Sunday, November 4, 2018

The trauma endured by Civil War POWS was passed on to their sons. Here's what experts say about study that found a genetic link.

Union soldiers in the trenches at Petersburg (Library of Congress)

Trauma experienced by a father, it turns out, can be passed along to the next generation -- in a perhaps unexpected way.

A new study has found that postwar sons of many Union POWS had shorter lives than sons of soldiers who weren’t held captive during the Civil War. And it suggests an interesting genetic explanation.

Dr. Dora Costa led a team that used military, pension and other records and determined that by age 45, sons of POWs who suffered severe privation and trauma at Confederate prisons were 11 percent more likely to die at any given age than sons of men who were not imprisoned.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that these sons were more than twice as likely to die at the same age than their brothers born before the conflict. The researchers said the excess mortality of younger sons was largely from cerebral hemorrhage and cancer. The paper said the deterioration of Rebel prisons after inmate exchanges ended increased the trauma on captives (after mid-1863).

Because a father’s POW status had no impact on the health of daughters, the researchers determined something else was at play: the Y chromosome belonging to males.

“I originally thought the key factor in the children’s longevity would be socioeconomic status,” Costa said in a news article at UCLA, where she is on the faculty. “But then I started to notice the effect was only happening in the sons -- which is in keeping with an epigenetic cause -- and only to the sons born after the war.”

Epigenetics is the study of inherited biological triggers that affect genes and how cells in the body react to genetic information, but that do not alter underlying DNA sequences. Basically, the study found that fathers’ prison hardships, including food shortages, altered the function of his genes in ways that could be passed on to sons.

A Los Angeles Times article on the study had this to say about maternal nutrition offsetting that paternal stress. “The life-shortening effect of a father’s POW status was magnified for the sons who were born in April, May and June, when food supplies tended to be leanest. But that effect virtually disappeared among sons born during September, October and November, when harvests are in and food is typically more plentiful.”

The Picket reached out to several Civil War prison experts to comment on Costa’s findings. Here’s what they had to say:
MICHAEL P. GRAY: Where you were imprisoned matters

“Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among Civil War US Civil War Ex-Prisoners” is an interesting study, but I am not sure how much this really tells us about entire post war-prisoner narrative, nor true consequences of Civil War incarceration on generations beyond. 

This analysis adds to a conversation started by Dr. Angela Riotto, historian at the Army University Press, who has addressed such numbers in her scholarship, particularly with Civil War prisoners and PTSD, which ultimately led to suicides. “Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among Civil War US Civil War Ex-Prisoners” would be greatly improved under the lens of a professional historian, like Riotto, so a better historical framework might be understood.

Although the article lacks historical context on a number of fronts, it does raise a variety of questions. In its grand scheme, the sample size is too small. The analysts write “2,342 children of 732 no-exchange period ex-POWs, 2,416 children of 715 exchange-period ex-POWs, and 15,145 children of 4,920 non-POW veterans, all born after 1866 and surviving to age 45.” However, more than 56,000 prisoners died during the conflict, and even that number most likely falls short of the actual amount of deaths. Moreover, the comparative with non-prisoners would be so large and daunting in tracking down family members generationally, it might seem impossible to even try. But at the very least, the authors do make an attempt.

However, their statistics are taken from sanitized pension records that might not deliver on the true experience of their captivity. Perhaps more investigation might be taken from other primary sources?  Furthermore, they need to address what prisons their sample size comes from. They write, “Thirty-five years after the end of the war, camp survivors faced greater mortality and health risks and had worse socioeconomic outcomes, if they had been imprisoned when camp conditions were at their worst compared with non-POW veterans and ex-POWs imprisoned when conditions were better.”

Andersonville prisoners in August 1864 (Library of Congress)

Well, they are assuming they were at their worst, but this may not be the case at all prisons.  

