The nation first had to truly grapple with the extraordinary expenses of war was after the American Civil War. As part of our series highlighting our own research fields, today we’re talking about Civil War veterans and disability, trauma, gore, crime, and extraordinary federal expenditures.

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Transcript for: The Age of Crime! Civil War Veterans and Crime in America

Written and Researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Sarah: Everyone has heard the phrase “freedom isn’t free.” Now, that phrase has overtly political connotations now – instructing those that hear it to support wars without questioning whether they are moral or just; plus, there are also problems with too closely associating “freedom” with the price of bloodshed. But like so many stereotypes and aphorisms, there is a kernel of truth there. War is expensive. Of course, those of us that lived through the Bush years remember the phrase “blood and treasure,” indicating that wars are costly in terms of cash but also costly in terms of lives lost and blood spilled. And while people have known this since time immemorial, in United States history the moment that the nation first had to truly grapple with the extraordinary expenses of war was after the American Civil War.

Averill: As part of our series highlighting our own research fields, today we’re talking about disability, trauma, gore, crime, extraordinary federal expenditures – maybe even a penis or two. In other words, today we’re talking about Sarah’s research!

Sarah: That’s right!

I’m Sarah
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Sarah: To paraphrase a historian named John Kinder, wounded and sick veterans posed a real problem (and have always posed a problem, and continue to pose a problem) for the US government. Veterans occupy a weird place in our culture – we honor them for their service, but we also have asked them to go through sometimes incredibly damaging experiences, experiences that cause mental and physical damages, which are really expensive to compensate. So one of the “problems” is that we can’t not compensate them – they’re heroes! – but also, geez, it’s super expensive. Embedded within that problem are lots of other problems. For example, American culture has a real stigma against mental illness and physical disability, but these heroes often are profoundly disabled by their war service. Or how about this one: A lot of Americans really hate public support systems, but veterans rely on a lot of public support. A lot of Americans really hate bureaucracy and government spending, but veterans require a lot (and have created a lot) of bureaucracy and government spending.

Civil war Pension paperwork

An image of some of the required paperwork for a pension | National Archives and Records Administration

Averill: From the beginning, the government has tried to find ways to solve this problem. For the 25,000 or so men who were wounded or sickened during the Revolutionary War, the government offered support in the form of invalid pensions. Invalid pensions were only given to men who had disabilities that they could trace back to the war. The Revolutionary veterans did have some service pensions – or pensions given simply for having served in the army – but these were limited and often came in the form of free land rather than cash. The majority of support came in the form of invalid pensions, though. In order to get your pension, you needed to prove to the government that you were sufficiently disabled, that you had served honorably, and that your disability could, in fact, be traced back to the war. Veterans of later wars, specifically, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, also used the same system.

Sarah: At the beginning of the Civil War, few people really believed that the war would be particularly long or bloody, so many assumed that the pension system would work in more or less the same way. By July 1862, however, it was becoming clear that the scale of death and bodily harm during this war was going to be significantly different than in previous wars. In response, Congress passed a piece of legislation entitled An Act to Grant Pensions, which outlined how the federal government would support Union soldiers harmed in the line of duty. It also provided pensions to survivors, including widows, mothers, ‘orphaned’ children, and even in some cases. Disabled Civil War veterans were entitled to a certain amount per month based on their rank and on their disability rating – in other words, based on how disabled they were. The Pension Bureau determined rates of disability based on one standard: how capable the veteran might be to perform manual labor. They didn’t invent this standard – it was the same used during the Revolutionary War – but it also sometimes meant some really twisted logic. For instance, a farmer who suffered from debilitating diarrhea, and therefore weakness and constant sickness that would make farming difficult, would likely be considered less disabled than a white collar worker who had lost one leg, which wouldn’t interfere much with his office job.

