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Pathway to Hell: A Tragedy of the American Civil War

by Dennis W. Brandt, Lehigh University Press, 2010, $44.50

A member of the famed Pennsylvania “Bucktails,” Angelo Crapsey marched off to war with chest-pounding patriotic ardor and masculine hubris. And, like so many young men of that era, Crapsey returned home with his life in shambles.

Pathway to Hell: A Tragedy of the American Civil War is Dennis Brandt’s 2008 story of a patriotic young backwoodsman-turned-soldier who gradually goes insane. Just released in paperback, Brandt’s book generates grim contemplation on the horrors of war and is clearly not intended for the faint of heart. But though this is a generally dark narrative, the author makes an admirable effort to let us know more about Crapsey than just his dismal experiences in uniform. The young man’s familial roots and friendships are also thoroughly explored. Although Crapsey was a rough-hewn backwoodsman, he was introspective and expressed himself in his letters and diary entries with unusual candor.

Crapsey fought with the Bucktails in several battles. And at Antietam, the brutal combat may not have been the worst of what he had to endure, since he was assigned the grisly job of burial duty— dumping mangled bodies of his friends and comrades into shallow graves. He often found it difficult to know which body parts belonged in which grave.

“I know not how soon I will follow my comrades who now lie slumbering in an unknown grave,” he wrote.

The deterioration of the young soldier’s state of mind was also accelerated by his incarceration in Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison. By the end of his service, Crapsey had not only become mentally ill, he also suffered from painful intestinal afflictions, possibly caused by malaria or typhoid fever. When he returned home, one family member said he looked like “a scarecrow.”

Brandt provides a sometimes-plodding “blow-by-blow” narrative of his protagonist’s mental deterioration, leading to tragic consequences. All told, Pathway to Hell is a good, long and frequently disturbing look into the psyche of a soldier who managed to survive combat but mentally was unable to move on.


Originally published in the July 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.