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:
       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.


  1. Excellent post.
    Will Hickox

  2. I will add more to this report at some point.