Just over a year after having the third-ever Medal of Honor pinned on his uniform for surviving months of retributive torture, Lieutenant Robert Buffum languished as a convicted criminal in the state penitentiary in Frankfort, Kentucky. Once a daring soldier trusted by his commanders to carry out behind-the-lines missions, Buffum had fallen prey to a cycle of mental illness, self-medication, substance abuse, and trouble with the law. This could describe any number of veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Buffum’s war was a century and a half earlier.
Buffum was a member of the Andrews Raid, a daring 1862 mission to steal a train in Marietta, Georgia and drive it northward to pave the way for a Union invasion of Chattanooga. The “Great Locomotive Chase” did not end well for its participants. Most were run down and captured with bloodhounds in the hills of north Georgia. Humiliating the raiders in ways that the defenders of the “peculiar institution” knew so well, they thrust the captives into the slave jail of Chattanooga, a dark underground pit filled with vermin, lice, and the ever-mounting filth of twenty-two prisoners chained together by the neck. Buffum recalled the air being filled with wool lint that the rats had clawed off of former captives’ clothing, and which they flung in the air as they scurried over the prisoners. “We could hardly get our breath” he said, as the rats “were running over us in every direction.”1
Buffum’s rebel hosts opted to treat the party as spies rather than soldiers. Though the guards kept lynch mobs of citizens at bay, eight of the prisoners were summarily executed by the military in Atlanta. The survivors occasionally wished for death during the year of imprisonment and torture they endured as they were moved through a circuit of prisons, including Richmond’s notorious Libby and Castle Thunder. Upon their eventual exchange — the rebels having turned their especial ire to the officers of newly formed United States Colored Troops regiments by 1863 — Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton awarded each of the men the newly minted Medal of Honor.
Buffum returned to his 21st Ohio Infantry Regiment in late 1863 after a furlough to rebuild his shattered health. But his prison experience dogged him, and he was forced to resign under threat of court martial for habitual drunkenness in 1864. On his way back north, Buffum spent a railroad layover in the bars of Louisville. After hours of downing bourbon, he and some comrades broke into a shoe store and held the owners at gunpoint while they swapped their worn out army boots for new ones. City authorities, fed up with the influx of soldiers and their rowdy behavior, threw the book at Buffum and had him convicted to three years at hard labor in Frankfort.
The Kentucky penitentiary was leased for profit, with most prisoners working insufferable hours in the hemphouse. Manufacturing cloth and rope from hemp fibers was considered fit only for slaves and convicts in Kentucky. In addition to stifling heat and dangerous machinery, hemp workers choked on huge quantities of dust — echoes of the rat wool in that Chattanooga slave jail. Prisoners were in danger of dying within months of their incarceration through respiratory illnesses.
Unsurprisingly, a prisoner’s punishment for missing a production quota was a flogging. As the war went on and slavery began to collapse, African American and northern prisoners were made especial targets of the wrath of the guards. Imprisoned abolitionist Calvin Fairbank kept regular count of the lashes he suffered. By the time he was released in 1864, he counted 35,105 in seventeen years of captivity — five and a half per day.2
“[A]fter what he has suffered & rendered such services to our government, I cannot feel that it is right, that he should be sent away in prison for three long years to come,” Robert Buffum’s wife Sarah wrote in an appeal to Secretary of War Stanton. “Does it not seem too bad,” wrote a fellow Andrews’ Raider and Medal of Honor winner, “that he should have to serve this long term at home, after what he endured in the South?”3
Buffum’s family and friends recognized that further imprisonment was only more likely to drive Buffum into the arms of his demons. Unlike many soldiers who were (and are) haunted by the violence of the battlefield, or incidents where the horrors of war were cruelly visited upon people and places believed to be beyond the realm of legitimate military violence, Buffum’s wartime trauma was rooted in captivity. Fortunately, the Lincoln administration leaned heavily on the Kentucky state authorities, and Buffum was pardoned after serving about three months in the penitentiary.
