Lincoln’s Clemency: The Policy Limits

Abraham Lincoln has a well-deserved reputation as a merciful man who liberally exercised his presidential pardoning power. John Hay was “amused at the eagerness with which the President caught at any fact which would justify him in saving the life” of a condemned man.[1] Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, his chief advisor on military trials, remembered that in every case Lincoln “always leaned to the side of mercy. His constant desire was to save life.”[2]

There were exceptions. Hay observed that Lincoln “was only merciless in cases where meanness or cruelty were shown.”[3] Holt recalled that he was always “prompt to punish … outrages upon women.”[4] The most famous case where Lincoln refused clemency was that of Captain Nathaniel Gordon, convicted in 1861 and sentenced to hang for engaging in the African slave trade. Operating a slave ship would commonly be understood to involve “meanness [and] cruelty.” But might other factors have entered into Lincoln’s decision? No other slave ship captain had been executed before him; earlier presidents had always commuted death sentences for that crime. The decision to withhold clemency sent a clear signal that the new Republican administration would take a hard line on slave traders.

Captain Gordon’s trial and execution have been thoroughly covered by author Ron Soodalter,[5] and will be mentioned again only in passing. This article will instead focus on three other cases where Lincoln refused to grant clemency, and will seek a pattern to his decisions. These incidents displayed little or no evidence of meanness or cruelty and none involved sexual assault. The first of these incidents may be the least serious to those involved, since it did not involve the death penalty, but it does illustrate Lincoln’s approach to clemency decisions in key cases.

  1. Major Key[6]

On the evening of September 25, 1862, eight days after the battle of Antietam, Abraham Lincoln rode from the White House to his cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, accompanied by his secretary John Hay. During the ride, the president told Hay he had learned of a disturbing rumor. According to Hay’s diary, “he said he had heard of an officer who said they did not mean to gain any decisive victory” at Antietam, “but to keep things running on so that the army might manage things to suit themselves.” If such language had been used, Lincoln thought the officer’s “head should go off.”[7]

By the next day the president had learned the details of the incident. The officer in question was Major John J. Key of General-in-Chief Henry Halleck’s staff. Key made the offending statements in conversation with Major Levi C. Turner, a military lawyer (Judge Advocate) assigned to investigate persons in the Washington, D.C., area suspected of discouraging enlistments, making disloyal statements, or in any other way giving aid and comfort to the enemy.[8] The president confronted Key with the accusation in writing and offered him the opportunity to defend himself personally.

“Washington. Sep. 26. 1862


“I am informed that in answer to the question “Why was not the rebel army bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg? [i.e., the battle of Antietam]” propounded to you by Major Levi C. Turner, Judge Advocate, etc., you answered ‘That is not the game. The object is that neither Army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise & save slavery.’

“I shall be very happy if you will, within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this, prove to me by Major Turner, that you did not either literally (sic), or in substance, make the answer stated.”[9]  John Hay noted that this letter was delivered to Major Key at 10:25 AM on September 27.

Majors Key and Turner presented themselves at the White House around 11:00 the same day. Turner reaffirmed that Key had made the alleged statement, although the wording differed slightly from what was originally reported to the president. “As I remember it,” Major Turner said, “the conversation was, I asked the question why we did not bag them after the battle at Sharpsburg? Major Key’s reply was that was not the game, that we should tire the rebels out, and ourselves, that that was the only way the Union could be preserved, we come together fraternally, and slavery be saved.” Key did not deny that he had made the statement, but argued he was loyal to the Union cause. Turner confirmed that he had never heard Key express disloyal sentiments.

For Lincoln, however, loyalty was not the issue. The president replied that “that if there was a ‘game’ even among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game.” He informed the War Department that in his “view it is wholly inadmissable (sic) for any gentleman holding a military commission from the United States to utter such sentiments as Major Key is … proved to have done. Therefore let Major John J. Key be forthwith dismissed from the military service of the United States.”

