Monday, May 13, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Pathway to Hell

How much can a soldier take before he "shatters?" How many battles - where he sees comrades blown to smithereens or sees them suffer unspeakable wounds - does it take to unnerve him? How many long marches, how much lost sleep, how much bad food? How unhygienic can a man live before it catches up, damages him, and leaves him suffering a mental injury often much worse than any physical wound?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a twentieth century label that was given to an age old product of war. It is a condition that was once called "shattered," "shell-shocked," "battle fatigued,"or the "thousand-yard stare." It does not matter what war. It happened in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan, and every other war in between. The stress and exposure of combat and campaigning has left many a man mentally damaged.

Soldiers that went off to war in 1861 often went for adventure and to prove their manhood. Many had little idea of what war would truly involve. Men, like the subject of Pathway to Hell: A Tragedy of the American Civil War, a man named Angelo Crapsey, found that the experience of war was just too much to mentally bear.

Angelo was born in 1842 to Reverend John and Mercy Crapsey. John was a bit of a religious fanatic, whose style of preaching brought disdain from even those of the most enthusiastic bent. In their neighborhood on western New York, north central Pennsylvania border, Reverend John was yanked from more than one pulpit. In 1852, Angelo lost his mother, and John his wife, when Mercy died. Surely a disturbing experience for a pre-teen boy. John remarried in less than a year and Angelo eventually moved in with a neighbor friend's family. As Angelo came of age Laroy Lyman was to be almost more of a father-figure than John. Angelo worked numerous odd farming jobs for Laroy and hunted game with him, but when the Civil War broke out he answered Pennsylvania's call. Angelo enlisted in what would become the famous "Bucktails" regiment - the 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry Regiment.

At first Angelo showed no signs of the mental disorder that would later afflict him. He wrote letters back home to friends and family and explained that soldiering was a difficult job, but one he rather liked. He looked forward to defending his state against "rebels" that were positioned in the neighboring state of Maryland. Angelo seems to have weathered the seasoning period well; that time when hundreds of new soldiers caught childhood and sanitary born illnesses.

Angelo's first taste of combat came in an engagement at Dranesville, Virginia, a small affair compared to what he would later see. He wrote home and told of his excitement in battle and what he saw. The Bucktails were next sent to the Shenandoah Valley where they chased Stonewall Jackson and fought at Harrisonburg and Cross Keys.  Angelo survived unscathed, but lost a good friend to a nasty wound. The Bucktails missed the Battle of Cedar Mountain, but saw its ghastly aftermath. Angelo fought hard at Antietam and was an unlucky participant in a burial detail. He remained stalwart though in his letters home. His patriotism and flesh appeared strong at this point in his military career, but apparently his mind was weakening.

The Bucktails fought again at Fredericksburg, where Angelo was captured on the Union left. He was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond for a short stay before being transferred to a parole camp to await exchange, which finally came in May; just in time for the Gettysburg Campaign. When he finally returned to the Bucktails, some saw a changed Angelo. He became distant, less talkative, and complained of his appearance.

At Gettysburg, the Bucktails fought yet again on the Union left. They saw some pretty difficult combat, but it seems that Angelo became "shattered" in the wake of the battle. Difficult, long marches on hot, dusty roads, combined with poor food, diarrhea, and fevered illness apparently did in Angelo's already fragile mind. His erratic behavior landed him in a Washington D.C. hospital. Reverend John could not believe it was his son in the hospital bed when he came to visit. Angelo was discharged and labeled unfit for further service.

Back home in Pennsylvania by October 1863, Angelo continued his difficult demeanor. Despite more strange behavior Angelo and Laroy partook in a hunting expedition to Minnesota. Angelo's illness cut the trip short and they returned to Pennsylvania. Angelo still experienced bouts of mental breakdowns and all doctors could advise was to put him in an institution. In early August 1864, Angelo committed suicide while on a local hunt with friends. His worldly troubles were over.

How many other Civil War soldiers experienced a somewhat similar fate? Family secrets have probably covered up many of these instances, both North and South. In a war so examined for the amount of blood it caused - and rightly so - it does us well to remember that not only physical injures were inflicted in our nation's four year tragedy, numerous mental injuries were suffered as well.

In writing Pathway to Hell, author Dennis Brandt had produced an eyeopening book that will hopefully lead to more similar works on Civil War battle and campaign trauma. Surely, pension papers are filled with other soldiers who did not leave the war behind in their minds in the spring of 1865. I highly recommend Pathway to Hell as a way to see a different side of the war. Angelo Crapsey's letters and journals, as well as those of his friends and family provide keen insight into the anguish that the Civil War caused.  On a scale of one to five, I give Pathway to Hell a 4.75.

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