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Senator Durbin – A passion for preservation

Posted on Monday, May 22, 2017 at 9:42 am

In the course of reading (and indexing) 75,965 Unions courts-martial, my wife Beverly and I encountered 1,186 notes in Lincoln’s own hand, most of them previously unknown and uncatalogued. With the impending publication of “Don’t Shoot That Boy,” we feared that the book’s footnotes would be a guide for thieves wanting to steal such notations. With the intercession of Congressman Robert Mrazek, himself a Civil War scholar, we met March 10, 1999 at the office of Sen. Richard Durbin (R-IL), himself an admirer of Lincoln.

The senator had some ideas on the subject. He said he would call his contacts at the National Archives with his plan. “I won’t mention your names, so your ‘fingerprints’ won’t be on it. You know how Washington is.” We took a cab back to the Archives. As we settled into our chairs in the Central Reading Room, one of the few unpleasant Archives staff members, came up to us and snarled, “It’s you two, making extra work for us.” In spite of his sullen obstructionism, a small indelible seal was placed next to each Lincoln notation. Here is an example from the records of a Private Capron: the large seal is from the Judge Advocate General’s office (1865); the small seal was placed in late 1999.

Private Henry Capron, Co. H, 7th Rhode Island Volunteers, deserted “in the face of the enemy” at Fredericksburg and turned himself in nine months later. In that interval, he had been employed by the Provost Marshal, catching deserters. At his January 1864 court-martial, he was sentenced to five years at hard labor. James Smith, governor of Rhode Island, wrote to Lincoln, asking clemency. Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, referred the letter to Joseph Holt, Lincoln’s Judge Advocate General.  Holt replied: “The prisoner stated that he voluntarily surrendered himself. This is corroborated by the endorsement of the Provost Marshal now produced who says he was useful in aiding to apprehend deserters. On this account, and in consideration of the destitution of his family as certified by the numerous signers of the petition who are vouched for by Gov. Smith of R. I. it is recommended that the within named Private Henry Capron have the unexpired portion of his sentence be remitted and he be returned to his regiment.” Lincoln wrote, “Pardon for unexecuted part of sentence on condition that he go to, and serve out his term, in his regiment. A. Lincoln Jan 23, 1865.”

-By Thomas P. Lowry

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