Averill: Rating disability based on men’s ability or inability to perform manual labor meant that the federal government was not compensating soldiers based on their wounds, but instead, on their potential lost income. To look at it another way, the pensions, ideally, were designed to make up for the work soldiers could no longer perform. But this often seemed arbitrary. Take for instance Charles F. Manderson, the former colonel of the 19th Ohio Infantry. Manderson had been leading a charge at the battle of Lovejoy Station when he was shot in the right side of his body. Doctors weren’t able to remove the ball, which caused spinal damage and resulted in temporary paralysis. Manderson was unable to return to his command, and received a disability discharge in April 1865. His pension application was quickly and easily approved. After the war, Manderson became a lawyer then went on to become a senator from Nebraska. In the 1880s, Manderson was experiencing some secondary effects of his wound, and so had some surgical examinations in hopes of raising his fifteen-dollar pension rating. These examinations revealed that the injury was getting worse, and would likely paralyze Manderson again. When Manderson applied for an increase in his pension based on this new development, he was denied – but because he had some political clout, he was able to get his pension pushed through.

Charles F. Manderson, 1870s. The nation first had to truly grapple with the extraordinary expenses of war was after the American Civil War. As part of our series highlighting our own research fields, today we’re talking about Civil War veterans and disability, trauma, gore, crime, and extraordinary federal expenditures.

Charles F. Manderson, 1870s, taken by Mathew Brady or Levin Handy | Library of Congress

Sarah: Now this is another moment where we see the problem of the American veteran. From one point of view, that increase in Manderson’s pension makes perfect sense. After all, he was shot, temporarily paralyzed, and was continuing to have serious health ramifications based on that wound – a wound that was received in the line of duty to the American government and its people. But at the same time, Manderson was not in any need of the cash – he was a lawyer and a Congressman! He could still work! Another element to Manderson’s story is that he did not look like a proto-typical disabled veteran. He hadn’t lost an arm or a leg, or even a finger. He’d been shot in the body. When he was dressed, no one could tell he was injured. How could he really be so disabled that he needed a large, regular payment from the government? Because Manderson was a public figure, he become a lightning rod for media criticism. Even though veterans were among the most honored members of American society, that didn’t meant that they didn’t face criticism, especially in terms of politics.

Averill: Civil War Veterans were, almost universally, members of the Republican party. Over the course of the war, around 2.2 million men served in the Union Army – when those veterans mustered out of the Army and returned to civilian life, they became a massive voting bloc. Since most veterans were Republicans, the Republican party worked tirelessly to keep their votes by becoming the party that would protect and honor veterans to a fault. No small number of Civil War veterans went on to become Republican politicians, and even more former soldiers joined a veteran’s organization called the Grand Army of the Republic, which was a fraternal organization with massive lobbying power. But there were also a lot of Americans who resented the fact that these men seemed to have a special place in American society, getting hand-outs from the government. The Democratic party used that resentment to mobilize the non-veterans by emphasizing the fact that veterans undeservedly got special treatment. Therefore, when the media caught wind of Charles Manderson, they whipped the story up into an outrage against the American public. The editors of the Illustrated American pointed out that Manderson seemed, for all accounts, able-bodied.
“The paralysis never came! Mr. Manderson’s health was perfect, and his wound did not interfere with his indulging in dancing, an art in which he delighted.” The editors of the Harrisburg Patriot put an even finer point on the matter, declaring “Manderson is neither a disabled man nor a needy one…. He ought to be ashamed to be a beggar, a pensioner upon the bounty of men poorer than himself.” Eventually, the criticism blew Manderson’s pension into an all-out scandal, to the point where Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble wrote Manderson a letter chastising him for accepting the pension payout. Manderson, likely humiliated by the imputation that he was something of a mercenary, returned some of his payment and requested that his pension be returned to its original, lower, rating.