Civil War prisons were very unique and diverse and socio-economic not only come into play after the war regarding health concerns, but during the war. For example, the death rate at Richmond’s Libby Prison would be much lower to that of Georgia’s Andersonville. Or, if we venture into the North, the death rate at Elmira was 25% and Johnson's Island less than 2%. The authors might want to consider the difference between the enlisted men’s prison, like Andersonville and Elmira, to that of officer-only prisons, like Libby and Johnson's Island -- where death rates were lower, since “class” mattered.

Besides socio-economics in captivity, the authors generalize a bit, writing “Most POWs were exchanged immediately until mid-1863…”  This is not the case, as prisoners might be held for some time before being officially exchanged. The authors conclude, “There is growing concern that health can be transmitted across generations, leading to the persistence of poor health and socioeconomic status within families.” This might be very true, but what about the common Civil War solder campaigning in Virginia during 1864? And how would you track their sample size from a generational standpoint? Did Civil War captivity mean that your children were going to be in poor health?

This reader is not convinced as there are too many limitations and variables in their findings. But they have added to the conversation, and one only hopes their work will continue to add to the Civil War incarceration narrative.

Gray is professor of history at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania. He has extensively studied Civil War prisons and is the author of a new book, “Crossing the Deadlines: Civil War Prisons Reconsidered.”

LANCE GREENE: Epigenetic effects getting more attention

The recent study looks at Union veterans of the Civil War who were held in POW camps late in the war and who suffered horrible conditions during their captivity. It also looks at their children and compares them with the children of Union veterans who served in the war but were not POWs. The study focuses on the effect of paternal POW trauma and attempts to identify the impact of negative effects on their children and identify the cause of these impacts.

The study focuses on possible epigenetic effects. Epigenetics is a study that has grown dramatically in the past decade. It studies how changes to a person’s genetic expression occur without changes to the DNA. For example, exposure to carcinogens may alter genetic expression by inhibiting the release of an enzyme. There are also natural occurrences in the body that can cause similar changes. Although these kinds of events do not change a person’s genetic make-up (DNA) they are potentially inheritable traits. Therefore, these changes that occur in a person’s life can be passed on to their children.

For their research, the authors collected data on almost 5,000 adult children of 1,400 Union POWs and data on 15,000 children of 5,000 non-POW veterans. Most of the data came from military, pension, and census records. The authors performed statistical analysis using the Cox proportional hazard model, which looks at a variety of traits (e.g. paternal POW status, sex of the child, socioeconomic status, birth order, maternal and paternal lifespan, etc.), and calculates the impact on survival of these different traits.

Lawton exhibits at Magnolia Springs State Park in Georgia

The results show a significant difference in mortality rates for the children of Civil War veterans. Boys born after the war to men who had been POWs were 1.10 times more likely to die than the offspring in the other categories, including children born to POWs before the war, girls whose fathers had been POWs, and boys whose fathers were Civil War veterans but who had not suffered the conditions of prisoners.

Because they looked at so many factors, the study suggests that having a POW father did not have a negative impact on your financial status but had a delayed negative impact on health. Excess death of sons was largely due to cerebral hemorrhage and to a lesser extent cancer, in the states where cause of death was recorded.

The study also makes a strong argument that the effects on sons were not driven by the behaviors of their father; those negative impacts did not affect the daughters of POWs or their sons born before the war. It strongly suggests an epigenetic effect, one that was passed on through the Y chromosome and therefore to sons only.

The study is important in many respects. Dr. Costa’s previous research has shown conclusively that the trauma suffered by these POWs had significant negative impacts on their health after the war. This research goes one step further and shows the continued intergenerational impact. It also supports a growing body of literature on the significance of epigenetic effects.

Greene is an historical archaeologist with Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He was the first director of the Camp Lawton research project, based out of Georgia Southern University. Camp Lawton held Federal prisoners for six weeks in late 1864, but did little to ease the suffering of POWs moved from Andersonville.

RYAN McNUTT: Socioeconomic, other factors should be considered

I'm not necessarily surprised by the findings that the POW experience of harsh physical and psychological trauma could have an effect on descendants; previous research suggests this possibility for Native Americans and Holocaust survivors. However, there are problems with how some of these relate to epigenetics, as well as issues like small sample size, and some papers not addressing sociocultural factors, like the transmission of trauma via family stories and accounts, rather than through genetics. 

