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Dark Memories After Antietam

“Soldier’s Heart” was one term used in the 19th century to describe a mental health condition known today as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Other terms were used by physicians, families and comrades as well, to define the changes that occurred to a man as a result of his Civil War experience, including “Melancholia,” “Nostalgia” and “Homesickness.”

But Soldier’s Heart stands out as one of the more unique descriptions of the condition.

At first, doctors believed that Soldier’s Heart was a physical injury that might have been caused by irregular pulse and blood pressure. After the war, as veterans exhibited signs of mental illness that increasingly led to tragic ends inside asylums or by their own hands, the shift toward a psychological angle began an evolution that continues to the present day. We now know that veterans with PTSD exhibit both mental and physical issues.

2nd Lt. Blakeslee pictured wearing a badge with the insignia of the 18th Corps, to which his regiment belonged from 1863 to 1865. Carte de visite by R.S. De Lameter of Hartford, Conn., about 1865. Author’s collection.

2nd Lt. Blakeslee pictured wearing a badge with the insignia of the 18th Corps, to which his regiment belonged from 1863 to 1865. Carte de visite by R.S. De Lameter of Hartford, Conn., about 1865. Author’s collection.

One soldier who survived the horrors of the Civil War only to fall victim to Soldier’s Heart was Cpl. Bernard F. Blakeslee. His story begins on Sept. 15, 1862, during a march on the road to Antietam, a mere three weeks after he had mustered into the 16th Connecticut Infantry.

Imagine yourself in his brogans. You’ve never been in combat. You’ve never been more than 10 miles from home in your entire life. And, you’ve never slept out of doors. Blakeslee described the sights and sounds around him years later in his 1875 book, History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers. “On both sides of the road, shot and shell had pierced the trees and houses. The fences were riddled with bullets, telegraph poles were down, and the earth was ploughed by solid shot. The dead lay by the road-side, and the ambulances were scouring the mountain sides with men detailed to pick up the wounded. The churches, houses, and barns were filled with the wounded. Parties were seen in every direction burying the dead…we began to realize what we must go through when we should join the main army…and after a tedious march through ploughed fields and forests, passing brigades and divisions, the booming of artillery and bursting of shells sounding louder and louder, we finally joined a brigade.”

The 16th was so fresh and inexperienced that the men had fired their muskets only once, and that during the week prior to the battle. Blakeslee reported, “We had little or no drill, and but few instructions in marching.”  

The men arrived hungry and tired in the vicinity of Sharpsburg on Sept. 16. They loaded their muskets for only the second or perhaps third time since muster and lay down on their weapons in a cold drizzle. They awoke on the following morning to the sound of Confederate artillery shelling their bivouac, and they moved behind a nearby rise. After spending the morning and a good part of the afternoon maneuvering to avoid Confederate artillery and musket fire, the regiment was ordered to ford Antietam Creek and flank Confederate troops south of Sharpsburg. They advanced about a half-mile and established a position behind John Otto’s farmhouse at the edge of his 40-acre cornfield.

Meanwhile, South Carolinians and Georgians commanded by Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill had recently arrived from Harper’s Ferry, Va. The Confederates stealthily entered the other side of the cornfield. The colonel of the 16th, Frank Beach, ordered his troops to form a line of battle and to advance into the tall corn. Visibility was poor due to the cornstalks, and the men could not see the line before them, though only a few feet away.

“Sometimes a regiment’s psyche could be shattered in a single experience. Such was the fate of the 16th Connecticut.”

They marched into a lethal crossfire. Col. Beach ordered the rank and file to refuse a portion of its line to counteract the devastating musketry, but they could not execute the maneuver in the heat of battle. Bewildered, they stood amid a withering crossfire, while their officers, as inexperienced as the men in the ranks, shouted out contradictory orders. In no more time than it takes a hungry man to eat a meal, the 16th was reduced to a confused mob. They retreated in a panic, suffering 43 killed and 161 wounded. Among the injured was Blakeslee, who experienced a gunshot wound in the head.

Sometimes a regiment’s psyche could be shattered in a single experience. Such was the fate of the 16th Connecticut. The nightmare of their bloody baptism in John Otto’s cornfield would forever haunt Blakeslee and his comrades.

The horrors of the day gave way to the gloom of night. The depth of Blakeslee’s post-war melancholia is revealed in his regimental history when he described the Antietam battlefield on the evening after the fight. His words are, in this author’s opinion, as moving as any paean to war ever composed. “Arms were stacked, and the tired soldiers laid down to rest. Of all gloomy nights, this was the saddest we ever experienced. All was quiet and silent as the grave. The stacks of straw which the rebels had fired burned slow and dimly. The cries and groans of the wounded that lay on the battle-field could be heard distinctly, and the occasional report of artillery sounded solemn and death-like.”

