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  • "The Exciting Circumstances of the Rebellion," or, The Civil War Made Me Do It:Civil War and Emotional Trauma in Kentucky Governors' Petitions
  • Diane Miller Sommerville (bio)

Soldiers and civilians convicted in criminal courts in wartime Kentucky inundated the governors' offices with petitions requesting pardons. Petitioners often situated their appeals in the context of war, explaining that "the exciting circumstances" or the rigors of camp life contributed in some way to excessive drinking or amnesia or "mental alienation," which they framed as mitigating circumstances warranting leniency.1 Authors of the petitions—sometimes the accused, sometimes friends or family members—sought a sympathetic hearing from the executive who was empowered to pardon those convicted of crimes as minor as illegal gambling to more serious ones like murder. The "war" played center stage in these appeals.

Wartime appeals for leniency or pardon implicitly linked aberrational, criminal behavior to experiences unique to the Civil War. While petitioners lacked a modern understanding of psychology, specifically the knowledge that events and experiences could affect the mind (as opposed to the brain), they nonetheless understood [End Page 283] and appreciated the impact of the war on participants, something that has not received much scholarly attention.2 The significance of the applications for pardons is that they convey empathy for soldiers and civilians and the hardships they endured as a result of their participation in the military or living in a war zone. The aim of the appeals was to show that had it not been for the war, the subjects of the petitions would not have suffered harm and would not have committed criminal acts. The appeals found in the governors' papers thus reveal a mindset that loosely connected deviant or anti-social behavior to war. These petitioners insisted that the war and the hardships it generated harmed men, rendering them blameless for their misdeeds and, according to these claims, compelled the state to provide a commensurate and equitable remedy. The Kentucky governors' pardon papers thus present a unique opportunity to extrapolate important developments and potential connections that Civil War actors made about war and its impact on the mind, and ideas about the role the state should play in remedying misdeeds and criminal acts that might be attributed to the effects of war. It seems unlikely that Kentucky would stand out as unusual in this regard, suggesting that the findings here may offer insight into the mindset more generally of Americans who sought to make sense of the human wreckage of war on its participants. [End Page 284]

John Chittenden was forty-four when he enlisted in 1863. The father of eight children lost his wife in 1860 but remarried shortly after the onset of hostilities. Eventually, he would have eight more children during and after the war. Chittenden could have avoided military service due to his age, but enlisted anyway, joining four sons who had volunteered with the Thirtieth Kentucky Infantry. By all accounts, Chittenden was a "good citizen," honest and industrious. During the "late rebellion" he displayed "unshaken loyalty" and good behavior—until he murdered Henry Weymire in December 1864 at Tucker's Store in Williamstown, Kentucky.3

Friends of Chittenden found it difficult to reconcile news accusing him of murder with the man they knew before the war. In fact, several aspects of the murder struck J. J. Miller and seventy other petitioners as odd. Chittenden, who had always been "peaceable and unoffending," did not know his victim or have any dealings whatsoever with him. Moreover, quite a few of the signatories had served in the army with Chittenden and had never known him to have engaged in any kind of a quarrel or fracas. Nor did Chittenden have any memory or recollection of the event. The only explanation for the uncharacteristic behavior, the petitioners concluded, was that Chittenden must have been in a state of "mental alienation" induced by "ardent spirits."4

The petitioners homed in on an explanation for Chittenden's debilitating descent into intemperance: distress over the destitution [End Page 285] of his family back in Boone County while he was serving his country. His new wife plied him with letters about their suffering. Company B of the Thirtieth...


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pp. 283-299
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