Sarah: Part of the reason Manderson faced such intense scrutiny was because of one of the oldest stories in the history of disability: the fear of dependency. People in the 19th century had a deep-seated loathing for the idea that certain people were, or had the potential to become, dependent upon the public charge, or to put it bluntly, charity cases and “welfare bums.” This fear dates back all the way to poor laws passed in the 17th century in England that established that poor relief (charity) should be reserved for the worthy poor, in other words, for people who really deserved it. Women, children, and in some cases, people of color were considered ‘worthy’ because they were supposed to be dependent upon others – specifically, on men. On the other hand, others were considered the ‘unworthy’ poor, or what most 19th c. people called paupers. They were considered unworthy because they should have been able be self-sufficient, but they were instead asking for a hand-out. Nearly all poor relief efforts created after this point were heavily influenced by this line of reasoning. Providing support to the unworthy poor would only encourage them to become dependent on charity and discourage them from going back to work. People in both the 17th and the 19th century expected men to work. When men were unable to work, they faced stigma and scrutiny, even if they were legitimately disabled. Manderson was disabled, but it didn’t matter. He was able to work – proven by his law office and his service in Congress – and therefore did not deserve a pension, no matter what.

Averill: So we’ve seen that there was a tension that existed when it came to the American civilian public after the war: they were supposed to honor and support Civil War veterans, but they also sort of distrusted, and maybe even resented veterans. Pensions became a particularly contentious issue because in the decades after the war, pension funding went up and up and up and up. Under the 1862 law, pensions were only available to men who became disabled in the line of duty. In 1879, the law was amended in what was called the Arrears Act. This made it possible for soldiers who did not apply for the pension immediately, but applied later, to collect lump sum payments for any back payments they would have received if they had applied earlier. This was not very popular with the public – for some, this seemed like it provided incentive for men to invent disabilities in order to apply and then receive a big check. In the 1880s, things became even more contentious when the Grand Army of the Republic and other veteran’s groups became pushing Republican politicians to pass a huge new pension bill. This bill was designed to expand pension payments to all soldiers and veterans who had served, and then who had gone on to develop unrelated disabilities. However, the timing was terrible. The president was Grover Cleveland, a fiscally conservative Democrat who hated the pension system and who loved vetoing things. The bill created a massive Democratic outcry in the late 1880s, which intensified public scrutiny of disabled veterans. Were they really disabled? Were they just able-bodied men looking for a handout? Were they … gasp … paupers?

Sarah: What happens in the press during the late 1880s is really fascinating. Of course, the press is caught in the same trap as the rest of the public – they want to criticize Civil War veterans for being welfare bummers, but they can’t be too harsh or else they’ll not only alienate a huge voting bloc, but also piss off millions of Americans who feel like it’s their patriotic duty to support America’s wounded warriors. So the press starts to do something very interesting. They annihilate the proposed law, but they also say, “It’s not the real Union soldiers who want to pass this law. Real Union soldiers don’t want pensions. They don’t need pensions! Real American veterans are self-sufficient and honorable and wouldn’t dream of taking money from the government!” Instead, the veterans who want to take that money and expand the pension system are losers and bad soldiers. They often categorize them into groups associated with either cowardice or money-grubbing, specifically malingerers (soldiers who fake their disabilities) and mercenaries (soldiers who fight not out of duty, but for money). So in other words, they find a rhetorical work around to ensure that they can both criticize veterans and say that they’re really not criticizing veterans – they’re criticizing bad soldiers who don’t deserve honor or financial support. This rhetorical work around also comes in handy when it comes to Civil War veterans behaving badly in the decades after the war. So this is actually where we come to the research that I’m currently working on: veterans and crime after the Civil War.

Averill: In July 1865, the editors of the Jackson, Michigan newspaper The Patriot declared, “Surely, this is the age of crime!” This declaration was prompted by a small rash of violent events involving newly discharged Union Civil War veterans. In the first incident, a soldier from the 1st Michigan Artillery complained of a toothache and took a small dose of opium to ease the pain. Finding that that dose didn’t help, he swallowed another teaspoon full. Within a few hours, the young soldier was dead.A few days later, another discharged Union soldier named Joseph S. Henrie stabbed a local man named Daniel Smoke to death. Henrie seems to have been a fairly rough character, and was leaving town with some companions, including Mary Johnson, who had just been released from the local jail, where she’d been held on charges of prostitution. They were confronted by Smoke, who tried for unknown reasons to get them to stay. The two men exchanged words, and within a few minutes, Smoke was bleeding to death.

