his head. Pulse rather slow than frequent; but small, and easily compressible. His appetite was much impaired. His tongue was sufficiently moist, and his belly regular; yet he slept ill, and started suddenly out of it, with uneasy dreams. He had little or no thirst.

As there were little obvious symptoms of fever, I did not well know what to make of the case.
Hamilton first suspected “an incipient typhus” and started treatment for that disease. But this private didn’t improve. He barely ate, spent most of his time dozing in bed. After “near three months” in the hospital, he looked “like one in the last stage of a consumption.”

Fortunately, there was a nurse at the hospital paying attention to the whole patient. Dr. Hamilton wrote:
she happened to mention the strong notions he had got in his head, she said, of home, and of his friends. What he was able to speak was constantly on this topic. This I had never heard of before. The reason she gave for not mentioning it, was, that it appeared to her to be the common ravings of sickness and delirium. He had talked in the same style, it seems, less or more, ever since he came into the hospital.

I went immediately up to him, and introduced the subject; and from the alacrity with which he resumed it (yet with a deep sigh, when he mentioned his never more being able to see his friends), I found it a theme which much affected him.
The recruit asked the doctor if he could go home. Hamilton replied that he was in no physical shape to travel. But, even without the commanding officer’s approval, he promised a six-week furlough if the soldier could recover.

“In less than a week,” Dr. Hamilton reported, he saw “evident signs of recovery.” The young man was in a better mood. At first he enjoyed being carried out to the beach to watch the ships. In less than two months, the private was able to walk to his barracks.

Dr. Hamilton then set about getting the soldier that furlough. He convinced the regiment’s officers that their recruit would relapse if he wasn’t allowed to see home again. Finally, the commanding officer “obligingly granted” a leave. And there the story ended.

Hamilton reprinted his essay in 1787 and again in 1794 in The Duties of a Regimental Soldier. Philip Shaw analyzed that version in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies in 2014, noting at the end:
Although the muster rolls for the 10th Foot Regiment list a soldier named John Edwards as sick for consecutive periods in 1780 when the regiment was stationed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, there is no mention of a soldier with this name in the sick list for Tynemouth in 1781, which is the place and year that Hamilton establishes.
Hamilton’s case study used the name “Edwards” only once, and in parentheses. In his book, the doctor also referred to another soldier with a different problem by the same name. Finally, Shaw adds that a sad army veteran named Edwards was a character in Henry Mackenzie’s popular 1771 novel A Man of Feeling. So it’s likely that Edwards was not the soldier’s real name—or that Hamilton wasn’t exact in other details.

Be that as it may, Hamilton made a point of his patient being from Wales. That was on the other side of Britain from Newcastle or Tynemouth, a significant distance. In addition, Wales is a mountainous region, and at the time people from the Alps were thought to be especially prone to nostalgia, perhaps because of altitude changes.

As for any possible connection between nostalgia and post-traumatic stress disorder, this is another case of a man showing signs of depression before seeing any known combat. Hamilton obviously viewed the problem as homesickness, though of course this young man might have been naturally melancholic.

(The photograph above is a detail of an image from Newcastle Photos showing Tynemouth Castle and Priory, used for barracks over the centuries. I’m not sure that Dr. Hamilton and Pvt. Edwards were housed there, but it looks handsome.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, J.L.,

I started your article and realised that I had read this account before, although when I began your series on 'nostalgia' it didn't occur to me.

I have a copy of Hamilton's book. (Its title is The Duties of a Regimental SURGEON, Considered, if anyone is interested in reading more, and it can be found on Internet Archive.)