The New York Times May 23, 2014
Edson Bemis was a hard man to kill. Rebel soldiers tried three times, and three times they failed. At the Battle of Antietam, a musket ball ripped through his left arm. Two years later, in the horrible fighting in the Wilderness, he was shot in the abdomen, just above the groin. The ball was never extracted, remaining in his body until the day he died.
The Confederates came the closest to killing Bemis in February 1865. At Hatcher’s Run, Va., a Minié ball struck him in the head. He lay near death for several days, his skull cracked and leaking brain matter. Most passed him off for dead. Dr. Albert VanDevour, however, did not, and instead performed a risky surgery to remove the bullet from his skull. Bemis improved immediately, eventually recovering, much to the shock of everyone.
The war was finally over for Bemis. He moved to Suffield, Conn., with his wife, Jane, where they hoped to start a new life. He began working for W.W. Cooper’s, a local merchant house, but very quickly it became clear to everyone that Bemis was not right. One of his colleagues at W.W. Cooper’s, George N. Kendall, described his health as “never very good,” and Bemis began to suffer from “spells of vertigo” or “something that afflicted his head” so much so that he frequently could not work.
Kendall noticed that Edson was also “very forgetful.” He had wild mood swings, and Kendall wrote “any little thing irritates him.” He was increasingly subject to memory loss. Sometimes, for several hours each day, he had no memory of where he had been or what he had done. Eventually he had to stop working at W.W. Cooper’s because of his condition.
In 1890, Bemis suffered what appeared to be a stroke, and his condition, which was already bad, got exponentially worse. A pension official came to Suffield to interview the Bemis family and friends, and immediately noticed that although Bemis was only 55 in 1895, he walked “like a man of 80!” His wife had to assist him in dressing, she had to “cut his meat and wash his potatoes” and she described him as being “like a child.” The pension official wrote that Bemis’s only job each day was to go to the post office “right below here for the mail and to a few houses above for a pail of milk every day this is all he can do.”
In 1900, Jane had apparently had enough, and Bemis was examined and institutionalized in Westboro Insane Hospital in Westboro, Mass. By this time, his condition had spiraled even further. A doctor at Westboro, Lewis Bryant, wrote that Bemis believed he was “thirty years old” but he could not recall the present “year month or day of the week.” Bemis believed that “the civil war is still going on” and, occasionally, would “see dogs in the room.” Bryant described him as “silly, emotional, crying and laughing without apparent cause” and having “little memory confusing the present with the past…soils his clothing has had delusions and false sights, and at times requires the care and attentions usually given a child.”
Celestia Bemis, his sister, who coincidentally married a man with the last name Bemis, came to Westboro and took charge of Edson, taking him to her farm in North Brookfield. Celestia and Jane did not get along, and their feud spilled over into the notes of the pension official who occasionally checked up on Bemis. Jane claimed that Celestia ordered her to stay away from him, because her presence excited him too much, while Celestia claimed that Jane had never once tried to visit Bemis, and was content to keep cashing his pension checks without ever seeing him. Jane last saw her husband in August of 1900; he died two months later. She continued collecting a pension until her death in 1917.
Bemis’s story was not an uncommon one among Civil War veterans. Historians are beginning to uncover what was a virtual epidemic of emotional, psychological and neurological trauma that afflicted soldiers after the war. Veterans labored under emotional and psychological stress in ways that are disturbingly similar to the present. Alcoholism was rampant, as was unemployment. Suicide was endemic. Civil War veterans dotted the wards of insane asylums across the country.
Modern science would most likely have given Bemis a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, caused by a blow to the head or a penetrating injury of the skull. Such injuries are all too common among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan today. Symptoms of T.B.I. range from headaches, confusion, lightheadedness and dizziness to fatigue, mood changes, depression, changes in sleep patterns, restlessness and agitation. That seems to be consistent with Bemis’s litany of postwar complaints.
If so many Civil War veterans were troubled with emotional and psychological trauma, why has it taken us so long to discover them? Veterans were loath to admit they were traumatized. In the 19th century, mental illness carried a tremendous stigma, and most veterans fought a private battle rather than disclose their trauma.
Additionally, most families preferred to care for mentally ill loved ones at home. Bemis’s care as his mental health declined became a community project. Jane certainly performed the lion’s share of the work. She dressed him, fed him, and sometimes had to help him in the bathroom. But she could not watch him all the time. A.P. Sherwin, a local doctor, later testified that everyone “in town knows soldier to be mentally afflicted” and all the people in Suffield near the Bemis household “watch him closely.” Jane Bemis testified that she did not watch him “on the street” because “everybody knows him” and that he only “goes a short way from home.”
Finally, the relationship between warfare and psychological trauma has only recently become better understood. War trauma has distressed veterans in nearly every war, but the whispers of shell shock and combat fatigue never really entered the public consciousness. It was not until after Vietnam that veterans’ groups successfully lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to include post-traumatic stress disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders. Since then, our understanding and empathy for veterans afflicted with psychological trauma has grown rapidly. Bemis’s life demonstrates that combat has been damaging to the human brain and the human psyche long before we were willing and able to give the maladies a name.
Sources: Soldier’s Certificate No. 59,267, Cpl. Edson D. Bemis, Company K, 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, National Archives; Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Veterans Who Served in the Army and Navy Mainly in the Civil War and the War with Spain, 1861-1934, National Archives; Steven T. DeKosky, “Traumatic Brain Injury: Football, Warfare, and Long-Term Effects,” in the New England Journal of Medicine 363, No. 14 (Sept. 30, 2010); Rebecca J. Anderson, “Shell Shock: An Old Injury with New Weapons,” Molecular Interventions 8, No. 5 (Oct. 2008); Emily Singer, “Brain Trauma in Iraq,” Technology Review 111, No. 3 (May–June 2008); Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Game Brain,” GQ, Oct. 2009; Ben McGrath, “Does Football Have a Future?” New Yorker, Jan. 31, 2011.
Dillon Carroll is a graduate student in history at the University of Georgia.