Camp near Battlefield Sharpsburg
Sept 30th, 1862
At 5 oclock wee moved forward & soon commenced driveing in the rebel pickets. Just as wee emerged from a belt of Woods into a plowed field, the rebels fired across the field. Wee moved forward doublequick & lye down behind a little knoll & commenced fireing at the rebels. Soon they opened with Grape & Canister. It seemed as if they would blow us from the ground. It was soon dark. Wee kept fireing so fast that they could not stand it. My gun was so hot I was afraid to load it but kept stuffing it & fireing at the flash of their guns. Wee charged & drove them out of the Woods & they poured in the Grape again but to no afect. Wee wer determined to hold the Woods & did all night.
So wrote Cpl. Angelo M. Crapsey describing the opening salvos of a murderous duel of great armies that in less than 24 hours would fell as many Americans as the first two weeks of the Normandy invasion of World War II.
Sharpsburg was the name of the nearby town. The creek Angelo and his comrades had to cross to reach the battlefield that evening of September 16, 1862, was called Antietam.
The battle of Dranesville had initiated him into warfare the previous December. There "the bulets flew like hail" and "the cannon balls came whiring through the air & smashing down every thing that was in range." He was at Harrisonburg, Virginia, that June where the "rebels charged on us & we had to run, run for [our] lives . . . through an open field & we had showers of bullets sent after us." At the battle of Cross Keys "300 Shell & balls passed over us, some of them bursting right over us [and] a bullet out of a shell struck within 6 inches of my head in the ground." In August, his regiment tangled with Jeb Stuart's cavalrymen at Catlett Station and witnessed the brutal aftermaths of Second Manassas and Cedar Mountain. Angelo volunteered for burial detail so he could search for an uncle whom he feared had fallen. Days before the encounter at Sharpsburg, he was clambering up the mile-long slope of South Mountain into the teeth of potent enemy resistance and afterwards listed the friends who had died in the process.
"I am not sick or tired of serveing my Country as long as the war is against us or the rebels [are] in Merriland [Maryland]," he wrote his friend Laroy Lyman just before the battle of South Mountain. "But I hope the War will close. I am not ready to have it close in the rebels favor. No, never as long as there is a drop of Blood in my veins."
Angelo Crapsey never spilled a drop of blood defending his ideals, but he did expend his mind. His mental Waterloo began at the battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862; his mind surrendered completely in the putrid confines of Libby Prison. Although his accounts of prior battles are as vivid and detailed as any written, he never described Fredericksburg or its aftermath, despite a promise to do so.
The scene that Angelo and the left flank of the Union army faced that unusually warm December day would have seemed bucolic during peaceful times. To an army, it was an obstacle course of ditches, fences, and muddy ground. Forward the Federal lines went, shoulder to shoulder. Artillery fire disintegrated lines, reformed, fell apart, and reformed again. "The most gallant charge of the war," one veteran recalled from the safe distance of intervening decades. What the author meant was that the experience had been terrifying beyond belief.
Angelo and his comrades did their work well that day. They slipped through a hole in the Confederate defenses and put many of the enemy to flight. But lacking reserves, Angelo's company couldn't permanently stem the tide of Confederate forces. Described as "Completely done out," Angelo Crapsey was one of many taken prisoner.
Never again would he enjoy a day of complete sanity.
* * *
The Angelo Crapsey who announced his intention of enlisting in April 1861 was quite different than the lad who would return home two-and-a-half years later. Friends enjoyed his "lively and cheerful" disposition, and young ladies took pleasure from his dark hair, handsome face, and captivating blue eyes. In politics, he was a true believer in the Union cause.
"Cheerful," however, could not apply to his family life. His mother died of fever when he was nine years old, leaving him with a father who was … different. As a young man, John Crapsey had leaped headfirst into the wave of extreme religious practices that had swept through New York and surrounding areas. He studied for the Lutheran ministry but left the church and ordained himself. Reverend Crapsey's high energy services included speaking in tongues, mesmerizing many parishioners. Some swore they experienced visions and "the beautifulest music" springing from the heavens. A few of the star-struck became rabid "Crapseyites," but far more became terrified. A woman described his services as "an abomination to a civilized community" and compared Crapsey to a "rattlesnake."
Angelo remained above this religious controversy. Even John Crapsey admitted that his "son was not inclined to religious subjects nor excitement."
