President Commutes Death Sentence for Four Spies

August 28, 1864

President Lincoln responds to a late night visit by Baltimore attorney Charles J. M. Gwinn, Baltimore lawyer asking for commutation of death sentences for four convicted spies – William H. Rodgers, John R. H. Emberet, Branton Lyons), and Samuel B. Hearn.   President Lincoln orders General Lew Wallace: “The, punishment, of the four men under sentence of death to be executed to-morrow at Baltimore, is commuted in each case to confinement in the Penitentiary at hard labor during the war. You will act accordingly.

Presidential aide John G. Nicolay writes home: “I have been rather expecting to make another visit to the West in September, but it is rendered somewhat doubtful by the present rush of affairs. I think Hay will be back by the middle of September, but it may take both of us to keep the office under proper headway.

I wrote you that the Republican party was laboring under a severe fit of despondency and discouragement. During the past week it reached almost the condition of a disastrous panic — a sort of political Bull Run — but I think it was reached its culmination, and will speedily have a healthy and vigorous reaction. It even went so far that Raymond, the Chairman of the National Executive Committee wrote a most doleful letter here to the President, summing up the various discouraging signs he saw in the country, and giving it as his opinion that unless something was done (and he thought that something should be sending Commissioners to Richmond to propose terms of peace to the Rebels on the basis of their returning to the Union) we might as well quit and give up the contest. In this mood eh came here to Washington three or four days to attend a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Committee. The President and the strongest half of the Cabinet — Seward, Stanton and Fessenden — held a consultation with him, and showed him that they had already thoroughly considered and discussed his proposition; and upon showing him their reasons, he very readily concurred with them in the opinion that to follow his plan of sending commissioners to Richmond would be worse than losing the presidential contest — it would be ignominiously surrendering it in advance.

Nevertheless the visit of himself and committee here did very great good…They found the President and Cabinet wide awake to al the necessities of the situation, and went home much encouraged and cheered up. I think that immediately upon the nominations being made at Chicago (it seems now as if McClellan would undoubtedly be the nominee) the whole Republican Party throughout the country will wake up, begin a spirited campaign and win the election.

President Lincoln writes Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “Please find some way to relieve me from the embarrassment of this case [regarding the Smith brothers in Boston accused of fraud]. Let me have a return of the papers, with your answer by 9 o’clock, A.M. to-morrow, at which time I am engaged to see the gentlemen who now present the case.”

Kansas Senator James Lane and Congressman Abel C. Wilder write President Lincoln: “he result of the massacre at Lawrence having excited feelings amongst our peoples, which makes a collision between them & the Military probable, the imbecility & incapacity of Schofield is most deplorable. Our people unanimously demand the removal of [General John] Schofield, whose policy has opened Kansas to invasion & butchery.” Schofield writes President Lincoln a extensive defense of his performance:

In reply to your telegram of the 27th, transmitting copy of one received from two influential citizens of Kansas, I beg leave to state some of the facts connected with the horrible massacre at Lawrence, and also relative to the assaults made upon me by a certain class of influential politicians

Since the capture of Vicksburg a considerable portion of the rebel Army in the Mississippi Valley has disbanded, and large numbers of men have come back to Missouri:– Many of them, doubtless, in the hope of being permitted to remain at their former homes in peace, while some have come under instructions to carry on a guerrilla warfare, and other, men of the worst character, become marauders on their own account, caring nothing for the Union, nor for the rebellion except as the latter affords them a cloak for their brigandage.

Under instructions from the rebel authorities as I am informed and believe, considerable bands, called “border guards” were organized in the Counties of Missouri bordering on Kansas, for the ostensible purpose of protecting those counties from inroads from Kansas, and preventing the slaves or rebels from escaping from Missouri into Kansas.

These bands were unquestionably encouraged, fed, and harbored by a very considerable portion of the people of those border Counties. Many of these people were in fact the families of those “bushwhackers”, who are brigands of the worst type.– Upon the representation of Genl. Ewing4 and others familiar with the facts, I became satisfied there could be no cure for the evil short of the removal from those Counties of all the slaves entitled to their freedom, and of the families of all those men known to belong to these bands, and others who were known to sympathize with them. Accordingly I directed Gen. Ewing to adopt and carry out the policy he had indicated, warning him, however, of the retaliation which might be attempted, and that he must be fully prepared to prevent it, before commencing such severe measures.

Almost immediately after it became known that such policy had been adopted, Quantrill secretly assembled, from several of the border Counties of Missouri, about three hundred of his men. They met at a preconcerted place of rendezvous near the Kansas line, at about sunset, and immediately marched for Lawrence, which place they reached at daylight the next morning. They sacked and burned the town and murdered its citizens in the most barbarous manner.

It is easy to see that every unguarded town in a country where such a number of outlaws can be assembled is liable to a similar fate, if the villains are willing to risk the retribution which must follow. In this case one hundred of them have already been slain, and the remainder are hotly pursued in all directions. If there was any fault on the part of Genl. Ewing it appears to have been in not guarding Lawrence. But of this it was not my purpose to speak, Genl Ewing and the Governor of Kansas have asked for a Court of Inquiry, and I have sent to the War Department a request that one may be appointed, and I do not wish to anticipate the result of a full investigation.

I believe beyond doubt that the terrible disaster at Lawrence was the immediate consequence of the “radical” measures to which I have referred. Although those measures are far behind what many at least of the radical leaders demand, they surely cannot attribute the sad result to a “conservative” policy.– Had these measures been adopted last winter, when the State was easily controlled because the absence of leaves from the brush rendered it impossible for “bushwackers” to hide from the troops, and there was a large force in the State lying idle, they might have been carried into effect with out injury to the loyal people. The large part of my troops having been called off for service in Arkansas, and down the Mississippi, and the season being favorable for guerilla operations, it may have been unwise to adopt such measures at this time. If so, they have no right to complain who have been continually clamoring for such measures, and who couple their denunciation of me with demands for more “radical” measures still, and hold up by way of contrast, as their model, the General who did not see fit to adopt such measures when they could have been carried out with perfect ease and security.

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Published in: on August 28, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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