Mr. Lincoln's Office: Pardons & Clemency
Because the President was considered a compassionate man, many requests for pardons and deferrals of executions came to him. During his presidency, he reviewed over 1600 cases of military justice. Mr. Lincoln called many cases of military cowardice his "leg cases" because "if Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs how can he help their running away with him?" When in doubt, President Lincoln tended to delay his decision on such cases: "I must put this by until I can settle in my mind whether this soldier can better serve the country dead than living." David R. Locke, a journalist and humorist observed: "No man on earth hated blood as Lincoln did, and he seized eagerly upon any excuse to pardon a man when the charge could possibly justify it. The generals always wanted an execution carried out before it could possibly be brought before the President." House Speaker Schuyler Colfax reported the innovative way in which the President met the conflicting needs of army discipline and human compassion:
Let me give another anecdote bearing on the same subject. A Congressman went up to the White House one morning on business, and saw in the anteroom, always crowded with people in those days, an old man, crouched all alone in a corner, crying as if his heart would break. As such a sight was by no means uncommon, the Congressman passed into the President's room, transacted his business, and went away. The next morning he was obliged again to go to the White house, and he saw the same old man crying, as before, in the corner. He stopped, and said to him, 'What's the matter with you, old man?' The old man told him the story of his son; that he was a soldier in the Army of the James - General Butler's army - that he had been convicted by a court-martial of an outrageous crime and sentenced to be shot next week; and that his Congressman was so convinced of the convicted man's guilt that he would not intervene. 'Well,' said Mr. Alley, 'I will take you into the Executive Chamber after I have finished my business, and you can tell Mr. Lincoln all about it. On being introduced into Mr. Lincoln's presence, he was accosted with, 'Well, my old friend, what can I do for you to-day?' The old man then repeated to Mr. Lincoln what he had already told the Congressman in the anteroom. A cloud of sorrow came over the President's face as he replied, 'I am sorry to say I can do nothing for you. Listen to this telegram received from General Butler yesterday: 'President Lincoln, I pray you not to interfere with the courts-martial of the army. You will destroy all discipline among our soldiers.' - B.F. Butler."
Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Union generals were often critical of Mr. Lincoln's liberal use of presidential pardons. General Benjamin F. Butler was particularly critical of the President, suggesting that all deserters should be executed. "God help me," said the President, 'how can I have a butcher's day every Friday in the Army of the Potomac?" Butler himself brought at least one court-martial case to the President for a pardon, reasoning "a pardon had better come from the President, perhaps induced by the thought that a pardon from him would be no reflection upon the court, or intimation that the commanding general ever had any occasion to change his mind upon such a matter." 2
President Lincoln sought a rationale to spare the lives of ordinary soldiers caught in difficult circumstances that led to death sentences for desertion or sleeping on sentry duty. "If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned," President Lincoln said about one case of desertion. He told the Kentucky man who can on behalf of the soldier that "some one has been crying, and worked upon your feelings, and you have come here to work on mine." 3 He told an army chaplain as sound of rifles rang out across the Potomac River: "This is the day when they shoot deserters. I am wondering whehter I have used the pardoning power as much as I ought." 4 According to Lincoln historian William C. Davis:
The single most numerous category of all the cases that came to Lincoln's personal attention were those of men who left the ranks without permission, either absent without leave or by outright desertion. Indeed, of all his wartime correspondence, these make up the largest single body of his papers, and it was here, perhaps more than in any other capacity, that he came in direct personal contact with soldiers in trouble. Scores of men who, through carelessness, confusion, wavering commitment, or a host of other causes, found themselves absent from their commands and liable to arrest and prosecution if caught, came to Washington and approached Lincoln himself. They saw him during his regular visiting hours at the White House, or even cornered him on the streets of the city. One afternoon in December 1864, a newspaper correspondent walked across the White House grounds and saw there, in a little grove between the mansion and the War Department, Lincoln and a soldier sitting beneath a tree in conversation. Obviously the volunteer was stating a case and presenting his petition for some kind of action. Lincoln took the ever-present pencil from his pocket, scribbled something on the man's papers, and sent him on his way with some encouraging words." 5