When Reverend Crapsey first preached in the village of Roulette in Potter County, Pennsylvania, Laroy Lyman was there and overnight threw off his Baptist upbringing to become Crapsey's number one follower. A big man even by modern standards, Laroy was a veritable giant in his day and thus commanded attention whenever he spoke, which was often and with great surety. While he practiced pacifism toward humankind, he was less forgiving with animals. He provided several New York City restaurants with venison and personally took a great hand in eliminating the wolf as a species indigenous to Pennsylvania. Newspapers as far away as Harrisburg called him "the greatest hunter in Pennsylvania." When Angelo came to work for him as a farmhand, Laroy took John Crapsey's only son under his wing and taught him everything he knew. Angelo's army comrades shriveled under the demands of life in the wilderness, but it only made him homesick for "the wild woods of Potter."
But Laroy could not have prepared Angelo for imprisonment. A hearty boy, tough as any man in his regiment, spent much of his time in Libby Prison complaining. Not that there wasn't reason to grumble. Libby had originally functioned as a warehouse, and the lingering odor of fish and hemp mixed badly with the stink of diarrheic, unwashed men. Survival depended on a six-ounce ration of bread issued twice daily and an occasional bit of meat that a good chance of being rancid. Angelo sold his boots for $16 in Confederate scrip to buy food from sutlers that preyed on a literally captive clientele. But the experience that defined much of his remaining life was a complaint common to every Civil War soldier: the omnipresent louse. As one prisoner reported with just a touch of hyperbole, "Lice you can scrape up on Libby's floor by the peck."
Following his release, he spent five months at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland, where many Union prisoners-of-war awaited formal exchange and a return to active duty. That occurred on May 18, 1863, when he reached the regiment at Fairfax Station, Virginia. Friends rushed to greet their old comrade but saw immediately that something was very wrong. "Sometimes he would make answer," a comrade recalled. "Then again he would not say anything. I know that he used to say that was unfit to be seen in decent company … Once in a while he would get a spell when he would talk about how the prisoners had to suffer and about the vermin that they had to encounter while he was a prisoner." Always, he scraped at non-existent lice.
Angelo had one last battle with the Confederate army, but it was the biggest of them all: Gettysburg. Despite hard fighting on a rocky hill later known as Little Round Top, he again escaped unscathed and even expressed pride in how they had "routed" the Rebels and "drove them like sheep." Within a week, high fever and dysentery did what bullets never had, and surgeons contacted John Crapsey to inform him that he had better hurry to his son's side. Angelo defied death once more, but his soldiering days were over. On October 13, 1863, he officially left the army.
"His mind was weak," Angelo's stepmother, Lura Crapsey, recalled. "He hadn't been home five minutes before I noticed that." Descriptions of him that once had been "lively and cheerful" changed to "melancholy and sober." An acquaintance remembered that "he seemed to be looking for the enemy, seemed to think that his clothes were unclean and was frequently raving and always seemed to be motioning with his hands. He never seemed to recognize me." Another portrayed him as "sort of wild and wandering in his memories all the time." A "perfect wreck in mind and body," another claimed, and everyone concurred that war had left him "shattered." On several occasions, he unexpectedly leaped to his feet, threw up his hands, and shouted, "I surrender!"
By the spring of 1864, Angelo's depression had deepened beyond redemption. According to his stepmother, "He seemed to be set on taking his own life . . . He seemed to think that everybody & everything hated him. Once he said to me that even the grasshoppers hated him." In "a crazed fit," he leaped through the front window of the Lyman home, crashing on the porch amidst glass shards and tiny spears of wood, but escaping with minor bruises. When the phantom lice infestation became unbearable, he hacked at his arm with a scythe, but the weapon was too dull and rusty to accomplish its mission. Drinking poison only made him sick, so he next tried drowning. John Crapsey required the help of three others to pull his son out of the Allegheny River. On the afternoon of August 4, 1864, friends Angelo had known for years refused to allow him to accompany them on a group hunt. He went off by himself, sat against a tree, and put the barrel of a rifle into his mouth. He pushed the trigger with his toe and ended his pain with bloody efficiency.
The American Civil War cost the nation 620,000 lives. Angelo's death is not included in that statistic, but he is a casualty of war as surely as if he had died in battle.
by Dennis W. Brandt