Two days after the battle, according to Blakeslee, those still able from the 16th “were employed in gathering up the dead and wounded. This was a very unpleasant duty, making many of the men sick.” Burial duty was probably the worst job a soldier could be called upon to perform. Corpses bloated out of all human semblance; faces purple black and swollen beyond recognition; eyes bulging out of their sockets; wounds infested with crawling fat maggots, which at times made a corpse appear to move of its own accord; and the fetid stench of rotting corpse that saturated the air. Many found the duty so offensive that they turned to drink to cope with the sights and smells. Some became violently sick or fled in hysterics from the duty. The grim task was truly enough to drive a man insane.

The luck of the 16th went from bad to worse after they left Antietam and moved into Virginia. The regiment took part in the Battle of Fredericksburg and the “Mud March” in December 1862. They spent 1863 fighting a series of skirmishes and running battles, including the action at Providence Church Road on May 5, where Blakeslee received his second head injury of the war.

Sgt. William Relyea of Company D described the wound. “Blakeslee received the slight wound that stunned him so as to give the appearance of death. Just then, we had no time to bother about anyone, as iron and lead was raining fast and so he was left where he fell, until picked up by a New Jersey regiment that followed us.” As Blakeslee was rendered unconscious, one can reasonably assume that he had been concussed. Moreover, that the wound, described by Relyea as “slight,” was perhaps more serious than anyone suspected. Modern medicine has proven in many cases that any wound to the head can have serious physical and psychological implications.

“Language is unable to describe the real condition of affairs in southern prisons. No one can present in its true light the fearful suffering experienced in them.”

He recovered and returned to the regiment in time to garrison Plymouth, N.C., in April 1864. Blakeslee and his comrades fought bravely, but futilely, during the siege of the city, which began on April 17 and ended three days later, when the Union forces were surrendered. The entire regiment, with the exception of one company on detached duty, was led away into captivity. A report of the surrender published in the Charleston, S.C., Mercury, on April 26, 1864, bore the title “The Plymouth Pilgrims.” The headline moniker stuck, and became the nickname used by all of the prisoners from the garrison. Blakeslee, now a second lieutenant, and many of his fellow officers spent the next few months in prisons across the South: Camp Oglethorpe near Macon, Ga., the old U.S. Marine Hospital yard in Savannah, Ga., the Roper Hospital in Charleston, and at Camp Sorghum in Columbia, S.C.

Blakeslee’s summary of his prison experience reveals the trauma that he suffered. “The inhuman treatment, and fearful atrocities of our brutal keepers are heart-rending, and I can poorly illustrate them. Language is unable to describe the real condition of affairs in southern prisons. No one can present in its true light the fearful suffering experienced in them.”

Blakeslee and a group of officers escaped the confines of Camp Sorghum on Nov. 3, 1864, and followed the Congaree River to the Atlantic coast. After narrowly avoiding capture, they were rescued on Nov. 11 by the Union sloop-of-war Canandaigua, part of the federal blockade. Following a short leave in the north, he returned to the regiment and spent the rest of the war in New Bern and Roanoke Island, N.C., Blakeslee mustered out with his regiment on June 24, 1865.

Blakeslee returned home to Hartford and found employment as a stockbroker. During the administration of President Benjamin Harrison, he was appointed a U.S. Stamped Envelope Agent in the Office of Third Assistant Postmaster General, along with a comfortable salary. Active in veteran affairs, he was elected President of the National Union of Survivors of Andersonville and other Southern Military Prisons in 1882.

Despite success after his return to civilian life, dark memories changed Blakeslee. Burdened by the rout of his regiment at Antietam, the wounds to his head and his capture and imprisonment for six terrible months in deplorable southern prisons, his mental health deteriorated. In 1891, at age 48, he was admitted into the Retreat for the Insane in Hartford, where he remained until his death on April 25, 1895.

The Battlefield of Antietam, 1862, by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.
The Battlefield of Antietam, 1862, by Alexander Gardner. Library of Congress.

A disproportionate number of the veterans of the 16th were declared insane and committed to asylums. A comment by Blakeslee toward the end of his regimental history underscores their fate: “The Sixteenth was always called an unfortunate regiment; for if there was any special hardship to endure, the regiment was sure to be called on to experience it, either by accident or otherwise. It was our bad luck.”

References: Michael C. Adams, Living Hell: The Dark Side of the Civil War, Bernard F. Blakeslee, History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, Gary W. Gallagher, Ed., The Antietam Campaign, Lesley J. Gordon, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, John Michael Priest, Ed., 16th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry: Sergeant William H. Relyea; Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam.

Scott Valentine is a Contributing Editor to MI.

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