Sarah: The pages of Northern newspapers were full these kinds of reports in the months following the demobilization. One newspaper went so far as to say that crime was so rampant in one town in Indiana that “the citizens go armed.” But regardless of these reports, the question of whether there actually was crime wave in the summer of 1865 as the Jackson Patriot alleged has been debated, particularly between economist Edith Abbott and historian Eric Monkonnen, although their historiographical beef was separated by some sixty or seventy years. We’ll start with Edith Abbott’s side of the debate. In 1927, Abbott wrote an article called “The Civil War and the Crime Wave of 1865-70.” In it, she argued that there was an increase in crime. For example, she says that in New York City, arrests swelled by 25% in 1865. Convictions in New York City for “state-prison offenses” nearly doubled from 1864 to 1865.

Averill: It seems other states also noticed a rise in Civil War veterans as offenders. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia had an influx of ex-soldiers in the years following the war. Kansas State Penitentiary reported that the majority of convicts they received in 1867 were Union veterans. The arrest and imprisonment of veterans must have been common enough to attract notice, because it became a concern for prison aid societies and state governments. Jeremiah Willits, a member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, conducted a multi-state investigation of prisons in 1869-1870 and concluded that 75% of the recent admissions in each prison he visited were Union veterans. In his report, he also stated that most of the imprisoned veterans were first time offenders, and that many admitted that they had committed their crimes because “the moral hedge [had] been weakened by the army association and practices.” So here we see an explanation that is repeated over and over again during this five-to-ten year period after the war’s end: that the apparent surge in crime is because the immoral influence of military service and warfare on men. And this is the explanation that Edith Abbott embraces in her essay: that the war created some kind of social rift that caused an uptick in violence and crime.

Sarah: While they aren’t necessarily statistically significant, there sure is a lot of discussion about Civil War veterans and crime in the press in the years after the war. Even as decades passed, the public remained fascinated by veterans who committed crimes, especially violent crimes. For instance, in July 1882, veteran James Hawkes and his wife both drank too much. At some point, Hawkes stabbed his wife through the heart. When police told him she had died, he muttered only, “It’s a d—d good thing.” Charles Harrison slit his wife’s throat in March 1888 when he discovered her walking down the street with another man. In May of 1886, a veteran named James Scullion attacked and beat a man to death with his wooden prosthetic leg because he believed the man had been wielding a knife. After the man died, it was discovered the that the ‘knife’ was actually his cane. Two veterans, Louis Schmidt and W. F. Ruder, both inhabitants of the Milwaukee branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, got into a drunken argument about the war. Schmidt, apparently deeply offended, later waited for Ruder on the road back to the Home, stabbed the man in the belly, then promptly turned himself in as a murderer. In January 1888, an old veteran named George Holford was found laying, dead and clutching a revolver, on the carpet next to the marital bed, where lay his estranged wife’s body. Their marriage had been deeply troubled, and when their son learned his mother had not come down for dinner, his first thought was catastrophic: “I bet he’s killed her.”

