It’s easy to sometimes overlook the normal, mundane and uneventful military tenures of volunteer soldiers when trying to tell interesting stories. We tend to favor those whose decorated military careers are obvious, and those stories that have been told, and retold generation after generation. In 2011 we were presented with a number of transcripts of original Civil War letters written by Abraham Penman to his wife, Elizabeth (see the Abraham Penman Collection.) At first glance, the letters appeared to be entirely predictable and uneventful in nature, bearing many similarities to countless other letters sent from the front during that time. The donor of these transcripts offhandedly remarked that the author of these letters believed his wife was cheating on him, but I saw no evidence of that in the letters between both Abraham and Elizabeth. Penman, a father of four, served as a private in Company F, of the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves whose tenure as a soldier was brief, and ended tragically. Further investigation into Penman’s service record reveals that after being briefly committed to an insane asylum, he eventually ended his own life as a result of the illness that he had struggled with. In trying to better understand Penman’s case, it became readily apparent that Penman’s struggle for survival had not occurred over the field of battle, but rather within the realms of his own mind as he struggled to retain his sanity.
The sad ending of this poor soldier had always stuck in the back of my mind, and made me wonder about his story. Considering the contents of the letters, I could not help but wonder what happened to him. Could he have been a troubled soul intentionally pushed into the army to fill a quota? Perhaps he suffered from a post traumatic stress disorder after being in battle? I was never sure. The latter thought proves not to be the case, so what was the cause?
In December 2022, we published the transcripts of his letters on our website, but with very little information on Penman himself. I spoke about Penman’s case with Chris Rasmussen, one of our Chief Regimental Historians and he agreed to research Penman and document his findings.
Chris dedicated himself to this endeavor, and poured a significant amount of work into the project striving to tell Abraham’s story to the best of his ability.
August Marchetti, President
By Chris Rasmussen
Abraham B. Penman was born June 9, 1829 in Dalkeith, Scotland. He married Elizabeth McCallap (or McKallip, multiple spellings appear in documents) on October 13, 1850, and together they were parents to four children. He enrolled in the “West Newton Guards,” which was later assigned as Company F of the 12th Regiment, Pennsylvania Reserves. On August 10, the Regiment was mustered into the service of the United States at Harrisburg, and departed for Washington D.C. arriving the next day.
Initially, Penman seemed to adapt reasonably well to army life. He corresponded regularly with his wife, and his letters to her are similar to other letters written by soldiers during the war. In an undated letter, he tells Elizabeth, “Lizz you maik my hart leap with joy when you tell me of our children[‘s] play full words.” In a letter dated September 26 he relates that a member of Company D of his regiment died after being accidentally shot in the head by another soldier who was cleaning his weapon.1
It appears at some point in October of 1861, Penman began showing signs of mental instability. Watson Muse, a mess-mate of Penman who had known him since childhood, stated after the war in a deposition that during the “…first winter we were out he began to show signs of insanity. I slept with him and he would have nothing to do with anyone else. He would get down and whisper in my ear that someone was hanging around our tent- he was all the time suspicious- and he got so bad that he had to be examined.”2
Muse stated that Penman had begun to mistrust his wife, believing that she was being unfaithful. Several other members of the 12th Regiment also testified that Penman’s symptoms of insanity began manifesting themselves about two months after enlistment and revolved around Penman’s belief in Elizabeth’s infidelity. Penman believed that his wife was corresponding with another soldier in his company, and convinced a third-party to help him recover a letter he perceived was from his wife addressed to another. He would accuse yet another soldier of secretly corresponding with Elizabeth, despite the fact that that soldier did not know her. Penman soon began suffering from hallucinations; on one occasion he could hear Elizabeth’s voice nearby his tent and believed that she was being concealed in the company headquarters tent belonging to his Captain.3
On December 16, 1861, Penman was admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane, now known as St. Elizabeth’s hospital. His stay at the hospital was brief, as he apparently recovered and was discharged from the service on February 27, 1862. After obtaining his discharge papers, he returned home, but the symptoms returned shortly thereafter. He continued to suffer from spells of insanity, which culminated in his suicide by gunshot on August 20, 1862.
Elizabeth remarried in 1870; her second husband would die in 1887 leaving her a widow for a second time. She filed an application for a widow’s pension in 1889 on the grounds that Abraham’s suicide had been the consequence of insanity contracted in the service. Elizabeth’s application was rejected in November of the same year, on the basis that the application failed to establish Abraham’s insanity was caused by his service. In reaching its decision the Pension Bureau cited as precedence, the case of Margaret A. Berry. In Berry’s case it was ruled that if a widow based her claim on an assertion that a soldier had committed suicide while insane, it was not only necessary to establish that the soldier had been insane at the time of his suicide, but also that the insanity was the result of “…causes to which he was subjected in the line of duty.”4
Elizabeth twice attempted but failed to get the case reopened in both instances. Finally, on June 7, 1900 her appeal was entered and a special examiner was appointed to investigate the case. In its decision, the Board of Pension Appeals stated that in order to reject Elizabeth’s claim, it was necessary to establish either that Penman was insane before he enlisted, or, if his insanity had occurred after enlistment, that Elizabeth was responsible for his condition.
