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Putting the Sick in Homesickness

We tend to see homesickness today as a sign of weakness or immaturity, but it wasn’t always that way.

By Lisa Wade

“The poor fellow died of Nostalgia,” said a war surgeon in 1861. “Deaths from this cause are very frequent in the army.”

During the Civil War, physicians believed that acute homesickness was a genuine disease and a sometimes fatal one. Symptoms included heart palpitations, fever, lesions, lack of appetite, incontinence and bowel irregularities, and, ultimately, dementia. A veteran of the war described homesickness as a “vampyre-like,” sucking the life out of soldiers.


(Photo: Library of Congress)

Writing for the New York Times, historianSusan Matt writes that, “between 1861 and 1866, 5,537 Union soldiers suffered homesickness acutely enough to come to a doctor’s attention, and 74 died of it.” Some believed that homesickness was the single most deadly threat to soldiers, above and beyond the war itself.

Physicians debated how best to avert nostalgia. Some said not enough letters from home caused it; others said too many could do so. Some units prohibited music that reminded men of home or sang its praises. They wondered whether young men — barely more than boys — were most susceptible. Or whether it was grown men, like the man in the image above — accustomed to the comforts of domestic life — who would miss home the most. If homesickness was untreatable, soldiers would be granted a furlough as a last resort and a few were honorably discharged, simply unable to function away from home.

Susan Matt, who has written a book about the history of homesickness, points out that Americans don’t think of themselves as homebodies anymore. They’ve re-cast themselves as natural adventurers who seek novelty and new experiences. When Europeans arrived on the East Coast, they didn’t sit there, they went West! Today, people get the “travel bug.” We are now a nation of tourists.

And when people do express homesickness, Matt observes, writing for the Council on Contemporary Families, we see it as a different kind of pathology: weakness or immaturity. When young adults don’t want to leave home, we call it “failure to launch,” “boomerang kids,” or “the Peter Pan syndrome.” Colleges now shoo away “helicopter parents” and have “parting ceremonies” symbolizing a “cutting of the cord” between parent and child.

But the word “homesick” reminds us that it wasn’t always that way, nor was it always so easy to dismiss feelings of nostalgia and isolation. The notion that we should be ruggedly independent and eager to set out on our own is only about 90 years old. So, the homebodies out there who first heard the word “staycation” and said yes are holding up a true American tradition.



This story originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Putting the Sick in Homesickness.”