LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") as President, probably a draft telegraph dispatch, TO MAJOR GENERAL GEORGE MEADE (1815-1872), Commander, Army of the Potomac, Washington, 29 December 1863.
½ page, 4to, on lined Executive Mansion stationery, blank margins trimmed, closely at right-hand margin, without loss.
A FEW DAYS AFTER CHRISTMAS, LINCOLN INTERVENES TO STOP THE EXECUTION OF TWO SOLDIERS ACCUSED OF DESERTION
Lincoln writes: "I am appealed to in behalf of Joseph Richardson of the 49th Penn, and Moses Chadbourne (in some New Hampshire Regt.) said to be under sentence for desertion. As in other cases do not let them be executed till further orders."
Lincoln, perhaps more so than any President, was painfully aware that he was the last recourse of appeal in capital cases, especially when the sentence had been passed by military court-martial. The exact number of stays of execution, commutations and outright pardons for which Lincoln was responsible will probably never be known, but it is clearly a considerable number. George Meade, the victor of Gettysburg, won a reputation for harsh discipline and under his command quite a number of soldiers of the Army of the Potomac were condemned to death for desertion, sleeping on guard and other offenses. Lincoln intervened in many such cases--to Meade's annoyance--seeking additional information about the soldier and his offense. These hold-ups became so frequent that the pardon clerk in Attorney General Bates's office was instructed to prevent all but the most deserving cases from reaching the President's desk. "The most memorable instances of clemency involved stays of execution of soldiers," Mark Neely writes. "Lincoln considered most cases individually. Youth was always an extenuating factor. 'I am unwilling for any boy under eighteen to be shot,' Lincoln wrote George C. Meade on 8 October 1863" (Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p.160).
No doubt, as the Christmas season approached, young soldiers confined to camp found it more difficult that usual to resist the temptation to go AWOL. In those few weeks, Lincoln halted a number of scheduled executions. Private Richardson's sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment. Chadbourne, a deserter from New Hampshire, was permitted to return to his unit, with which he served until the war's end. Published in Basler, 6:96.