It Never Ends: The Civil War and Mental Illness.

April 6, 2016

During the Civil War (1860-1865) nearly 700,000 Americans lost their lives. Another 1 million were seriously wounded, and at least 100,000 or more veterans suffered from what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some families began noticing the changes in behavior shortly after their loved ones returned home from the war. For others, it took months, and even years, before the festering emotional wounds began to reveal themselves, and in many ways.

Although the war was over, reminders of the war were everywhere. In the South the cities and the economy were devastated, and poverty was widespread. More disturbing, however, was the significant absence of young men, and the large number of widows. In some communities as many as 20% to 40% of the men between the ages of 16 and 24 had been killed in the war. When considering the battles and the men killed in different regiments, the numbers are staggering:

1st Texas (CSA) – Battle of Antietam – 82% killed
1st Minnesota (US)-Battle of Gettysburg – 82% killed
6th Mississippi (CSA) Battle of Shiloh – 70.5% killed
25th Massachusetts (US) Battle of Cold Harbor – 70% killed

Killed in battle Spotsylvania Virginia 1863
Killed in battle, Spotsylvania, Virginia 1863
Private George W Warner of Co B 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment lost both arms in combat
Private George W. Warner of Co. B, 20th Connecticut Infantry Regiment lost both arms in combat.

There were the tens of thousands of wounded veterans who were without arms or legs. Antibiotics had not been discovered, so an infected limb was a likely death sentence, and amputation was the only answer. Union surgeon, Dr. Daniel Holt described the gruesome scene:

“Every house, for miles around is a hospital, and I have seen arms, legs, feet, and hands lying in piles rotting in the blazing heat of the Southern sky, unburied and uncared for, and still the knife went steadily in its work to the putrid mess.” Holt’s words are troubling but he offered a small window into history as it was happening. From the moment the war began, the battlefields produced not only death, but a multitude of severe and life-changing injuries, both physical and emotional.

A wounded soldier being prepared for amputation
A wounded soldier being prepared for amputation.

Michael Schwenk was a young man who wanted to go home. He served in the 56th New York infantry and participated in a number of high risk raids and night attacks. His war experience had worn him down and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He threatened to kill several of his regiment with an axe, and later he chased others with a gun into the woods, shouting that he was going to kill them. He was captured by his own men and sent to a hospital for observation. He was committed to an insane asylum, where he died thirty years later. His war experience had traumatized him so badly that he never lost his desire to kill.

Farm boys as young as 12 years old were tossed into the middle of hell.The battlefield was a nightmarish scene. The cannon roar was so loud it could shake horses to the ground. It was the sounds of bullets zipping close by, however,that made the moment crystal clear that life and death hung in a precarious balance. The smoke and the smells created a vision of horror. Death was all around them. Without narcotics to dull the pain, the wounded suffered in unbearable agony. The natural elements of weather added to their misery. Many soldiers, especially Southern ones, were without footwear, and others lacked clothing or even tents in which to sleep. The scarcity of food was a problem for both armies. Many were away from their families for the first time, and the loneliness and the fear of the battle contributed to bouts of depression. It is not difficult to understand how a normally healthy person could slowly become unhinged.

“I went over the field of battle as soon as possible after the surrender. At some points it was terrible. My eyes never beheld such a sight before. I hope they may never again. In some places the dead lay very thick, not more than 3-5-10 feet apart; some were shot in the head, others in the breast and lungs, some through the neck, and I saw 3 or 4 torn all to pieces by cannon balls; their innards lying by their side, ….. It is indeed a sickening sight ….. I had often wished that I could be in one battle and go over a battle field. My curiosity has been gratified. I never wish to see another.”
Calvin Ainsworth of the 25th Iowa Infantry, USA 1862

Illustration of deserters being executed during Civil War1864
Illustration of deserters being executed during Civil War.1864

Desertion was much higher than in any other American conflict before, or since. If caught, the deserter was publicly executed. On one occasion, the Charleston Mercury described how an entire division formed three sides around ten deserters who were to be executed by a firing squad. The condemned sat on their own coffins waiting their turn. The article said that many of those watching were “seized” by an “uncontrollable emotion.” By witnessing the executions, it served as a reminder that death was a likely outcome, regardless of which path a soldier took.

In 1873, Logan P. Herod killed himself by slitting his throat with a butcher knife. He had tried several times since the war. He had been shot in his left thigh and testicle during the battle of Richmond, Kentucky in 1862 and suffered from intense pain, swelling and depression. Like many other suicidal veterans, Herod had discussed his pain and a desire to die for a number of years prior to his suicide.

The same happened to Newell Gleason of Indiana. Gleason had been a successful engineer before the war and a colonel in the 87th Indiana regiment. He was recognized for his calm demeanor and good judgment in battle. After two years of intense fighting, he started to fall apart. At times Gleason behaved normally, but, without warning or provocation, he would burst into tears, or into hysterical laughter. He was mustered out of the military in 1865, and spent the next years in and out mental hospitals. By 1880, Gleason ended his torment by jumping head first into a cellar.

Colonel Gleason
Colonel Gleason

Before the war mental illness was mostly left untreated. Those exhibiting mild and non-aggressive behavior would stay at home with their families. The others would be sent to the handful of state or federal insane asylums.The patients with violent tendencies were placed in prisons with the general population. The prevailing belief was that most mental illness was only temporary. It was thought to be like a bad cold or ‘flu, and that the patient would recover and return home. Few were confined indefinitely, and most were released within weeks. The treatment consisted of simply talking to the patient in soothing tones, and with an attitude of respect and caring. The moral approach sought to discover the root of the patient’s problems through a series of well-structured conversations. Many believed that “plenty of fresh air out in the country would take care of the problem” and “lots of peace and quiet,” would be the ultimate cure. Due in part to this belief, the new asylums were largely built in the rural areas. Although these methods certainly reflected sensitivity, they were ineffective. After the war, the nation faced a huge and ever-growing number of veterans who had suffered an unthinkable amount of trauma, and who desperately needed help. Families, and the handful of existing asylums, were quickly overwhelmed.