Yet if some veterans can never escape the battlefield, Robert Buffum could never leave his cell. He spent more time behind bars of one sort or the other than he did as a free man after leaving the army. Unable to hold a job, he applied unsuccessfully for a pension. Sarah eventually separated from him “in fear of his mania,” and Robert returned to his native Massachusetts where he lived for two and a half years in an asylum in Worcester. Days after his release in August 1870, Buffum calmly pulled a pistol from his coat at dinner and shot a friend’s father in the back of the head.4
Buffum claimed to have no memory of the murder. Coming back from his blackout to find himself in yet another cell, Buffum attempted suicide at his first opportunity, jumping repeatedly from his bunk “high into the air, and diving down headlong with terrible velocity upon the floor, seven such leaps being made” before jailors opened the door to the cell, “covered with gore.” At his sentencing, he lamented that “By my service to my country I have been made a pauper, a lunatic and a criminal,” though he claimed he would happily live a thousand such tortured lives for the stars and stripes.5
A couple of weeks after he joined the general population at Sing Sing, prison officials moved Buffum to the New York Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Auburn. There, on July 20, 1871, Medal of Honor winner 2nd Lieutenant Robert Buffum cut his throat with a razor and was buried in an unmarked grave outside the institution.
It is easy to critique the incapacity of nineteenth-century society to accept and heal the psychological wounds of the men it sent to war. It is easy to look down at a system that denied Buffum’s pension claims and left him to bounce between ineffective mental health care and incarceration. Of course, it is easy, only if we ignore our own contemporary stigmas and our own shocking statistics about veteran suicide, homelessness, and opioid addiction.
But even giving the institutions that housed Robert Buffum the benefit of the doubt, accepting their stated missions of rehabilitation and reintegration into society at face value, could Buffum ever have healed in those places? What was it like for him to wake up from nightmares about prison to end up in yet another cell? What sort of hellish feedback loop must that have been?
Obviously, Robert Buffum doesn’t speak for every veteran of yesterday or today. He was both lauded as a hero and tormented by a specific set of above-and-beyond circumstances. And while we can judge him for his eventual crimes, we might also do well to empathize. The man continually reached out for help. And even when his society tried to do right by him, those treatments had the unintentional effect of moving him from one subconscious nightmare to another, lived one. And, despite its flaws, I want to believe our standard of care for veterans has gotten better than that.
Then again, I think about people I grew up with in rural Kentucky and wonder if they have shared some of Robert Buffum’s terrifying mornings. I felt trapped there as an 18 year old — tobacco production in freefall, small factories closing, drug use and its attendant violence steadily rising. I got out, and went to grad school. A number of people I grew up with got out too, but they had to do so by putting their boots in the sand. Except they didn’t stay gone; those that came back from Iraq or Afghanistan are mostly at home now.
But how does it feel to come back to a place that is poorer, and smaller, and more addicted than when you left? And what does an infantryman do in Kentucky where there isn’t even farm work anymore? And how accessible are those VA benefits when you can’t get to your appointment over in the next county? How much does waking up alone in your old bed in your parents’ house feel like Robert Buffum’s prison cot?
For all the differences between Buffum’s United States and our own, between Buffum’s war and those our military fight now, his story nonetheless points out that the challenges our veterans face are the product not only of a foreign policy that places them in traumatic theaters of war, but also of domestic policy, which too often fails to follow through on the promise of support and opportunity made at the local recruiting station. For all that has changed since Robert Buffum killed himself, so much else remains tragically the same.
- Robert Buffum, House of Representatives Executive Document No. 74, 40th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1868), 20. Return to text.
- Calvin Fairbank, Rev. Calvin Fairbank during Slavery Times: How He “Fought the Good Fight” to Prepare “The Way” (Chicago: Patriotic Club, 1890), 149. Return to text.
- Mrs. Robert Buffum to Edwin M. Stanton, June 13, 1864, Office of the Governor, Thomas E. Bramlette: Governor’s official correspondence file, petitions for pardons, remissions, and respites 1863-1867, BR10-439 to BR10-440, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY. Accessed via the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition: Early Access, accessed August 9, 2017; William Pittenger to James C. Wetmore, June 6, 1864, Office of the Governor, Thomas E. Bramlette: Governor’s official correspondence file, petitions for pardons, remissions, and respites 1863-1867, BR10-437 to BR10-438, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, KY. Accessed via the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition: Early Access, accessed August 22, 2017. Return to text.
- “The Newburg Homicide,” New York Times, September 10, 1870. Return to text.
- “Boyd and Buffum Sentenced,” New York Times, May 24, 1871. Return to text.