ATHENS - Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was virtually unheard of in the 19th Century, but it could explain why the remains of at least 85 Civil War-era veterans, including a Washington County soldier, are buried in cemeteries on the Ridges near the former Athens Lunatic Asylum.
A special Memorial Day ceremony honoring veterans who were buried in the cemeteries was held Monday by the Ridges Cemeteries Committee and National Alliance on Mental Illness in Athens.
"Until the Vietnam War, we didn't know what it was - we often called it 'shell shock' during the first and second world wars," said Thomas Walker, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio University in Athens, and a member of NAMI.
Photo by Sam Shawver
Waterford residents Alma Polly Flowers and son, Stanley Flowers, are escorted to the grave of their ancestor, Union Army Colored Troops Cpl. Israel H. Johnson, by a member of Ohio University’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 650. Johnson was buried in 1898 in the cemetery of the former Athens Lunatic Asylum on the Ridges in Athens.
Walker said PTSD is now known to result from stress on brain cells that can cause nerve endings - or dendrites - to break off. Such damage can cause soldiers who have been through battle to experience flashbacks, reliving the battle trauma in their minds.
"In the two to three decades following the Civil War, the majority of men admitted to mental hospitals would most likely have experienced some form of what we now call post traumatic stress," Walker said.
Post traumatic stress could explain why Israel H. Johnson, a farmer from the Watertown area of Washington County who served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, ended up at the Athens asylum in 1898.
"He came here in March 1898 and died a month later, and we think he had PTSD," said Ada Woodson Adams, president of the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill, who gave a talk on Johnson during Monday's ceremony.
She said Johnson had served honorably and attained the rank of corporal with Company I, 27th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, a unit made up mostly of black soldiers from Ohio.
"On July 19, 1864, Israel was a 21-year-old farmer from Washington County who pledged to serve in the Union Army of the United States," Adams explained. "He was of sound mind and in good health when he entered the army. So what went wrong that brought him to this facility?"
She noted that black soldiers were not highly thought of by many of their white counterparts at the time, and during battle Confederate officers would often encourage southern troops to kill the blacks but capture the whites.
"Still, Johnson served with honor and courage and earned the rank of corporal - that's significant because most blacks were not given promotions at that time," Adams said. "And his unit was honorably discharged in 1865. But we can only imagine the stress he must have encountered during the war."
Following his service, Johnson returned to farming in Washington County and married, but his first marriage failed. He later married again.
Adams said he had several children from both marriages.
"He had been sick for some time, too, before he became institutionalized, complaining of sore eyes and rheumatism," she said, adding that Johnson also had developed a problem with mucous in his lungs.
He had been out of the military for more than 30 years before being hospitalized at the Athens asylum. Walker said it's not known why Johnson was sent to the facility.
"He had a family - children and a job. My guess would be that his sickness became worse and he just spiraled downward until he had to be admitted," he said.
Two of Johnson's descendants also attended Monday's ceremony in Athens.
Alma Polly Flowers, 68, and her son, Stanley Flowers, 46, both of Waterford, were escorted by a member of Ohio University's Air Force ROTC unit into the Ridges cemetery where they placed a wreath on Johnson's grave.
Adams said Polly Flowers is Johnson's great-niece by marriage, and Stanley Flowers is a great-great nephew of Johnson.
Polly Flowers noted her late husband, Larry Flowers, was a direct descendant of Israel Johnson's brother, James Johnson.
Also recognized at the Memorial Day ceremony was a Confederate soldier, Eli Stevens, who died at the asylum within three months of Johnson and was buried nearby in the same cemetery.
Carolyn Cade, of The Plains, a retired Army nurse who worked two years at the former asylum in the 1990s, said there was limited information about Stevens, but he had served during the Civil War under Confederate General John Hunt Morgan as a member of the infamous Morgan's Raiders.
Morgan led about 1,500 of his troops on a 13-day raid into Southern Ohio in 1863. He and 400 of his men were later captured in Columbiana County.
Cade said Stevens apparently became separated from his unit during the raid, and disappeared until 1867 when he surfaced in Vinton County, Ohio.
"He was arrested by the sheriff there because he burned down a church," she said. "The Vinton County courts decided Stevens was insane, but the sheriff kept him in the county jail until Stevens was brought (to the Athens asylum) in 1874."
Cade said Stevens, like Johnson, also came from a farming background and apparently enjoyed working in the asylum's gardens. He died on March 23, 1898.