Saturday, May 4, 2013

Lincoln Orders a Discharge for "Insanity"

By Thomas P. Lowry, M.D.

Pvt. John Beiser, 32nd Indiana Infantry, deserted at Camp Fry, Kentucky, in April, 1863. When captured, he was convicted and sentenced to be shot.

Much of the trial transcript centers on his mental condition. His officers offered these comments, "He used to be crazy some of the time, with spells of lunacy lasting six to 24 hours, once or twice a week. . . He accused me of having sexual intercourse with Mrs. Beiser, even though she was a hundred miles away . . .He said he could hear his wife crying. . .He is much worse during a full moon. . . He once jumped out of his tent and fired his gun."

The court petitioned for clemency because of "insanity."

The case came to the Executive Mansion, Lincoln's Judge Advocate General, Joseph Holt, prepared his report. "June 5, 1863. Private John Beiser was convicted of Desertion and sentenced to be shot. The court recommended that on account of the state of his health the sentence be remitted and he be discharged from the service. General Rosecrans approved the findings, and forwards the record for the action of the president, enclosing the Report of a Board of Medical Examiners, who decided that the man was insane. . .The accused was sent to an Insane Asylum [at Nashville] to await the decision in the case. It is recommended that he be discharged." Lincoln wrote: "June 16, 1863. Sentence remitted & accused ordered to be discharged."

The symptoms noted in the records suggest a contemporary diagnosis of Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder.

Reprinted from The Journal of Civil War Medicine, Vol. 12, No.2

PHOTO: 32nd Indiana Infantry Monument in Cave Hill National Cemetery

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