Averill: As these stories sort of show, wives were often those in the greatest danger. Althadine Fisk was an accomplished medium and Spiritualist who had married Union veteran Alfred Smith in 1865 after he returned from his three-years’ service in the 12th New York Cavalry. The couple lived in upstate New York and had two children, while Alfred worked as a sailor on the Great Lakes and dock worker in the port of Oswego, NY. But as time passed, Alfred began to drink heavily and neglect the family, leaving Althadine and the children to rely her career as a medium as their only means of support. Alfred became violent and beat Althadine until, fearing for her own and her children’s lives, she left her husband and filed for divorce. The couple reconciled, though, so the divorce was never completed, and they moved to Cleveland for a fresh start. The reconciliation didn’t last. Six years later, Alfred began to drink and abuse his family again. This time, a friend and fellow Spiritualist named Louisa Jane Wilson convinced Althadine to again file for divorce. Althadine filed the papers, packed Alfred’s bags, and asked him to leave the house. He cursed and threatened to kill her, but left. Fearing the worst, Althadine sent the children to stay with friends, then she and Mrs. Wilson went to bed. The next morning, they were discovered laying in their blood-soaked beds, their heads beaten in with hammers. Alfred was lying beside the dead Althadine, choking on his own blood – he had tried to commit suicide by slitting his own throat, but failed. He survived, and was sentenced to life in prison. What a terrible story.

Henry R. Rathbone, 1865. The nation first had to truly grapple with the extraordinary expenses of war was after the American Civil War. As part of our series highlighting our own research fields, today we’re talking about Civil War veterans and disability, trauma, gore, crime, and extraordinary federal expenditures.

Henry R. Rathbone, 1865 | Library of Congress

Sarah: A more famous wife-murder was that of Clara Harris Rathbone at the hands of her husband, Colonel Henry Rathbone. During the war, Rathbone was a lawyer and officer in the Union army, and Clara was a Washington, DC socialite and friend of Mary Todd Lincoln. On April 14, 1865, when Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia had politely declined attending the theater with them, the Lincolns had invited the then-engaged couple to join them in seeing Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. While the group was engrossed in the play, actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth snuck into their box and shot the President in the back of the head. Rathbone tried to seize the assassin, but Booth slashed his arm open with a knife and jumped over the balcony, leaving Rathbone bleeding and powerless to stop him. After the assassination, though Rathbone’s terrible wound healed, the rest of him did not. He continued to suffer from heart palpitations and shortness of breath for no apparent reason, and he grew increasingly paranoid that someone was plotting to injure his wife and children. On Christmas eve 1883, while the family was on holiday in Germany, Rathbone fell into a powerful hallucination, shot Clara dead, then mangled himself with a knife – much as had happened that fateful night in April 1865. Friends and acquaintances agreed that the trauma of the assassination caused Rathbone’s mental breakdown. The tragic Colonel spent the remainder of his life in a German mental institution.

Edith Abbott. Civil War Veterans and Crime podcast

Edith Abbott | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: I mean, this is really fascinating stuff, and it’s pretty touching. It adds anecdotal evidence to the idea that the Civil War unleashed something dark and violent in American society. The problem is, however, just that: it’s anecdotal. Edith Abbott might have added these terrible stories to her arsenal in support of her theory that something was altered in American society because of the Civil War. Buuuuuuut not everyone agreed with Ms. Abbott’s argument. Crime historian Eric Monkkonen argued that crime and imprisonment rates did not rise because the war created a more violent populace, but because the population who would have been committing crimes had started committing crimes again upon their return from their military service. His explanation of the apparent onslaught of soldiers and veterans into Northern prisons is that so many Northern men had served that any influx of prisoners would look like it was because of the war or linked to the military. In other words, he argues that Abbott mistook correlation with causation. He writes this: “The post Civil War phenomenon of soldiers flooding into prisons was simply an artifact of the widespread mobilization: it would have been hard to find any young male who had not had a war experience. The linkage of war and violence combines bad reasoning and little research.” Ouch!

