November 2, 1864: Saving Private Wilson

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During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln commuted, as did Jefferson Davis, almost every military sentence of death for desertion or cowardice that reached his desk.  One of his last acts before his own death was to pardon a soldier on April 13, 1865.   As Lincoln put it,”I don’t believe it will make a man any better to shoot him, while if we keep him alive, we just may get some work out of him.”  

On November 2, 1864 he telegrammed General Grant ordering him to suspend the pending execution of Nathan Wilson, who had been found guilty of desertion from the 22nd Massachusetts.  Unlike most men Lincoln pardoned, Private Wilson was politically connected.  His uncle was New York State Senator Albert Hobbs, a Republican, who had interceded with Lincoln on behalf of his nephew. 

It is possible that political calculation, in addition to his customary mercy, motivated Lincoln to grant clemency.  New York was a vital state in the Presidential election on November 8, and it was assumed, as was the case, that the margin of victory between Lincoln and McClellan would be razor thin.  It could be assumed that a grateful Hobbs would take out all the stops in his Senate district on behalf of Lincoln.  It is possible that this did not cross Lincoln’s mind, but he was a shrewd politician.  Even if not his prime motivation, it is unlikely that he was oblivious of the political advantage of doing a political favor on behalf of Senator Hobbs just prior to the election.

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  1. “As Lincoln put it,”I don’t believe it will make a man any better to shoot him, while if we keep him alive, we just may get some work out of him.””
    I have often wondered about “conscientious objectors” and AWOLS and those unable to understand and cope with war. Now, I love Abraham Lincoln more than ever.
    As serious as Abraham Lincoln was, indeed, the above quote is humorous.

  2. George Washington also pardoned most deserters and malingerers while in command of the Continental Army. The group that got the least clemency from him were counterfeiters.

  3. ”I don’t believe it will make a man any better to shoot him…”

    Lord Braxfield would have begged to differ: “Ye’re a vera clever chiel, man, but ye wad be nane the waur o’ a hanging.”

  4. Being AWOL is not a capital crime deserving of execution since the guilty neither wanted nor was complicit in the enemy’s offense…nor intended the death of his fellow compatriots.
    A guilty man would have been a turncoat.

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