John W. Forney, secretary of the Senate, told a story about a woman he brought to the President's office. Mr. Lincoln interrupted a Cabinet meeting to listen to the woman's story of a young soldier who was about to be shot for desertion. Forney left the woman in the reception room and returned to the Senate. Later that night, the woman returned to the Capitol and told Forney: "I have been up there ever since. The Cabinet adjourned, and I saw waiting for the President to come out and tell me the fate of my poor soldier, whose case I placed in his hands after you left; but I waited in vain - there was no Mr. Lincoln. So I thought I would go up to the door of his Cabinet chamber and knock. I did so, and as there was no answer, I opened it and passed in, and there was the worn president asleep, with his head on the table resting on his arms, and my boy's pardon signed by his side. I quietly waked him, blessed him for his good deed, and came here to tell you the glorious news. You have helped me to save a human life.'" 6
Sometimes supplicants tried even the patient President's patience, as John Nicolay later reported: "Wednesday morning was devoted to the continued examination of the court-martial cases, to the great vexation of a score of political applicants, whom I could hear impatiently pacing the floor of the hall and waiting-room. At one-o'clock, however, the doors were thrown open, and the throng admitted and dismissed, as rapidly as possible. I was much amused and interested, later in the day, in a variety of characters who presented themselves. First was an elderly lady, plainly but comfortably dressed, whose son was a prisoner in Baltimore. Her story, spun out to some length, was briefly this: Her son had been serving in the Rebel army. He heard that his sister was lying dead at home, and his mother at the supposed point of death. He determined to see them, and succeeded in getting through our lines undiscovered. He found his mother better. Before he got ready to return, he became very ill himself. She said she hid him in the house until he recovered, and on his way back to his regiment he was captured. He was now anxious to take the oath, and his mother assured the President that he should henceforth 'have nothing to do with the Rebels.' Mr. Lincoln sat quietly through the story, his face in half shadow. As she finished he said, with some impatience,--'Now this is a pretty story to come to me with, isn't it? Your son came home from fighting against his country; he was sick; you secreted him, nursed him up, and when cured, started him off again to help destroy some more of our boys. Taken prisoner, trying to get through our lines, you now want me to let him off upon his oath.' 'Yes,' said the woman, not in the least disconcerted, 'and I give you my word, Mr. President, he shall never have anything more to do with the Rebels--never--I was always opposed to his joining them.' 'Your word,' rejoined Mr. Lincoln dryly, 'what do I know about your word?' He finally took the application, and writing something upon the back of it, returned it to her with the words, 'Now, I want you to understand that I have done this just to get rid of you~!' 'Oh,' said she, 'Mr. President, I have always heard that you were such a kind-hearted man, and now I know it is true.' And so, with much apparent satisfaction, she withdrew."
One particular plea for mercy drew an especially harsh response. Congressman John B. Alley of Massachusetts came to the President's office with a pleas that a convicted slave trader be released from jail because he had completed his prison term but could not pay his fine. Congressman Alley presented him with a petition and a letter from the prisoner which the President read. Mr. Lincoln then responded: "My friend, that is a very touching appeal to our feelings. You know my weakness is to be, if possible, to easily moved by appeals for mercy, and, if this man were guilty of the foulest murder that the arm of man could perpetrate, I might forgive him on such an appeal; but the man who could go to Africa, and rob her of her children, and sell them into interminable bondage, with no other motive than that which is furnished by dollars and cents, is so much worse than the most depraved murderer, that he can never receive pardon at my hands. No! He may rot in jail before he shall have liberty by any act of mine." 7
Congressman Daniel W. Voorhees of Indiana related how in early 1864, a couple from Kentucky came to him in search of relief. The woman's elderly father had been tricked into carrying medicine to the Confederates, been arrested by Union agents, and was scheduled to hang the next day. Voorhees sought the help of Indiana's senators and went with the distraught couple to visit President Lincoln:
