My Great-Great Grandfather, My Muse

As you may already know, this site is for people to share stories about their ancestors, whether they’re true anecdotes or an imagined concept kindled by a photograph. In fact, Generations Of Stories was inspired by one of my ancestors, James G. Crutcher. He wasn’t famous and  he didn’t do anything special, but to me, he was fascinating.  I’ve found volumes of information on him—more so than on anyone else in my family. Perhaps because of this, I’ve been able to piece together a theory about who he was as a living, breathing human being. As a writer, I’m always seeing stories among the clues, and in this case, I feel compelled to write a novel based on James’ life.

James was my father’s great-grandfather. He was born in 1846 in Frankfort, Kentucky to a family with roots in America extending all the way back to Virginia in the 1600s. Something about the details of his life resonate with me, seeming to reverberate all the way into the present. Like my father, James was a soldier who ended up on the losing side of a war—Dad in Vietnam, James in the Confederacy. Older members of my family have told me that after the war, James eventually abandoned his wife and children in Louisville and took off for parts unknown. Rosa, his wife, took their five living children and made her way up to Montana where her parents and siblings had settled. Apparently, Rosa was so angered by James’ abandonment of his family, she forbade their children from ever speaking his name or using him as a namesake for their own children. He was essentially lost to the family until 2011, when I found his voting records, obituary, and death record.  It seems that James himself wanted this anonymity, for in the 1910 census for Modesto, California, he was listed as a widower– even though his wife and children were alive and well in Montana. He spent at least the last twenty years of his life in California, with a gap of time from 1890 to 1910 for which his whereabouts are still unknown, eventually dying indigent in San Jose in 1928 and buried in a pauper’s grave.

Like my father, James was young when he went off to war—younger, actually—only sixteen when he enlisted. And like my father, I’m sure he suffered from what we call PTSD today.  I believe this is the real reason James left his family.  Just like veterans of modern wars, Civil War veterans often suffered what was then referred to as soldier’s heart—a term for PTSD that’s both poetic and tragic at the same time. It was common for men to come back from the war with psychological and emotional wounds that extended beyond the boundaries of their own minds and into the lives of their families and communities at large.  After the war, a Union soldier named Clinton Moore became a heavy drinker, often beating his wife and disturbing his neighbors.  The local constable referred to him as “3 parts ugly, 1 part crazy”.   Many of these soldiers were at best, emotionally distant, or worse– consigned to insane asylums, homeless, or even dead by their own hand.

War-related mental illnesses were even less understood in the past than they are today, although their effects had just as much impact on individuals, families, and societies back then.  Those of us who have never been a soldier or fought in a war have no understanding of its reality or the damage it causes.  The questions I ask myself whenever I think about James and his family are Did he have flashbacks?  Did he become an alcoholic?  Did he abuse his family?  Did his fear and guilt drive him to leave?  Did he become homeless?  Was he lonely?  

I plan to add details about James here from time to time, possibly even including snippets from the book as I’m writing it.  If you’re interested in learning more about him, be sure to follow his page here on Generations Of Stories.  If you’d like to learn more about Civil War soldiers and PTSD, some details can be learned here.