An uncommon autograph, showing Lincoln's tender-heartedness and compassion as President, and his concern for the boys of the War.
Thomas W. Harris was a railroad president who had served as a Whig in the Illinois legislature before the Civil War. In November 1861 he organized and was made colonel of the 54th Illinois Regiment, which was part of the Kentucky Brigade. In the fall of 1862 the regiment was involved in...
Thomas W. Harris was a railroad president who had served as a Whig in the Illinois legislature before the Civil War. In November 1861 he organized and was made colonel of the 54th Illinois Regiment, which was part of the Kentucky Brigade. In the fall of 1862 the regiment was involved in taking and holding Unionist areas of Tennessee. When the Tennessee River proved dangerous for the transportation of military supplies, Harris was entrusted the task of repairing bridges, erecting block-houses, and guarding it as far south as the Big Obion River. Harris' regiment won the battle of Meriwether's Ferry, and spent much time fighting guerrilla units of Confederate sympathizers. At the end of 1862 he resigned his command.
His son Perry, without the consent of his parents, enlisted as a private in Company D of the 55th Kentucky Regiment on January 21, 1865. That unit operated from September 1864 to September 1865 in Kentucky and Virginia. The minimum enlistment age for the Union Army in the Civil War was theoretically 18, but innumerable boys enlisted and lied about their ages (some even putting the number 18 on a scrap of paper in their shoes, so they could honestly claim "I'm over 18"). Recruiters, faced with an ever-increasing need for enlistees, looked the other way. Moreover, some units adopted boys as drummers who were admittedly underage, but who were never permitted to formally enlist. The famous Johnny Clem was just such an instance.
Col. Harris was none too pleased with his son's action, and for good reasons. He sent a telegram from Covington, Kentucky, February 6, 1865, to Washington, addressed to both Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull and Gen. John M. Palmer, saying "My son Perry Harris fourteen 14 years old insane crippled has been mustered in fifty-fifth 55th Kentucky regiment. Please have Secretary of War order him discharged Col. Thos. W. Harris of Shelbyville, Ill." Both men were well known to President Lincoln, with Palmer having been the man who nominated Lincoln as the Illinois favorite son candidate for President in 1860, and Trumbull having represented Lincoln in Washington when he was President-elect.
The telegram ended up on Palmer's desk, and rather than take the matter to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, he determined to take it directly to the President. He endorsed the telegram "I have no doubt of the truth of this statement. John M. Palmer", and passed it along to Lincoln.
Amidst the swirl of the Civil War, Lincoln earned a reputation as a deeply compassionate and kind man, and this reputation reached from the battlefields into American legend. This is the picture that has come down to us, and we envision him as a man who was generous of spirit, who pardoned soldiers who fell asleep on guard duty, showed leniency whenever possible, and aided widows and orphans. Because of his position as President, he had opportunities to prove or disprove this reputation, as many requests for pardons, deferrals of executions, and pleas to aid soldiers came to him. His writings show that he seldom turned the needy aside. This is one concrete example of that, one consistent with the legend.
Moreover, Lincoln always displayed this compassion in his treatment of children, perhaps due to his having lost three of his own when they were still young. It is uncommon for any autograph or document of Lincoln's relating to children, including that of boys in the army, to reach the marketplace, this being one of that small number.
Autograph endorsement signed, Washington, February 7, 1865, written on the verso of the telegram. "Let this boy be discharged A. Lincoln." Young Harris was discharged at Covington, KY, on April 15, the very day Lincoln died.
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