Book by Atlanta historian reveals the challenges of life after the Civil War

Michael Shaffer likes to tell the story of how he met Charlene Roche.

In 2016, Shaffer, an instructor at Kennesaw State University and Civil War historian, was invited to speak at the 150th anniversary celebration of Washington Chapel United Methodist Church in Abingdon, Va. The church was formed in 1865 by a former Civil War soldier and other residents in the area.

When Shaffer finished his presentation about the history of Washington County just after the Civil War, Roche approached and asked Shaffer to come out to her car. “My family and I have something we think you might have an interest in,” Roche said to Shaffer.

Roche popped open the trunk of her car and told him to hold out his arms. She loaded them with volume after bound volume of journals, all handwritten accounts from her great-grandfather Thomas W. Colley.

“I thought I was going to fall over in the parking lot,” Shaffer said. Instead, he got to work, assembling and researching the history Roche had placed in his hands. This month marked the release of “In Memory of Self and Comrades,” (University of Tennessee Press).

The book, part of the Voices of the Civil War series, offers a detailed account of Colley’s war service from 1861 through 1865 in the 1st Virginia Cavalry as well as his reintegration into civilian life after his return.

“Even if people are not interested in the war they can read about Reconstruction and the social, economic and political conditions,” Shaffer said.

Through Colley’s eyes, Shaffer learned about many things he had never read about before. Colley was wounded three times as a soldier including his final injury which resulted in the amputation of his foot and his subsequent discharge. “His observations about hospital conditions and amputation procedures, I never encountered to the degree he described those things,” Shaffer said.

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Colley described life during the war, most notably his being left for dead during the Battle of Kelly’s Ford in 1863. Colley was wounded in the torso and left behind as the battle continued around him. A Union soldier from 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry took Colley to a private home where he was able to rest until he was reunited with his comrades. Colley spent the rest of his life searching for the soldier who saved his life but was never able to find him.

In his writings, Colley also detailed his struggles upon returning to civilian life after the war. He battled alcoholism and often displayed a quick and harsh temper. Those  were likely symptoms of what may be identified today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which did not become widely known until the 1970s.

“He exhibited a lot of the classic symptoms of PTSD,” said Shaffer. But Colley also showed signs that were not typical of those who have PTSD. Colley would marry and have 12 children (four of them died). He also remained connected to his extended family and fellow veterans rather than creating distance as many PTSD suffers might. Ultimately, he sought solace in religion.

Image of Thomas W. Colley (center) with his sons who served in World War I.

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“The supportive family network and his religious faith probably helped  him overcome what unfortunately so many veterans not only in that war but even up to the modern day have a difficult time struggling with,”Shaffer said.

In editing his journals, Shaffer said it helped that Colley had excellent penmanship and had fancied himself a writer. Colley had even made a point to return to school after the war.

“When he started composing the journals several years after the war...his composition had improved considerably,” Shaffer said. Colley had a unique style of writing. In the narrative portion of the book, Shaffer cleaned up the grammar and punctuation. Colley’s letters however, were left exactly as they were written.

Colley had the intention of publishing at least part of the journals which he began writing in 1903. While some of his writing may have been published in newspapers it was unclear exactly why Colley was never able to fully publish his memoir. The one journal he intended to publish ended up in the possession of his grandson, Bob Colley, who would in turn pass the journal to Shaffer for use in his research.

Colley’s service ended in 1864 when he lost his left foot during the Battle of Haw’s Shop, but he remained connected to his comrades and their plight by writing about his life and their lives right up until the day before his death on Sept. 24, 1919.

Though he was very dedicated to Virginia and the Confederacy, Colley recognized the costs and perils of war. While it is easy to get caught up in reading about the battles of the Civil War, it is also important to consider what happens when the war is over, Shaffer said.

“ Colley very clearly illustrates the meaning of trying to acclimate back into society,” Shaffer said. “If people read from beginning to end they will have a better understanding of not just a soldier’s time during the war but what that soldier has to struggle with postwar. Colley captures all of those things.”

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