Sarah: So, when I first started doing this research several years ago, I was really interested in trauma – I was writing a lot about mental illness and trauma for my first project, so it was on the brain. And I started to think about these other newspaper articles that I was finding in my research – Civil War veterans committing crimes, murdering or hurting their wives, committing suicide, drinking, generally leading miserable lives and inflicting pain on others. That’s a serious oversimplification, but I did start to wonder whether or not the war inflicted some kind of ‘social wound,’ somehow changing or altering the social fabric of the North in such a way that lead to an increase in crime, among other social ills. That research didn’t make it very far. I was a little thrown, though, by this debate between Edith Abbott and Eric Monkonnen. I really thought it was a deadend, at least for me – without being a quantitative historian or economist, I didn’t think that there was any way that I could solve this puzzle. But now, as I am coming back to this research for the first time in several years, I’m actually now much less interested in whether or not there was an honest-to-goodness ‘social wound’ that caused a surge in crime and much more interested in the fact that the Northern public believed that there was a surge in crime. And whether the Civil War caused a rise in violence or a surge in crime, it seems fairly clear that there were Civil War veterans going to prison in large numbers in the years between 1865 and 1875. From newspaper articles, editorials, speeches, and prison reform reports, it also seems clear that Northern citizens saw a strong connection between war service and criminality.

Averill: For example, the editors of the Salt Lake City Telegraph wrote that the war had been like a “great wave” which broke and started to recede after the Lincoln assassination. They wrote: “It was thought that the breeze which fanned its receding and crimson crest would also cool the red-hot passions of men and stop the flow of human blood; but in rolling back the mighty tidal wave of misery, the white-winged messenger of Peace failed to allay the human passions, and red-handed murder, rapine and incendiarism still hold high carnival in the land.” (This phrase, crime holding “high carnival” or a “carnival of crime” became really popular during this period repeated over and over during this period according to historian Gregory Lande.) This quote suggests that Americans believed that the war had unleashed something that was beyond control. Successfully waging war meant engaging certain human passions that once unleashed, could not be controlled. But again, we find ourselves running into the same problem. Veterans were supposed to be the very best the country had to offer. Many historians have written about how Americans thought about the war as a crucible for manhood, honing and perfecting boys into the epitome of citizenship. So here’s a weird thing, then: how could war both create criminals and create ideal citizens?

Sarah: This is another real tension for the American public. We see the war being described in so many contradictory ways – a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, a glorious crusade to end slavery and restore the Union …. but also a tidal wave of misery that brought about a tolerance for rape, murder, and general unrest? To me, this brings me back to the media debates about pensions. Americans had to find a way to have their cake and eat it too. They did this by again sorting Civil War veterans into good and bad categories. Good veterans were held to a standard that I call the “true soldier of union.” This was a construction. It never really existed, but instead was an idealized, perfect soldier that embodied everything that was good and noble about Union soldiers, and therefore, Union veterans. These were loyal volunteer soldiers who enlisted for the purest of reasons – never for money or adventure, only out of a devotion to their country. Veterans who committed crimes could not meet that ideal, and therefore, they weren’t really veterans. They didn’t count. For example, the New York Herald-Tribune was so reluctant to blame the newly demobilized soldiers for the rise in crime in July, 1865 that they refused to refer to a veteran who had raped and murdered two children in West Roxbury, Massachusetts as a soldier at all. Instead, the man was “that meanest of all villains, a professional bounty-jumper.” They went on to explain that “it will not detract from the well-earned good character of the majority of our soldiers if it should be found that a few of them are capable of brutal and unmentionable crimes. The return of peace will unquestionably let loose upon society a considerable number of unscrupulous and degraded men, and their restraint and reformation will demand the constant attention both of the officers of the law and agents of philanthropic associations.” In this way, they were able to keep the idealized ‘soldier of union’ trope while also blaming the war and the army for the degradation of morals that led to such horrific crimes. This was, in a sense, an ideological coping mechanism.

Averill: While Edith Abbott and Eric Monkonnen spent a great deal of time debating although they were separated by 70 something years – whether there was a surge in crime, what they don’t discuss is who are these soldier-criminals?? What kinds of crimes did former soldiers commit? What were their motivations? Of course some veterans committed crime after the war because they liked it, but it seems likely that others committed crimes because they were unable to cope with the lingering trauma of their war service.

Robert Buffum. The nation first had to truly grapple with the extraordinary expenses of war was after the American Civil War. As part of our series highlighting our own research fields, today we’re talking about Civil War veterans and disability, trauma, gore, crime, and extraordinary federal expenditures.