Milledgeville Lunatic Asylum Georgia
Milledgeville Lunatic Asylum, Georgia

In 1860 there were approximately 40 mental asylums in America, but by 1880 that number had exploded to 140. There is little doubt that this incredible increase was a result of the trauma suffered by Civil War soldiers.

Shortly after the war the nation went to work building the asylums throughout the country. The design of architect Thomas Kirkbride was the most popular. The structures were massive, and some extended over several acres. They were initially designed to house 250 patients, but quickly were straining with as many as 1000 patients. At some other asylums, such as the Athens Asylum in Ohio, the numbers climbed to 2000. In some cases, the patient’s to doctor ratio grew to as high as 140 patients to one doctor.

New York State Lunatic Asylum
New York State Lunatic Asylum

It is interesting to note that Kirkbride sold his design based on the “moral approach” towards caring for the patient. Patients living quarters resembled homes, and the less disturbed the patient, the closer he would be housed to the center of the facility. This center was near the administrative area, activities section, and most of the medical offices. Patients with more severe problems were pushed farther away from both the center and other patients. The idea was to keep the aggressive and violent patients from disrupting the lower risk ones. In reality, the massive overcrowding created a different reality. Kirkbride’s “moral approach” structures provided a human warehouse for disturbed patients,in many cases,for the rest of their lives.

Management did not have time to continue with the niceties of the “moral treatment” and even reinstituted the use of cage internment for the most aggressive patients. That helped to control the chaos, but it did nothing to address the patients’ problems. Sadly, two -thirds of the patients stored in these structures were Civil War veterans. In many cases the big dollars had been spent for the bricks and mortar, with little or no funds left for training and staffing.

An illustration of dinner in the asylum
An illustration of dinner in the asylum.

It was not unusual for families to simply drop their family members off at an asylum, and never see them again. Some viewed their mentally sick relatives as an embarrassment, and others saw them as an additional burden. The attitude towards mental illness was to deny, ignore, and behave as if the person were dead.

“They refused to come and get the body….. And asked the superintendent not to write them again.”
Dixmont Asylum, Pennsylvania – 1887

Millegeville Lunatic Asylum Cemetery over 25000 unmarked graves behind the facility
Millegeville Lunatic Asylum Cemetery – over 25,000 unmarked graves behind the facility.

Most Americans do not realize that tens of thousands of Civil War veterans are buried behind now-defunct mental hospitals throughout the country—and, most without names on their stones, only numbers. The Dixmont Asylum cemetery is just one of the reminders of how families pretended their disabled relatives did not exist. It houses over 1300 graves, many belonging to Civil War veterans. In Ohio, the Athens Asylum has over 2000 graves, the Danvers Mental Hospital in Boston has in excess of 10,000, and the Milledgeville Mental Asylum cemetery in Georgia has well over 30,000, all quietly hidden in the distance behind their massive sprawling structures. These veterans were not only forgotten, their lives were dismissed by both their families and society.

There are literally tens of thousands of monuments scattered throughout America honoring the deceased veterans of the Civil War. In the Gettysburg National Battlefield, there are over 1300 monuments and markers. For decades following the war, thousands of parades, dedications, and public assemblies took place – – all for the purpose of honoring the veterans of the Civil War. The acclamation went on, while the sadness in the insane asylums continued. How could a nation that embraced and loved their war veterans so easily erase the memory of the ones who became mentally disturbed?

1915 Grand Army of the Republic parade Pennsylvania veterans
1915, Grand Army of the Republic parade, Pennsylvania veterans

It could be argued that post-Civil War Americans did not want to accept another burden left from the war. During the conflict and afterwards, the nation struggled with an overwhelming sense of mourning for the dead. No family was spared the grief. The Civil War produced more widows and orphans than all other American wars. Thousands returned home from war with serious disabilities, their lives and families changed forever. The economic devastation in the South not only shattered dreams, but left many families financially destitute. The end of the war created a different type of nightmare for many. The entire family structure had been fractured from the fallout of the war. The problems were numerous and the solutions were complex. Relatives suffering from mental illness were a problem that few had the patience or strength to face. By increasing the number of asylums from 40 to 140, Americans believed that this was the only answer to mental illness. By leaving their mentally ill relative at the asylum the problem, for many, went away. Families generally never visited, or even claimed the body, once the patient passed away.

To forget about one person is sad, but to forget about an entire group – – thousands of Americans, who sacrificed their all -is shocking and appalling.


Steve DeGenaro, “Murdered Children,” Military Images, (September/October 2000).
Eric T. Dean, Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 1997).
Kimberly Leupo, The Ridges: The History of Mental Illness, (Ohio University History Department, 2001).
Kristen Anderberg, American “Insane Asylum” History: Giving Names to Numbered Graves, (Boston: The Boston Independent Media Center, 2004).
David J. Rothman ,The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic,(New York: Little Brown, 1971).
Gerald N. Grob ,Mental Illness and American Society 1875-1945, (Princeton University Press, 1983).
Drew Gilpin Faust, The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Random House, Inc. 2008).
Drew Gilpin Faust, “Death and Dying,” National Park Service, (United States Government Publication, 2009).

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

    1. I wonder if we as humans have changed at all, in our treatment towards one another.

      WHAT SAY YOU !

    1. Will we never learn? Everyone loses in war. We may enter for all the right reasons but it goes to hell for all concerned. GOT TO BE ANOTHER WAY!

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