Book Review - Don't Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice, by Thomas P. Lowry, M.D.
The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 2, Number 5
Tom Lowry, along with wife and co-researcher Beverly, literally have done their homework. As amateur historians, they reviewed 80,000 Civil War court martial records housed at the National Archives. There, they uncovered 543 previously unknown documents and notations written or signed by Abraham Lincoln. These brief notes not only shed new light on this enigmatic figure, but the Lowrys use these documents to confirm Lincoln's legendary compassion, kindness, and mercy.
The most common charge brought against officers was "conduct unbecoming." One officer's crime was pulling a lieutenant's whiskers and hiding his suspenders. Another was tried because he was caught while stripped naked, dancing and singing bawdy songs.
The most frequent crimes for enlisted men were desertion and drunkenness, often a combination of both. Words used in their defense were as entertaining as the charges. One man claimed he did not desert, he was just looking for liquor at a cheaper price. And another said, "I am French--I needed something to drink." The latter was pardoned on a technicality. Both Lincoln and Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt searched for technicalities, irregularities, or other flaws in the process in order to pardon soldiers and return them to duty. As Lincoln says, "I don't believe it will make a man any better to shoot him."
Lincoln showed considerable leniency for many crimes, and pardoned every case involving "sleeping sentinels." However, he had little tolerance for traitors, sexual predators, or violent criminals, and sent many of them to face gallows or firing squads.
And this leads to the final chapter of the book, "Lincoln at the Millennium." Lowry asks, "who should be remembered as the 'Person of the Millennium'?" It must be someone whose life work demonstrates endurance and universality. These are timeless qualities and both are manifest in Lincoln's foremost principle and fundamental belief, that each person has the right to rise; and, that a democratic government must embody that purpose and perpetuate it. The court martial records validate this. They show that Lincoln cared a great deal about the individual soldier, and that this was inseparable from his goal to preserve the Union. It was through the Union that individuals' rights would be protected, namely, the right to rise, to progress, and to fulfill his or her potential.
The Lowrys showed tremendous perseverance and dedication by diving into these 80,000 records. One can imagine their awe as they touched the papers Lincoln touched, and discovered Lincoln's words exactly as he left them over 130 years ago; as notes in the margins of bureaucratic forms, some written hurriedly, some firmly and boldly. The role of amateur historians cannot be underestimated. After discovering these 543 original Lincoln notations, the Lowrys aren't amateurs any more.