A total of fourteen witnesses who knew Penman prior to the war were interviewed by the special examiner. Eleven of these witnesses testified that Abraham was mentally sound when he entered the army. Among these was Watson Muse, who stated that “…there is no question that Abraham Penman’s insanity first came upon him in the service.”5
Of the three adverse witnesses interviewed only one, Daisy Malone, stated that Penman was insane before his enlistment and should have been institutionalized. Malone also stated that Penman and Elizabeth’s marriage had been rocky before the war and that Penman had “…accused his wife of unfaithfulness before the war, and perhaps he had reason to do so.”6 The Board of Pension Appeals discounted the testimony of Malone stating that it was contradicted by the other witnesses.
The board felt reports that rumors had circulated in Company F that Penman had received news of his wife’s supposed infidelities should carry no weight in its decision, “It was rumored about camp that he was jealous of his wife: that he had received information affecting her character. Of course, this is mere supposition, a natural consequence of his actions and his constant crazed conversation about his wife. Whether it was rumors affecting her fidelity that affected his mind, or his insane mind itself that created the impression that he had heard such rumors, is an idle speculation. Assume it was the former. If the gossip impeaching his wife’s good name was without just foundation it cannot affect her status as claimant.”7
The board also felt that Elizabeth having had a child outside of marriage in 1866 did not invalidate her claim, “A woman who is eligible for marriage or remarriage, may allow greater liberties then she would if married. It would appear in this case, that the claimant bore a good reputation during both periods of her life as the wife of a man. …To deny the claimant a pension in this case will be substantially to hold that she was a faithless wife. It would perpetrate too great a wrong to impugn wife’s honor on such “slight evidence as a woman’s slur … when other witnesses, including the two sisters of the soldier, defended her reputation and honor as the wife of Abraham Penman.”8
The board further felt that the application of the Berry decision to Penman had been in error as the facts in the Berry case “…are entirely unlike the facts in this case.” The board did not stop there, but went further and cast doubt on the rationale of the decision in the Berry case, “…who can say whence or by what process or for what reason the human mind becomes deranged in every instance?”9
Instead of the Berry case, the board cited the case of Bernard Brunner as the relevant precedent for the Penman case. The board quoted from the Brunner decision that had held, “It is a well settled rule practice in the adjudication of pension claims that an unusual susceptibility to some form of disease, existing before enlistment, is no bar to pension if the disease did not develop until after the claimant’s admission to the service, the rule is essentially just the government took this man apparently sound and returns him to civil life manifestly unsound.”10
In overturning the decision rejecting Elizabeth’s application, the board concluded, “And so it was in the case of Abraham Penman. He was admitted sound and discharged a mental wreck. From some cause or causes, it may have been melancholia produced mere home sickness (and the evidence strongly suggest that explanation) – but no one knows or ever will know, absolutely – his mind became deranged, and his death resulted therefrom. There is no evidence to disturb the presumption that the disease originating in the service was contracted in the line of duty, or from some calls, or causes incident to army life. The action appealed from is reversed, and the papers are return for action in accordance with this opinion.”11
Abraham B. Penman is buried at Dravo Cemetery in Elizabeth, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
- Typescripts of Penman’s letters are available at https://www.prvchs.org/the-pennsylvania-reserves/12th-pennsylvania-reserves-infantry/wartime-correspondence/the-abraham-penman-collection/ ; In History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, Bates lists Christian Moorehead of Company D of the 12th as having been killed by accident on September 25, 1861.
- John W. Bixler, Ed. Decisions of the Department of the Interior in Appealed Pension and Bounty-Land Claims; Also a Table of Cases Reported, Cited, Overruled, and Modified, and of Statutes Cited and Constructed, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1902, page 460. Muse had known Penman since boyhood, worked with him pre-war and they had enlisted together.
- Ibid, page 462. Penman’s last known surviving letter written October 13 & 14 does not seem to contain any evidence of a changing attitude toward Elizabeth. This letter is available as part of Virginia Tech’s Special Collections and University Archives at https://digitalsc.lib.vt.edu/Ms2013-029/Ms2013_029_Alexandria_Penmen
- Ibid page 463. Margaret Berry was the widow of William Berry of the 10th Indiana Calvary. Berry was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head outside of his tent on July 25, 1865. Although evidence indicated that her husband had been insane for approximately 10 days before his death, Mrs. Berry’s claim for a widow’s pension was rejected by the Pension Bureau. She would eventually be granted a pension by Congress in 1885. Congressional Record, Volume 16, Part I, pg. 789, 1885. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/GPO-CRECB-1885-pt1-v16/pdf/GPO-CRECB-1885-pt1-v16-29.pdf Retrieved March 10, 2023.
- Bixler (n2), page 461.
- Ibid, Pg 463. The other adverse witnesses while describing Penman as unsociable both denied that Penman had exhibited any signs of insanity before the war.
- Ibid, pgs 462-463.
- Ibid, pgs 463.
- Ibid, pg 464.