To Edwin M. Stanton

Hon. Secretary of War:           Executive Mansion,
My dear Sir:                                 Washington, March 18. 1864.

I am so pressed in regard to prisoners of war in our custody, whose homes are within our lines, and who wish to not be exchanged, but to take the oath and be discharged, that I hope you will pardon me for again calling up the subject. My impression is that we will not ever force the exchange of any of this class; that taking the oath, and being discharged, none of them will again go to the rebellion, but the rebellion again coming to them, a considerable per centage of them, probably not a majority, would rejoin it; that by a cautious discrimination the number so discharged would not be large enough to do any considerable mischief in any event; would relieve distress in, at least some meritorious cases; and would give me some relief from an intolerable pressure.

I shall be glad therefore to have your cheerful assert to the discharge of those whose names I may send, which I will only do with circumspection. Yours truly A. LINCOLN

In using the strong hand, as now compelled to do, the government has a difficult duty to perform. At the very best, it will by turns do both too little and too much. It can properly have to motive of revenge, no purpose to punish merely for punishment’s sake. While we must, by all available means, prevent the overthrow of the government, we should avoid planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society. These general remarks apply to several classes of cases, on each of which I wish to say a word.

First, the dismissal of officers when neither incompetency, nor intentional wrong, nor real injury to the service, is imputed. In such cases it is both cruel and impolitic, to crush the man, and make him and his friends permanent enemies to the administration if not to the government itself. I think of two instances. One wherein a Surgeon, for the benefit of patients in his charge, needed some lumber, and could only get it by making a false certificate wherein the lumber was denominated “butter & eggs” and he was dismissed for the false certificate. The other a Surgeon by the name of Owen who served from the beginning of the war till recently, with two servants, and without objection. when upon discovery that the servants were his own sons, he was dismissed.

Another class consists of those who are known or strongly suspected, to be in sympathy with the rebellion. An instance of this is the family of Southern, who killed a recruiting officer last autumn, in Maryland. He fled, and his family are driven from their home, without a shelter or crumb, except when got by burthening our friends more than our enemies. Southern had no justification to kill the officer; and yet he would not have been killed if he had proceeded in the temper and manner agreed upon by your-self and Gov. Bradford. But this is past. What is to be done with the family? Why can they not occupy their old home, and excite much less opposition to the government than the manifestation of their distress is now doing? If the house is really needed for the public service; or if it has been regularly confiscated and the title transferred, the case if different.

Again, the cases of persons, mostly women, wishing to pass our lines, one way or the other. We have, in some cases, been apparantly, if not really, inconsistent upon this subject—that is, we have forced some to go who wished to stay, and forced others to stay who wished to go. Suppose we allow all females, with ungrown children of either sex, to go South, if they desire, upon absolute prohibition against returning during the war; and all to come North upon the same condition of not returning during the war, and the additional condition of taking the oath.

I wish to mention two special cases—both of which you well remember. The first is that of Yocum. He was unquestionably guilty. No one asking for his pardon pretends the contrary. What he did, however, was perfectly lawful, only a short while before, and the change making it unlawful had not, even then been fully accepted in the public mind. It is doubtful whether Yocum did not suppose it was really lawful to return a slave to a loyal owner, though it is certain he did the thing secretly, in the belief that his superiors would not allow it if known to them. But the great point with me is that the severe punishment of five years at hard labor in the Penitentiary is not at all necessary to prevent the repetition of the crime by himself or by others. If the offence was one of frequent recurrence, the case would be different; but this case of Yocum is the single instance which has come to my knowledge. I think that for all public purposes, and for all proper purposes, he has suffered enough.

The case of Smithson is troublesome. His wife and children are quartered mostly on our friends, and exciting a great deal of sympathy, which will soon tell against us. What think you of sending him and his family South, holding the sentence over him to be re-inforced if he returns during the war.

 The letter sent to Stanton is reproduced as sent, but represents only the first paragraph of the draft. The remainder of the draft is reproduced following Lincoln’s signature. Stanton replied on March 19: “Your order for the discharge of any prisoners of war, will be cheerfully & promptly obeyed.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: