James G. Blunt, the Civil War General who died from a soft brain

General James G. Blunt. Image Source: Library of Congress.

James G. Blunt was a physician, lawyer, and abolitionist who rose to the rank of Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War. In fact, Blunt was the only man from Kansas to achieve that rank in the Union Army.

Prior to the war, Blunt was an anti-slavery “Jayhawker” in Kansas and was associated with John Brown during the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Blunt joined the Union Army and largely served in the Western Theater, including Kansas, Missouri, and Indian Territory. He often commanded Native American Indians and African-Americans during battle.

More than a decade after the war ended, Blunt was practicing law in Washington, D.C. when he started to exhibit erratic behavior. He checked himself into St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in 1879 and he died two years later. According to his doctors, the cause of death was “softening of the brain.”

Who was James Gillpatrick Blunt?

When the Civil War started, James Gillpatrick Blunt mustered into volunteer service as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Third Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment. His regiment was part of what later became James Henry Lane’s “Kansas Brigade,” a brigade comprised of anti-slavery “Jayhawkers” from Kansas. 

Blunt and Bleeding Kansas

Prior to the war, Blunt was associated with Lane and the famous abolitionist John Brown during the conflict known as  “Bleeding Kansas.” Blunt was also an active member of the Republican Party.

John Brown, Abolitionist
Abolitionist John Brown. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Brigadier General Blunt

With Lane’s endorsement, Blunt was promoted to Brigadier General on April 18, 1862. In May, the War Department placed him in charge of the Department of Kansas. Under his command, Union forces armed Native American Indians.

Blunt Joins the Army of the Frontier

By early September, Blunt was referring to the troops under his command as the Army of Kansas. On September 30, 1862, Confederates routed Blunt’s forces at the First Battle of Newtonia. Alarmed by the defeat, Union officials merged Union forces in the area, and Blunt’s army became one of the divisions of the Army of the Frontier.

Blunt’s Frontier Battles and Promotion to Major General

On October 22, 1862, he led his men to victory at the Battle of Old Fort Wayne, which took place in Indian Territory — present-day Oklahoma. The battle is notable because Indians fought for both sides. Blunt’s division included Cherokee volunteers, while the Confederates, led by Colonel Douglas Cooper, included Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee forces, including Colonel Stand Watie and his 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles.

Following the victory at Old Fort Wayne, Blunt successfully led his men during:

  • The Battle of Cane Hill (November 28, 1862)
  • The Battle of Prairie Grove (December 7, 1862)
  • The Battle of Van Buren (December 28, 1862)

In January 1863, Blunt was promoted to Major General, making him the only officer of that rank to represent Kansas during the Civil War. 

The Battle of Honey Springs

On June 9, 1863, officials placed Blunt in command of the District of the Frontier. On July 17, 1863, Blunt’s forces defeated Brigadier General Douglas H. Cooper’s Confederate troops at the Battle of Honey Springs. The conflict was the largest engagement of the Civil War fought in the area that later became Oklahoma. It was also notable because the majority of men who fought in the battle were Indians. Blunt’s force also included the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry. Blunt’s victory essentially gave the Union control of the Indian Territory for the remainder of the war.

Battle of Honey Springs, 1863, Cavalry Charge, Illustration
This illustration depicts Blunt leading his men during the Battle of Honey Springs. Image Source: House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College.

Massacre at the Battle of Baxter Springs

In October 1863, Blunt and his men were attacked and routed by pro-Confederate, pro-slavery “Bushwhackers” known as Quantrill’s Raiders at the Battle of Baxter Springs. Blunt’s adjutant was Major Henry Curtis, the son of Major General Samuel R. Curtis. The younger Curtis was killed in the attack, and Blunt was removed from command of the District of the Frontier for failing to protect his men.

William Clarke Quantrill. Quantrill's Raiders
William Clarke Quantrill, the leader of Quantrill’s Raiders.

Blunt Ends the Confederate Invasion of Missouri

Afterward, Blunt held several smaller commands in the West. He was able to redeem himself while commanding the 1st Division of the Army of the Border. When Confederate forces under the command of Major General Sterling Price invaded Missouri, Blunt took command of the 1st Division and worked with General Alfred Pleasonton to slow Price’s advance. They were able to slow Price’s Price’s Missouri Expedition long enough to allow General Samuel R. Curtis and his army to join them. 

Together, Union forces were able to defeat the Confederates at the Battle of Westport — known as the “Gettysburg of the West” — on October 23, 1864. Blunt and his command pursued Price and attacked the rear of his army in Newtonia, Missouri on October 28. Blunt won the Second Battle of Newtonia, and forced Price to retreat to Texas, ending his expedition.

General Sterling K. Price, CSA, Civil War
General Sterling K. Price (CSA). Image Source: Library of Congress.

James G. Blunt Dies from a “Soft Brain”

On July 29, 1865, Blunt mustered out of volunteer service and resumed his medical practice in Leavenworth, Kansas. He also started studying law, and he joined the Kansas Bar at some point before 1869. Afterward, he then moved to Washington, D.C., to practice law.

After Blunt turned 50, he started to behave erratically. In 1879, when he was just 53, he entered St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane. He spent the rest of his life there, dying two years later on July 27, 1881, from what doctors described as “softening of the brain.” Blunt’s final resting place is at Mount Muncie Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas.

St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane, Photograph
This photo of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane was taken between 1909 and 1932. Image Source: Library of Congress.