The Compassion and Mercy of President Abraham Lincoln: He Saves a Poor Soldier’s Life, Pardoning an Admitted Deserter Whose Crime Carried the Death Penalty, But Who Pleaded That He had Deserted Because his Family was Destitute

The deserter also made the surprising claim that he was a War Department Secret Service asset whose work needed to continue

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Lincoln’s compassion and mercy are central to his legacy, and the picture that has come down to us envisions him as a man who was generous of spirit, who pardoned soldiers who fell asleep on guard duty, showed leniency whenever possible, even to deserters, and aided widows and orphans. Because of his...

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The Compassion and Mercy of President Abraham Lincoln: He Saves a Poor Soldier’s Life, Pardoning an Admitted Deserter Whose Crime Carried the Death Penalty, But Who Pleaded That He had Deserted Because his Family was Destitute

The deserter also made the surprising claim that he was a War Department Secret Service asset whose work needed to continue

Lincoln’s compassion and mercy are central to his legacy, and the picture that has come down to us envisions him as a man who was generous of spirit, who pardoned soldiers who fell asleep on guard duty, showed leniency whenever possible, even to deserters, 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.

From the start of the Civil War, Lincoln felt the weight of the sacrifice that so many families were making for the Union, and he saw that tens and then hundreds of thousands of men – sons, husbands, and brothers – were dying. He was not anxious for any additional lives to be taken. He was especially interested in mitigating death sentences for military offenses such as desertion, and was moved by the pleas made by fathers and mothers on behalf of children under arrest and incarcerated. So he spent time reviewing the results of army courts-martial cases. His writings show that he seldom turned the needy aside, which did not meet with the approval of his generals or legal staff. Attorney General Edward Bates’ pardon clerk later wrote of Bates that he discovered “his most important duty was to keep all but the most deserving cases from coming before the kind Mr. Lincoln at all; since there was nothing harder for him to do than to put aside a prisoner’s application and he could not resist it when it was urged by a pleading wife and a weeping child.”

Abraham Lower enlisted in the 72nd Regiment Pa. Volunteers as a sergeant on August 10, 1861. He deserted, and was arrested in 1863. On July 25 of that year he wrote directly to President Lincoln from his cell in Philadelphia. In the letter, he admits deserting, gives his reason why as being the destitution of his family, and further states that though not in the U.S. service he was acting under commission of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, and also aiding War Department secret service activities in Pennsylvania and Maryland. He gives specific examples of his actions. The William H. Shearman he mentions was his brother-in-law, but was surely a secret service agent in the War Department, as records of that department show a large payment of $5000 to him for his activities in 1863. Lower claims to essentially have been involved in Shearman’s activities, but whether he was or not is not known. Certainly he swings from a simple plea for mercy to claiming to be a War Department asset.

Shearman went to see President Lincoln to plead for his brother-in-law’s life. He delivered Lower’s letter, which reads in part: “The bearer of this document, William H. Shearman a special officer in the secret service of the War. Dept, intending to visit you in my behalf, I deemed it proper to write a full statement of my case. At the breaking out of the Rebellion. I enlisted in the 19th Regt. P. V. for 3 months service, and at the expiration of the term of service I was honorably discharged, on the 10th of August 1861 I reenlisted in Co A. 72nd Regt. P. V. in December 1861. While the Regt. was encamped …I received very discouraging news from home my Wife & Child being sick and in a suffering condition without the means to live on, and no one to take care of her, all the male members of my own and her family being then in the Army in all making 7 men from the one family being thus placed. Without protection or a helping hand, humanity demanded that I should risk all dangers to protect and save my family from starvation which was a staring them in the face with every prospect’s of a hard winter. I left my Regt. without proper leave and went home intending to return in a few days. But through force of circumstance and the earnest entreaties of my wife and mother not to leave them in a destitute condition without any supporter I was induced to remain at home.

“At the time of the advance of the Rebel Army into Pennsylvania in September 1862, I was residing in Delaware Co Pa. On the call of Gov Curtin for Vol. I enlisted in a company from Chester Borough, and was elected 1st Lieutenant. the company was attached to the 16th Regt. State Militia and went into service in the state of Maryland. I have a commission from Gov. Curtin to that effect, on the return home of the Company I assisted Capt. Wm. Gray of Chester to recruit and fill a company for 9 months service, which company was afterwards attached to a Phila. Regt. On Mr. Shearman’s getting his appointment I was appointed an aid by him and succeeded in aiding in the arrest of several abettors of the rebels. At the Point of Rocks I entrapped the spy Dobson now confined in the Capitol prison…At Seaford, Delaware we arrested Dr. Hugh. Martin and several others: Knights of the Golden Circle whom we entrapped…we also seized the sloop Ramsey on the E. S. Md which was sold by the U. S. Commissioner at Phila. as a prize. I was transferred by Mr. Shearman to Col. Fish at Baltimore. and was empowered by him as an agent of the secret service in his Dept. While employed by him I succeeded in entrapping and and arresting a gang of blockade runners and abettors…Mr. Cook, Post Master of Chaptico, St Mary’s Co with a mail from Virginia and letters he wished me to take to Richmond. Mr Keys for sending information to the Rebel Govt. Mr Addison suspected of being a rebel agent. Mr. Dorsey a member of Jackson’s Army. Mr. Roberts with goods to take to Richmond. W. Goodrich, H. Curnan and A. Helmlin acting as guides & Agent’s for Blockade runners…I have information of several parties who are sending communications to the South who I am positive I can detect having become connected with the Knights of the Golden Circle so as to enable me to entrap them, with the knowledge I have of these parties I am confident I can benefit the Government in the present capacity more than I could in any other way. If I am granted the privilege of still continuing in search of them.

“Having given a plain statement of my case and also of the services I have rendered the Govt. I ask of you as a Father & Gentleman. and as a Chief Magistrate and an officer who can appreciate the services I have rendered and who can temper Mercy & humanity with Justice to grant me all the benefits in a fair and impartial hearing that may arise in the consideration of my case. I am fully sensible of the wrong I have committed but I have tried to atone for it by doing all that laid in my power to assist the Administration detecting the enemy at home. even by placing my life in the balance in case I should be detected in exposing those who are plotting to destroy the Government.

“Praying that you will look into my case in as favorable a light as possible and grant the begged for pardon either by ordering me to be transferred to Mr Shearman in the Secret Service or by ordering my discharge, so that I can still continue to follow and bring to Justice those who are doing all in their power to prevent the reconstructing of the Union. By so doing you will never have cause to regret by any of my future actions and I will ever pray for your success in all your transactions, and do all in my power hereafter to aid your wishes and that of the Government…Respectfully yours to Command, Abraham. Lower, Jr.” This letter is in the Lincoln Papers in the Library of Congress.

Letter signed, Washington, August 4, 1863, almost surely to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. “Let Abraham Lower, 72nd Regiment Pa. Volunteers, now under arrest in Philadelphia for desertion, be pardoned and discharged from the military service of the United States.” The text of the letter is in the hand of Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay. “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” relates that Sergeant Lower of Company A was discharged by special order on August 5, the very next day.

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