Study finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma among ex-POWs from the Civil War

civil war
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

A trio of researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research has found evidence that suggests men who were traumatized while POWs during the U.S. Civil War transmitted that trauma to their offspring—many of them were found to die earlier. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dora Costa, Noelle Yetter and Heather DeSomer describe their study of Union POWs during the Civil War and the longevity of their offspring.

During the U.S. Civil War, there were periods when prisoners were frequently exchanged between sides, and periods when such exchanges were halted. During periods when exchanges were halted, prison populations rose and prisoners suffered as a result. Not only were they treated more harshly, they were also given very little to eat. In this new effort, the researchers compared of born to Union Civil War soldiers detained in the south during the war.

The researchers were able to obtain data on approximately 700 Union POWs and 2,500 of their children. For comparison purposes, they used data from 5,000 non-POW Union soldiers and 15,000 of their children. The researchers found that the longevity of sons born to soldiers who underwent more severe conditions as POWs during the war was shorter than for sons of fathers who were not POWs or who were part of exchange programs. For daughters, there was no measurable difference. More specifically, by age 45, sons of POWs who experienced harsh conditions were found to be 11 percent more likely to die than sons of non-POWs.

The researchers found that the main factor responsible for the increased death rate was cerebral hemorrhage, and to a small degree, various types of cancer. They were also able to eliminate other factors as possible causes of the reduced survival rates. They conclude that trauma experienced by the fathers was an example of gender-specific epigenetic effects. To bolster their assessment, they cite a Swedish study that found gender-specific epigenetic effects in sons of men who had undergone serious food shortages for a period of time before conceiving their children.

Explore further

Age at which women experience their first period is linked to their sons' age at puberty

More information: Dora L. Costa et al. Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War ex-POWs, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1803630115

© 2018

Citation: Study finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma among ex-POWs from the Civil War (2018, October 16) retrieved 19 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Oct 16, 2018
Another point altogether is revealed by this "study".
Note that it deals only with Union soldiers!
No mention at all of the mistreatment of Confederate soldiers!
And there were Confederate prisoners and horrific Northern prisoner of war camps.
But look on search engines and the first thing you'll see mentioned is Andersonville.
It can be said that many do not fully grasp the import of Churchill's, "History is written by the victors". Yes, it can be said that the winners do have the power and influence to say what they want, but it can be mentioned that they also have a vested interest in redefining history so they come out looking like heroes and the enemy come out looking like monsters.

Oct 16, 2018
My goodness gracious. julian. You actually managed to write a cogent, coherent comment based on facts. Congratulations!

Frankly and Ernestly, I did not believe you had it in you. Guess I owe you an apology for my low opinion of you. Now I gotta go eat crow and there's not that much meat on those bones!

As you pointed out, the victors had no interest in conserving "Rebel" correspondence.

Now comes the part you are going to hate.
Get over it!

Today, there is an active, reactionary effort to suppress dissenting opinion from non-evangelicals or non-whites.

Against any woman who dares to express outrage over abusive male domination. Not just "Feminists".

Purging courageous scientists from public service.
Blatantly shoving their fascist noses between medical practitioner's and the crotches of female patients.

So. what goes around julian, comes around. Toy want fair, balanced treatment?
How about displaying such qualities?

Damn! There goes my apology!

Oct 16, 2018
No mention at all of the mistreatment of Confederate soldiers!

Which wouldn't change the conclusions or the point they are making, because the same effect should apply regardless of who's the prisoner and who's the warden.

You're just trying to inject Political Correctness into science by complaining that they didn't waste their time doing the study both ways to account for your sensibilities.

Oct 16, 2018
@JulianPenrod. You are correct, but I think these researchers are limited to studying the data that is available. They are using data from the US War Department and the Pension Bureau, and this would not include Confederate soldiers.

I am very pleased that researchers are rigorously studying the effects that the trauma of the Civil War had on millions of American men on both sides. I've visited many of the big battlefields, and I'm often sickened by the carnage, death, and suffering these men faced for 4 years. There must have been enormous Post-traumatic stress syndrome, which was completely untreated. Physical medicine was pretty sketchy too.

This is an important part of history and it might have some modern health implications too.

Oct 17, 2018
Well, it seems, this time, everyone has made some good points.

I, really don't buy this DNA reasoning. If they want to prove this theory, they need to look past the sons, to following generations. If it is DNA, it will show there, too.

I believe something they really overlooked, in relation to the sons, is environmental stresses. That is to say, physical and psychological stresses, caused by the "messed up" fathers. Even today, men can come back from war as vegetables, lunatics or extremely violent. Any of those things can cause extreme stress, for the sons. It has already been shown great stress causes physical illness and shortened life.

In regard to the last line, about food shortages, I believe that study's results.
I do not believe it has any bearing on this study. Apples and oranges.

Oct 17, 2018
I, really don't buy this DNA reasoning. If they want to prove this theory, they need to look past the sons, to following generations. If it is DNA, it will show there, too.

It's not DNA, it's the epigenetic markers on the DNA.

Your chromosomes are like a blueprint for all the things you can grow, what hormones you can produce etc., but cells don't need all parts of all the DNA to function in their specific roles, so there's methylation markers on the DNA that silence parts of it - for example so that a man doesn't start growing breasts.

These markers are supposed to be erased between generations, but as evolution goes the process is never perfect, and inheriting the epigenetic markers can also serve a purpose as a way to speed up adaptation rather than waiting for the whole genome to mutate. In other words, the DNA can switch programs for the offspring, to some extent, based on what the parents have experienced.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more