Pardon Me, Mr. President

An order signed by President Abraham Lincoln, commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment.

President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed over 1,600 cases of military convictions during his 1,503 days in office and issued many pardons and commutations to soldiers who were convicted of desertion. Lincoln referred to these cases as “Leg Cases.” He said, “If Almighty God gives a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help their running away with him?” When in doubt, President Lincoln tended to delay his decision, stating, “I must put this by until I can settle in my mind whether this soldier can better serve the country dead than living.”

In one case the President observed, “If a man had more than one life, I think a little hanging would not hurt this one; but after he is once dead we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be; so the boy shall be pardoned.”

The number of pardons had risen to such a level that his military commanders pleaded with him not to issue any more. The President had just received one such plea from General Benjamin Butler when he received a visit from the father of a solider who was facing a death sentence. The man came to the White House to plead for his son’s life. A cloud of sorrow came over the President’s face as he replied, “I am sorry to say I can do nothing for you. Listen to this telegram received from General Butler yesterday: ‘President Lincoln, I pray you not to interfere with the courts-martial of the army. You will destroy all discipline among our soldiers.’ – B.F. Butler.”

Seeing the resulting despair settle upon the father’s face, Lincoln made up his mind and said, “By jingo, Butler or not Butler, here goes!” He snatched up a pen and a piece of paper, wrote a few words, and handed the note to the man, who read the words, “Job Smith is not to be shot until further orders from me – ABRAHAM LINCOLN.” The father started to cry, and said, “I thought it was to be a pardon; but you say, ‘not to be shot till further orders,’ and you may order him to be shot next week.”

President Lincoln smiled at the man and said, “I see you are not very well acquainted with me. If your son never looks on death till further orders come from me to shoot him, he will live to be a great deal older than Methuselah.”


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