We ascended the stairs and filed into the President's room. As we entered, I saw at a glance that Mr. Lincoln had that sad, preoccupied, far-away look I had so often seen him wear, and during which it was difficult at times to engage his attention to passing events. As we approached he slowly turned to us, inclined his head and spoke. Senator [Henry] Lane at once, in his rapid, nervous style, explained the occasion of our call, and made known our reasons for asking Executive clemency. While he was talking Mr. Lincoln looked at him in a patient, tired sort of way, but not as if he was struck with the sensibilities of the subject as we were. When the Senator ceased speaking there was no immediate response; on the contrary, rather an awkward pause. My heart beat fast, for in that pause was now my great hope, and I was not disappointed. Mrs. Bullitt had taken a seat on coming in not far from the President, and now, in quivering but distinct tones, she spoke, addressing him as 'Mr. Lincoln.' He turned to her with a grave, benignant expression, and as he listened his eye lost that distant look, and his face grew animated with a keen and vivid interest. The little pale-faced woman at his side talked wonderfully well for her father's life, and her eyes pleaded even more eloquently than her tongue. Suddenly, and while she was talking, Mr. Lincoln, turning to Senator Lane, exclaimed:
Many people sought the President's help -- especially to gain favors for soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies. One grateful mother recalled how she was given a parole for her wounded son by the President after being dismissed by Edwin Stanton. "You shall have your boy, my dear madam. To take him from the ranks of rebellion and give him to a loyal mother is a better investment for this government than to give him up to its deadly enemies." 9 Few supplicants were quite as fortunate as Thomas Bullock, who recalled how chance and opportunity allowed him in early 1865 to seek the President's assistance at the White House's primary entrance and get help for sick Confederate brother:
"As the first person came up to take Mr. Lincoln's hand after the band began to play once more, I retired, bowing myself out, only too well pleased to have an engagement with so important a person as the President of the United States, the man who held the life of my brother in his keeping. Thinking I would speak to the doorkeeper at the main entrance of the mansion as to my prospects of gaining admittance to Mr. Lincoln's presence, at four o'clock, I asked that official how it would be, telling him what the President had said. 'He just said that to keep from hurting your feelings, young fellow; for I have positive orders from Mr. Lincoln in person to close these doors at two o'clock sharp, and not allow anybody to come in - not even members of the cabinet.' I had more confidence in Mr. Lincoln's word than that the doorkeeper of the White House, and went my way without fear and full of hope. After satisfying a growing boy's appetite at Willard's Hotel, - a matter of time, - I counted the minutes until the hour named.
The President repeatedly told Bullock he could not pardon Waller, but after a long period of meditation, he straightened "himself to his full height, he brought his clenched hand down upon the desk with a bang, and said, as he looked me full in the face, 'I'll do it; I'll do it!' Walking over to his desk, he picked up a small paper card case which held visiting-cards such as ladies generally use. Mr. Lincoln held it between his first finger and thumb up to his ear, and shook it to see if there were any cards left. I could distinctly hear the rattle of a single card. Finding what he was looking for, the President sat down, and placing the card before him, wrote very slowly and deliberately. I supposed he was writing an order to some clerk, or to John Hay, to have the parole papers made out. Such was my ignorance of the forms necessary to liberate prisoners that I imagined I should see a large official document with signatures and counter-signatures, seals, etc. Therefore, I was much surprised when Mr. Lincoln arose, and, holding the card between his forefinger and thumb, read it aloud to me as follows:
Allow Lieut. Waller R. Bullock to be paroled and go to his parents in Baltimore, and remain there until well enough to be exchanged.
Such incidents were not quickly forgotten - except by Mr. Lincoln who "very much disliked to meet people, women especially, for whom he had done a favor like saving a life." 11 Sergeant Smith Stimmel was one of the soldiers who had served on the President's bodyguard detail and whom had stood guard outside the Peterson House on April 14 after Mr. Lincoln had been shot. He later recalled that the next " day one of my comrades - my bunk-mate - was riding down street, and he met another cavalryman from another troop, a man he did not know, and the fellow was weeping. They stopped and had a passing word about the sad event of the night before, and speaking of the President's death, the stranger said to my comrade, 'It probably means more to me than it does to you; he signed an order that saved me from being shot.' When we recount how he saved many from being shot, I often think how the words that were applied to our Savior as he hung upon the cross, might be applied to Lincoln, though in a different sense: 'He saved others; himself he cannot save." 12