Friday, November 21, 2014

"I never dreamed that a man so made up could be off his base..."


James H. Gillpatrick responded on April 27, 1888, to Albert C. Ellithorpe’s letter about James G. Blunt with his own ideas about the cause of Blunt’s insanity. This letter is also from the Ellithorpe Family Papers at the Kansas Historical Society.

“…And again, as I supposed, you give a good suggestion as to the possible, or presumable cause of the Generals’ mental decay. I had always thought that the placing of Genl. Schofield in command over Genl. Blunt had very much to do with his despondency and final break up. But I agree with you that the startling and tragic affair at Baxters Springs, May well have made his mind diseased.

I think you will be sure to do the best possible thing for Mrs. blunt in your affidavit, Let me call your attention to this—his morbid idea of writing a history of his campaigns and the war—He worked at it day and night in Washington just and Long before his break down. I thought he was off but as you say never dreamed that a man so made up could be off his base until the crash came…”

Gillpatrick’s comment about Major General John M. Schofield is intriguing. Blunt’s and Francis J. Herron’s victory at Prairie Grove caused a jealous rage in Schofield, the commander of the Army of the Frontier. Just weeks after the battle, Schofield tartly informed his department commander, Major General Samuel R. Curtis, “The operations of the army, since I left it, have been a series of blunders, from which it narrowly escaped disaster where it should have met with complete success. At Prairie Grove Blunt and Herron were badly beaten in detail, and owed their escape to a false report of my arrival with re-enforcements” (Official Records, vol. 22, pt. 2, 6). It didn’t help his attitude when officials rewarded Blunt and Herron with promotions to major general. Blunt and Schofield ended up sparring with each other for years. Fortunately, Blunt never read Schofield’s damning postwar comment that Blunt was “’probably the lowest specimen of humanity that ever disgraced a general’s stars in this or perhaps any other country’” (William L. Shea, Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign, p. 334, note 8).

We are left so far with three possible explanations for Blunt’s insanity:
       Syphilis
       Psychiatric problems caused by the Baxter Springs Massacre
       Problems stemming from his stormy relationship with Schofield

His obsession with writing a book seems to have been a symptom rather than a cause of his affliction.

Unfortunately, there apparently are no surviving medical records pertaining to General Blunt, records that might shed more light on his condition and the causes of it. It’s interesting that neither Ellithorpe nor Gillpatrick even allude to the possibility that Blunt suffered from syphilis. Although Ellithorpe greatly admired the General, he was honest and straightforward in his wartime writings, and my impression is that he would have been willing to broach a sensitive topic.

At some point, I hope to track back and find out if possible who first suggested that Blunt’s insanity was caused by syphilis. The general had several enemies—did the suggestion that he suffered from syphilis come from one of them? Or, was there credible evidence that he visited “houses of ill repute”? No doubt there are other possible explanations for his insanity as well, and perhaps we will never know for certain what caused Blunt’s “crash.” What is certain is that his condition was a tragedy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"It haunts me night and day..."


Currently, I am editing the diary and papers of Albert C. Ellithorpe, an officer in the First Indian Home Guards. An intelligent and perceptive observer, it is apparent from his writings that he interacted often with Major General James G. Blunt.

Seven years after Blunt’s death, Ellithorpe learned that attempts were being made to secure a pension for Blunt’s widow, Nancy. On April 18, 1888, Ellithorpe wrote James H. Gillpatrick (or Gilpatrick), Blunt’s son-in-law and a former comrade of Ellithorpe’s, and offered to write a letter in support of Mrs. Blunt’s application. Ellithorpe’s poignant letter offers interesting insights into Blunt’s behavior and provides another explanation for Blunt’s mental breakdown. The following is the pertinent part of the letter from the Ellithorpe Family Papers at the Kansas Historical Society:

 “I never imagined that a man of so strong and positive a brain could ever have it turned or dethroned by any military adversity; but it seems that I, in my judgment, was mistaken, for while in the very heighth [sic] of his success, and while all his previous efforts in the field had been crowned with victory, I find after a certain event to be a changed man. From his buoyant and jovial disposition he became taciturn, and despondent at times, while many of his hours appeared to be spent in a moody, absent minded reflection. I often asked myself, what can be the cause of this great change in the generals appearance, his habits, social, and military, all changed. I soon however, discovered what seemed to me to be the cause.

