Six Months at the White House/XI
The following Tuesday I spent with Mr. Lincoln in his study. The morning was devoted to the Judge-Advocate-General, who had a large number of court-martial cases to submit to the President. Never had I realized what it was to have power, as on this occasion. As case after case was presented to Mr. Lincoln, one stroke of his pen confirmed or commuted the sentence of death. In several instances Judge Holt referred to extenuating circumstances,--extreme youth, previous good conduct, or recommendations to mercy. Every excuse of this kind, having a foundation in fact, was instantly seized upon by the President, who, taking the document containing the sentence, would write upon the back of it the lightest penalty consistent with any degree of justice. As he added the date to one of these papers, he remarked casually, varying the subject of conversation, "Does your mind, Judge Holt, associate events with dates? Every time this morning that I have had occasion to write the day of the month, the thought has come up, 'This was General Harrison's birthday.'" One of the cases brought forward at this time I recollect distinctly. The man's name was Burroughs; he had been a notorious spy; convicted and sentenced to death, a strong effort had been made in his behalf by powerful friends. It was an aggravated case, but an impression had evidently been made upon the President by the strength and pertinacity of the appeal. As Judge Holt opened the record, he stated that a short time previous Burroughs had attempted· to escape from confinement, and was shot dead in the act by the sentinel on guard. With an expression of relief, Mr. Lincoln rejoined, "I ought to be obliged to him for taking his fate into his own hands; he has saved me a deal of trouble."
During a brief absence of the President, Judge Holt told me that the atrocities of some of the criminals condemned, surpassed belief. "A guerilla leader in Missouri," said he, "by the name of Nichols, was in the habit of filling the ears of wounded Unionists who fell into his hands with gunpowder, setting fire to it; and blowing their heads to pieces. When captured, a number of human ears were found upon his person." Referring to Mr. Lincoln's disposition to pardon or commute the majority of the death sentences, he remarked, "The President is without exception the most tender-hearted man I ever knew."
Judge Holt, it will be remembered, was called into Mr. Buchanan's cabinet towards the close of his administration. Glancing around the room,--incidentally referring to my errand there,--he said, "This room was the theatre of some very exciting scenes during the last months of Mr. Buchanan's term." He spoke warmly of the courage and fearlessness of Stanton, on those occasions, who did not hesitate to call traitors and treason their right names. When the clock struck twelve, Mr. Lincoln drew back from the table, and with a stretch of his long arms, remarked, "I guess we will go no farther with these cases to-day; I am a little tired, and the Cabinet will be coming in soon." "I believe, by the by," he added, "that I have not yet had my breakfast,--this business has been so absorbing that it has crowded everything else out of my mind."
And so ended the work of one morning; simple in its detail, but pregnant with hope and joy, darkness and death, to many human beings.