And in fact, this was one of my concerns with the article. I don't disagree with the premise that there is likely an epigenetic transfer of trauma -- but I'm not convinced the mortality correlation in sons of POWS from the non-exchange period can be satisfactorily linked to this, because it doesn't address some pretty big socioeconomic factors.

The non-exchange period in the article for example (between July 1863 and July 1864), corresponds almost exactly with the Enrollment Act, or Civil War Military Draft Act, enacted in March 1863. Every male citizen, and immigrants who had applied for citizenship, between the ages of 20 and 45, were required to enroll. Substitutes and commutations by those who could afford it meant, arguably, that the burden of military service fell on immigrants and lower classes to a great degree. The perception of this unfairness of the act led to the New York City draft riots in July 1863. And, indeed, it's likely that the first batches of draftees would have begun entering into the POW system in July of 1863, just at the period that exchanges stopped. 

My suspicion is that the high mortality rate of offspring of non-exchange period POWs is tied to this lower socioeconomic status of their fathers, rather than any causative link to experience trauma. Furthermore, cerebral hemorrhage is a catch-all term for cause of death in the early 20th century, so it is difficult to parse how this may be connected to the father's poor health.

Students conduct Camp Lawton field work during 2015 field school (GSU)

Finally, while the fact that sons of ex-POWs were 1.11 times likely to die (I'm not sure where the 11 percent is coming from -- I couldn't find it anywhere in the article) than the sons of non-POWs is statistically significant, it's still not to my mind high enough to prove a causative link for higher mortality rates outside of socioeconomic and psychological factors. 

It's very clear from the postwar career of ex-POWS that many of them struggled with ongoing health issues, almost certainly PTSD, and various other psychological issues as a result of their confinement.

This impacted their ability to keep employment, as did the massively high levels of substance abuse among veterans, including POW., all of which would have a down-the-line effect on the quality of life for their children, particularly the sons who may have had to shoulder more a of a burden of caring for the family both through adolescence, and into adulthood. And the lack of a similar mortality rate among daughters is par for the course: by the 1900s, the death rate for men was twice as high as for women. So the lack of a similar mortality rate for daughters of POWS is in line with other demographic trends of the day, as opposed to being a comparative marker for their male siblings’ epigenetic shortened life spans.  

It's a very interesting article, and I certainly think epigenetic transmission of historical trauma is a worthwhile avenue of research, but I'm not convinced that epigenetic transfer of trauma is sole direct causative reason for higher mortality rates among the children of ex-POWs.

I think that there are a host of socioeconomic, cultural, and historical factors that were not considered with due weight in the interpretation and conclusion -- which to be fair, the authors acknowledge as potential issues in their discussion. 

McNutt is assistant professor of anthropology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and director of the university’s Camp Lawton project. His research in conflict archaeology have included sites in the United Kingdom, France and Poland.

DEBBIE WALLSMITH: Trauma seeps down to new generation

The article by Costa, Yetter and DeSomer is very interesting and provides the foundation for future research on POWs from other wars.  It is not surprising that being a POW would result in long-lasting effects.  However, it was not expected that these effects would impact the health of their sons. In some cases, the former POWs had difficulty returning to civilian life but there were some who became very successful.

A common factor among most of them was that they had health issues related to the malnutrition and diseases they experienced while imprisoned that plagued them the rest of their lives.

It is not surprising that both physical and mental health issues would have affected family life. Although many died while relatively young, some POWs lived into their 80s and 90s.

Wallsmith is environmental review archaeologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division. She has researched prisoners held at Camp Lawton and has maintained a database about them.

The Camp Lawton POW database contains the names of 3,750 men. Age at death information is available for 680 former POWs. Age at enlistment ranges from 13 to 53. The youngest to die was 16, the oldest was 98. The table below indicates the age ranges at which those men died:

Age @ death
# dead
20 or younger
21 - 30
31 - 40
41 - 50
51 - 60
61 - 70
71 - 80
81 - 90
91 - 100

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