Evidence of PTSD Experienced by Michigan Civil War Veterans
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Traverse City Asylum for the Insane
In the Saginaw Evening News on December 1,1913, an article appeared. “The Mystery Disappearance of Charles Nunn was Solved Sunday.”
Charles Nunn (article at bottom) apparently had an uncontrolled emotional episode where his daughter attempted to calm him. He ran out of the house and off to where nobody knew. Authorities searched but Nunn did not turn up. For a week there were no clues until one searcher entered an abandoned cabin “near a clump of trees in Brant Township two miles from his home Sunday afternoon. Nunn was reported to “have wandered into the cabin, fell exhausted and slowly starved to death.” Could Nunn have died of slow starvation? He was 65. Could he have had Alzheimers’ episode before there was such a thing? Or could it be he had a Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) incident before PTSD was understood. A veteran of the 194th NY, Nunn had been stationed at the worst prison camp in the North during the war. It was nicknamed “Hellmyra.”
In the Civil War doctors called PTSD by several names including “nostalgia,” “soldier’s heart,” “nervous shock,” “melancholy,” “acute mania,” “hysteria,” and more. Surgeons were mandated to recognize the condition and treat the condition before psychology was a science and treatment was insufficient.
While researching a group of 789 Saginaw, Genesee and Shiawassee County Civil War veterans, an alarming number of incidents were found that might today be considered PTSD. A few could be misinterpreted but together, they reveal that our ancestors suffered similar problems to today’s soldier. Many veterans appeared to find an ability to lead normal lives while others had trouble with memories and pain. Suicide became a solution. “ The Union Army reported only 391 suicides during the war.” Suicide after the war was not reported as a consequence of war. There are following a few of the documented incidents and none were considered “soldiers heart” at the time.
Isaac Shatto was a veteran of Battery A, 1st Michigan Light Artillery, that saw heavy fighting especially at Chickamauga. One evening, Shatto came to the Walsh Hotel in Port Huron, dressed smartly in an “inmate’s” uniform ( of the Grand Rapids Soldiers’ Home) and checked in for dinner. He carried with him his pension papers that entitled Isaac to receive $17 per month. He went for a walk afterward and was not seen again that night. At breakfast the next morning, Mr. Shatto did not appear and at noon, Shatto had still not appeared. A messenger went up, “found the door locked, but upon looking underneath the door, saw that Shatto was lying in a pool of blood.” Authorities were called and “they found the old veteran lying on the floor with a bullet wound over the right ear.” A Smith & Wesson revolver was at his side. On March 15, 1896, he was two weeks shy of his sixty-first birthday. He had two suicide notes, one for the Flushing GAR commander, the other for his wife that communicated a deep depression. He had been institutionalized for morphine addiction prior to being placed in the Old Soldier's Home in Grand Rapids.
William Waygesegoing was an Anishinaabe Indian who was in the famous all-Native American sharpshooter company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. He returned home without physical scars but was a veteran of the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and the horror of the Crater. His age was unknown but in 1897, he died when he stepped in front of a train. Some thought that being an Indian he had been drunk and passed out on the tracks. Which was it?
Edward Leavitt (see below) started his involvement in the war as a constable escorting conscripts to their enlistments. He enlisted at Maple Grove in the 7th Michigan Cavalry that entered into some of the hardest fighting in the war. He made it through Gettysburg only to be wounded days later and continued until 1866. He went on to mill lumber in Chesaning and there is little of note about his life until at the age of 75 in December, 1901, he also “accidentally” stepped in front of a train. He lived for two days.
The veterans’ ages were not always young and could it be be possible some incidents were accidents? Multiple studies show that as veterans age, the incidents of PTSD actually increase in the number of victims, and the variety of symptoms. Today, up to 80% of all veterans will suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress. In the Civil War, the problem was people would not discuss it. Medical records and family accounts offer other obvious symptoms, mental illness and drug abuse. Unable to cope, the family were forced to committed their loved one to mental facilities.
Ed Patterson- was one of the group of sixteen from Chesaning who went to join the 16th Michigan in 1861. Ed detached to Battery B, 5th U.S. Artillery and distinguished himself at Gettysburg. Later captured by some of Mosby's Rangers and In Libby Prison for six months, starvation was always present during his stay. He weighed 105 lbs when freed. Only in his 50’s, a creeping paralysis mysteriously came on, and at one point fully paralyzed and helpless “though he was conscious to the end.” During his descent his mental capacities became a problem and he spent time in Pontiac Hospital for the Insane. He died at 59 on July 21, 1900.
Emmett Payne was committed for a form of “hysteria” in the Jackson Hospital for the Insane. The condition worsened and finally was transferred to where cases were the most severe, Traverse City. Emmett is believed to have suffered from severe "hysteria." Shortly after the birth of his second child (around 1870), he was committed to Jackson at the approximate age of 31 and remained institutionalized for the remainder of his life. Like Patterson above, he was also a soldier of the 16th Michigan. The 16th fought through the war including Gaines Mill, Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg. He may have lived physically until 1924 but mentally, there were no reports from the family of his disorder.
David Miller was 5’6” and 25, was a member of the 24th Ohio when his fighting began in the west in the fall 1861. His first paralytic episodes began in early fighting in November, 1861, again early in ‘62, again in April and again early in 1864 lasting two months. He was at Corinth, Stone’s River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Rocky Face Ridge, Resaca and Kennesaw Mountain where paralysis lengthened to sometimes two weeks. Discharged, he returned home, where his wife had him immediately committed. Unable to cope, she divorced him in late 1864. Miller recovered and he moved to Chesaning, worked as a farm laborer and even remarried. Unfortunately, the attacks returned and his second wife had him committed to Traverse City where one year later at the age of 49 he passed. While trying to land on his feet in 1870, he managed to graduate from the University of Michigan when few were able to get a degree. He was survived by his second wife and three children.
Theron Adams enlisted ten days after the firing on Ft. Sumter, April 25, 1861at 25, and was in the 7th Ohio Infantry. His regiment had been involved in fighting in the Shenandoah during the Spring of ‘62 when Theron was dismissed from duty. For unknown reasons, he enlisted again and according to documents, he mustered out in July, 1864. All information is missing until in 1910, eight days after Adam’s death, his wife filed a widow’s pension. It indicated that Theron had been an inmate at the Eastern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Pontiac, MI for some time.
Elihu Westfall was a veteran of the 55th Ohio Infantry and a participant in many fights in the Army of the Potomac including Fredericksburg, 2nd Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Cedar Mountain and Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, Westfall was discharged by surgeons order. In the 1880’s, at 55, he was receiving an invalid pension. Records indicate that he was addicted to morphine and in entered institutes to rid the addiction. Then on September 30,1905, the Saginaw Courier reported that Westfall had been found in Chesaning to haven taken an overdose of Morphine .”
What soldiers and civilians experienced during the Civil War is beyond what few people today could possibly comprehend. Many of the survivors carried the mental scars in a world that had no idea what to do with them.”
Places of Burial:
Theron Adams- Chesaning
Edward Patterson- Bay City
Emmett Payne- Flushing
Charles Nunn St. Charles
Isaac Shatto Flushing
William Waygesegoing-St. Charles
David Miller- Chesaning
Elihu Westfall- Chesaning
Saginaw Evening News, 12/1/1913, Body of Missing Man Discovered”
National Archives of the United States, Washington, D.C.
The Rise and Decline of Mental Health Hospitals in the State of Michigan Gerald H. Smith Western Michigan University, 1995.