While on his march from Leavenworth to take command of the army assigned to him in Southern Missouri and the Indian Territory, his little escort was attacked at Baxter Springs and you know the result of that massacre, for it was nothing else but a cold-blooded and wanton sacrifice of life by the Quantrell and Livingston Bands of marauders while he with only a few of his guard escaped. The records and history in the War Department have full particulars of this event. From this hour forward I found the General a changed man; moody, very reflective, while all of that former buoyance of spirit, and dash appeared to have left him. I frequently asked what trouble, or what anxieties depressed him; his answer invariably was ‘The Baxter Spring Massacre; I cannot throw it from my mind,’ said he; ‘It haunts me night and day, however much I try to throw it off, I can not, and I sometimes feel that I was to blame, and that the Government will blame me’. Said he; ‘I sometimes think that it was one of those events liable to occur in the fortunes of war, & that all the, care or caution of any man, could not prevent; then again, I feel, that, perhaps I did not exercise the care or caution which I ought to have exercised.’ This tradgedy [sic] or massacre, was the one great thing in my opinion, that commenced to affect, and finally resulted in [the] dethroning of the brain of our much loved General. From that time he appeared changed[.] His despondent hours grew upon him, and became more frequent; and from the close of the war to his death this, with other things, such as feeling that the Government Officials were against him, and that he was not properly appreciated for his acts and his services all contributed to worry, depress, and unnerve the man.”

Historians Kip Lindberg and Matt Matthews used Ellithorpe’s letter (and, like me, used it for a title) in their excellent article, “It Haunts Me Night and Day: The Baxter Springs Massacre” that was published in North & South, Vol. 4, Number 5, pages 42-53.

Next time: yet another explanation for Blunt’s decline.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What Happened to Major General James G. Blunt?


James Gilpatrick Blunt was one of the most aggressive Union generals in the trans-Mississippi, and it’s nearly impossible to read a book about that region without coming across a reference to him. And, yet, there is a mystery about him that concerns the cause of his mental breakdown. Sadly, Blunt died in an insane asylum on July 27, 1881.

Robert Collins explored this mystery in his biography, General James G. Blunt: Tarnished Glory (2005). In 1878, friends noticed “that Blunt’s mental state was deteriorating,” and he was placed in an asylum (p. 221). The diagnosis was a “’softening of the brain,’” which Collins writes is a reference to damage caused by the venereal disease, syphilis. Collins referred to Blunt’s “reputation for dalliances with women, [and] it seems clear that he was consorting with prostitutes during the war” (p. 221). These are claims that I’ve read in other sources, but the sourcing for these alleged “dalliances” always seems nonexistent or based on secondary sources. Regrettably, Collins’ book has no citations. So, what is the basis for the claims that Blunt “was consorting with prostitutes”?  When did the rumors make their way into print? Who made the claims?

Blunt may have indeed contracted syphilis, but I think it’s fair to question the sources for that information as well as consider other possibilities for his mental breakdown. A couple of other explanations for his mental breakdown will be explored in my next posting.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fort Smith Council of 1865


Officials from the Office of Indian Affairs met with Indian delegates at the Fort Smith Council of 1865. The goal of the meeting was to reestablish official ties between the entities, and government officials informed the Indians there that new treaties had to be negotiated. The fact that several tribes had sided officially with the Confederacy was the justification for the new treaty requirement; in other words, many Indian tribes experienced a Reconstruction period, and the new treaties were not favorable for these tribes.

In September 1996, the National Park Service hosted a symposium to mark the 130th anniversary of the Fort Smith Council. A librarian at my university sent me the link to the resulting 136-page symposium book that features articles by Brad Agnew, Ed Bearss, Mark Christ, Laurence Hauptman, Gary Moulton, Arnold Schofield, Mary Jane Warde, C. Fred Williams and several other scholars. The book features articles on the battles of Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove but also covers some lesser known topics such as the situation of the Indian Territory on the eve of the war, the Cherokee Nation’s home front, the 1866 treaties that resulted from the Fort Smith Council, and Indian Home Guard units. As an added enticement the book is available online for free; it takes awhile to load, but the book may be viewed by clicking on the link in this posting.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Yes, Virginia there was a war west of the Mississippi."


Last week, I returned from a vacation with my mom to Antietam, Harpers Ferry, and Manassas. It had been about twenty years since I had visited these places, and I met up with a friend who had never seen them. While on the trip, though, my mom reported that a National Park Service volunteer informed her that not much had happened west of the Mississippi. Grrr. If I had heard the volunteer say that, I would have had a few things to say in response! It’s sad that myths still abound about the trans-Mississippi, but as Dr. Norman D. Brown wrote in his introduction in the 1994 reprint of The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division, “Yes, Virginia there was a war west of the Mississippi" (p. xxiv).

In his introduction, Brown also wrote that Confederate “Trans-Mississippi veterans actually begged for recognition” (p. vii). No doubt that was the case for Union veterans as well. Brown quotes Texas veteran W. L. Morrison who wrote the following to the Confederate Veteran magazine in 1895:

“’From reading the Veteran, one would almost conclude we had no war west of the Mississippi, while, in proportion to our numbers, we held as many Federals in check, when protecting Texas and western Louisiana, as any portion of the Confederate forces had to contend with. We also had as brave men, as noble women as ever lived on earth’” (p. viii).

Although historians have increasingly turned their attention to the trans-Mississippi, there is still much work to do. Sadly, I think if veteran Morrison were here today, he would write about the same sentiment concerning most of our contemporary Civil War magazines.