Robert Buffum | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: We have some evidence to back this theory up. I’ll leave you with a story that I take no credit for. Both Patrick Lewis of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Project and Diane Miller Sommerville, prof at Binghamton University, have recently written about Medal of Honor winner Lieutenant Robert Buffum, who was captured as part of the Andrews Raid and kept in horrific conditions in the Chattanooga POW camp. After he left the army, Buffum became an alcoholic. When he held a shop owner at gunpoint and demanded a new pair of shoes, Buffum was sent to the Kentucky penitentiary. The penitentiary was run for-profit, and convicts were required to work for long hours, in intense heat, making cloth and rope from hemp fibers. Convicts inhaled the fibers and it was not uncommon for men to die of respiratory ailments caused by this lung irritant. After his release, he wandered the country in search of work, but was unable to keep a job because of his drinking and mental illness. In 1870, he murdered a friend’s father. Buffum was again sent to prison – first to Sing Sing, then to the New York State Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Auburn, New York. In Sing-Sing, Buffum tried to kill himself by jumping off of his bunk, flinging himself into the floor until he was “covered in gore.” During his trial, he tried to explain his actions, and his despondency, by saying “by my service to my country, I have been made a pauper, a lunatic, and a criminal” – but then he also stated that he would do it all again to save the Union. Buffum was then sent to the NYS Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Auburn, NY. There, in July 1871, he sliced his own throat with a razor and died. How many more Robert Buffums are there, whose failure to cope with war trauma led them to a life of wandering and crime? What were their experiences in places like the Kentucky Penitentiary, Sing Sing, and the Auburn Asylum for the Criminally Insane? Robert Buffum was no “professional bounty-jumper” – to the contrary, he was a medal of honor winner. Stories like his sort of let the air out of the argument put forth by contemporary media that only the worst sort became criminals. So how did families and communities make sense of men like him? With this new project, I hope to find out.


Abbott, Edith. “The Civil War and the Crime Wave of 1865-1870.” Social Science Review 1 (June 1927): 71-93.

Kinder, John. Paying With Their Bodies: American War and the Problem of the Disabled Veteran. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Lewis, Patrick. “To Serve This Long Term at Home: Robert Buffum, Mental Illness, and the Prison Trap,” Nursing Clio

Skocpol,Theda. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Monkonnen, Eric. Murder in New York City. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001.

Handley-Cousins, Sarah. “Wrestling at the Gates of Death: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Nonvisible Disability in the Civil War North.” The Journal of the Civil War Era (June 2016): 220-242.

The nation first had to truly grapple with the extraordinary expenses of war was after the American Civil War. As part of our series highlighting our own research fields, today we’re talking about Civil War veterans and disability, trauma, gore, crime, and extraordinary federal expenditures.


Diane Miller Sommerville · August 7, 2018 at 10:32 am

Great Podcast! Sarah, I really like your new project on crime. It’s an important question and really is an extension of your work on disability and trauma: crime is a form of socio-pathological behavior that post-war trauma took, as well as alcoholism, addiction, marital discord and violence. And PS, I’ll join you in suing NYS!

Dana Lupher · August 24, 2018 at 10:07 am

I think the term Diane might have been skirting Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. As a Civil War historian (amateur) and reenactor. the stories of how the war changed the veterans from both sides. The psychiatry science was really non existent as we know it now. The rise in populations in asylums and other effects such as the rise in suicides (or unusual disappearances) and those crimes you detail are symptoms of the disorder. I think as a continuation of this episode would be to examine some of the research done on PTSD and the war’s prior to the mid 20th century. Even up to WWII, they were not handling shell shock as a disorder. Patton’s alleged treatment of a shell shocked soldier is an example. As you state, you have classes to teach so research might not be on the forefront but there are some authors you could talk to who have done the research. I remember hearing one on Civil War Talk Radio a few years ago that you might contact. All in all, I do enjoy your podcast and keep up the good work.

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