Post-Traumatic Stress, 1864 to the Present

“July 11, 1864  11 of our men was Hung on the same Scaffold & at the same time for robbing & murdering their fellow Prisoners.” –from the diary of William Morgan Davies

I’m interested in whether and how my great great grandfather’s Civil War trauma—including three months in the notorious Andersonville Prison—is handed down to my generation and beyond.

Conditions at Andersonville were not far from those of the World War II concentration camps. While there may have been less brutal and gratuitous violence on the part of the captors—and certainly the rationale for imprisonment was less arbitrary—the physical situation was similarly horrific. Up to 33,000 men were contained within a 26-acre stockade, sheltered only by makeshift tents and sheds. The only source of water for drinking and bathing was a stream running through the prison grounds, polluted by excrement. With Confederate food supplies scarce even for its own soldiers, the prisoners were malnourished, often starving. Scurvy and infectious diseases were widespread, while vermin were universal. By one estimate, 100 men per day died in the prison.

William Davies does not write about Andersonville, except to say he was taken there, plus one entry noting the execution of the “raiders”, a group of prisoners who robbed and murdered other prisoners. (Some people use diaries to process traumatic feelings, but Davies tended to stop writing when something terrible happened, like the death of a close friend or immersion in the horrors of Andersonville.)

After the war, he tried farming outside of Topeka, Kansas, but the farm did not do well. When he began attacking his wife, Louisa, with a horsewhip, his behavior was attributed to wartime trauma, particularly his imprisonment. Nevertheless, Louisa’s brothers recognized that she was in danger and helped her get a divorce, not a commonplace occurrence in 1886.

Along with the suffering of three months’ incarceration under more or less intolerable conditions, did Davies experience survivor guilt as men around him died every day? What did he have to do to stay alive in that hell? Does my own tendency toward exaggerated anxiety and guilt have any relationship with his pain?

And Louisa’s sense of helplessness and fear, both for her husband away at war and then in prison, and for herself when he turned his violence against her—how does that get handed down?

I am investigating whether psychotherapy has anything to say about multi-generational trauma. I am also learning about the Dagara tradition of healing one’s ancestors and hoping such healing can extend forward—to me, for instance!

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6 Responses to Post-Traumatic Stress, 1864 to the Present

  1. Lichanos says:

    Hi, Violet:

    Pretty interesting journey you’ve begun here. You are fortunate to have this wealth of material at hand.

    Yes, we are all ancestors. I’ve been fascinated by this since I was a little boy. I recall staring at reproductions of photos in history books when I was young, photos taken in 1900, and thinking, that’s when my grandfather was born!

    Good luck!

  2. Karli says:

    I was aware that my great-great-great grandfather, William Davies, was stuck in Andersonville prison for 3 months but did not know about his violence toward Louisa upon returning. Although its easy to jump to judgement that he was a wife-beater, no one can truly understand the path his mind took through the war and his stay at Andersonville. Your inquiry on multi-generational trauma is very interesting to me. I’ve never really thought about it…

  3. visnow77 says:

    When Mom mentioned it, she was very matter-of-fact, never making him out to be a bad guy but simply that it was dangerous for Louisa, so she left him. Also that the family considered it to be a result of the war, although there was no word for PTSD in those days. Psychotherapy tends to look at nuclear family relationships, but I have always found that be of limited effectiveness. Perhaps we need a longer perspective. Thanks for posting.

  4. Quite interesting. I wish I knew more of the life experiences of my Civil War ancestor after his release from Andersonville. I keep searching for tidbits to shed some light on his life.

  5. Yes, I spend quite a bit of time on Ancestry and luckily the Tower family is documented back to the 1600s. What I’m trying to find out now on Abraham Bates Tower is what his life was like from 1865 to 1930. He lived a long time.
    I’ve created a timeline to track what I’m finding.

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