It must be noted that Lincoln ordered that Key be “dismissed” from the army, not merely discharged. “Discharge” was the term ordinarily used when officers were honorably released from active duty at the end of their term of service or for medical or administrative reasons. When an officer was “dismissed” by sentence of a court-martial, it was the equivalent of a dishonorable discharge for an enlisted soldier. Key was not court-martialed, but dismissed by the president after a summary hearing. In the nineteenth century U.S. Army, dismissal by the president, while not technically a punishment, nevertheless had “the moral effect of punishment, in that it not only deprives the party of that which is valuable to him but affixes a reproach upon his reputation.”[10] Key was not merely thrown out of the army, he was publicly stigmatized by the president. The administration later made sure that Key’s fate, and the reasons for it, were published in the New York Times.[11]

The next day Key sent the president a written rebuttal, again declaring his loyalty and arguing that he was referring only to the Confederate army. “I have often remarked, that the Rebels would never let this contest be dicided (sic), if they could help it — by a dicided (sic) battle between us, but would protract this war — as they hoped to make a compromise in the end & that they were fighting with that end in view —

“In conclusion I solemnly aver — that if this war terminate in the entire destruction of the South — they have brought it on themselves.”[12]

Key sent this request for reconsideration through his old boss, commanding general Henry Halleck, who sat on it for almost two months. In the meantime, Key’s son, Captain James R. Key, had died of wounds received at the battle of Perryville, Kentucky. When the president finally saw Key’s letter, his reply offered condolences on the loss of the author’s son. The expression of sympathy was undoubtedly sincere, since Lincoln had lost two sons of his own. However, neither sympathy nor the passage of time inclined the president toward leniency.

“In regard to my dismissal of yourself from the military service,” Lincoln wrote, “it seems to me you misunderstand me. I did not charge, or intend to charge you with disloyalty. I had been brought to fear that there was a class of officers in the army, not very inconsiderable in numbers, who were playing a game to not beat the enemy when they could, on some peculiar notion as to the proper way of saving the Union; and when you were proved to me, in your own presence, to have avowed yourself in favor of that ‘game,’ and did not attempt to controvert the proof, I dismissed you as an example and a warning to that supposed class. I bear you no ill will; and I regret that I could not have the example without wounding you personally. But can I now, in view of the public interest, restore you to the service, by which the army would understand that I indorse (sic) and approve that game myself? If there was any doubt of your having made the avowal, the case would be different. But when it was proved to me, in your presence, you did not deny or attempt to deny it, but confirmed it in my mind, by attempting to sustain the position of the argument.

“I am really sorry for the pain the case gives you, but I do not see how, consistently with duty, I can change it.”[13]

Lincoln still seems to have had doubts about his action. On December 27 1862 he examined the file again and concluded that “On full re-consideration, I can not find sufficient ground to change the conclusion therein arrived at[.]”

Dismissing an officer for a single casual remark in a private conversation seems a punishment vastly excessive in light of the offense. (Lincoln himself later described Key’s remarks as “silly.”[14]) Lincoln was, deservedly, known for his clemency towards offenders. So why did the president stubbornly refuse clemency to Key? He twice referred to the treatment of Key as an “example.” Examples are used to illustrate a rule or policy, and to warn against the consequences of violating the rule or policy. What policies involved in Key’s case would be so important to President Lincoln that they would override his usual inclination towards leniency? Two policies suggest themselves. First, and more obviously, to counter suspected disloyalty among the officers of the Army of the Potomac. Second, to reinforce the President’s policies on slavery.

By the end of September 1862, the President had ample cause to doubt the loyalty of the officers of the Army of the Potomac. Major General George B. McClellan was commander of that army for most of the period between July 27, 1861, and November 5, 1862. Under his command the Army of the Potomac adopted a conciliatory policy towards the white civilian population of the Confederacy. He urged the president to conduct the war “upon the highest principles known to Christian Civilization.” “Neither confiscation of property, … or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.”[15]

In early 1862, Lincoln became increasingly frustrated with McClellan’s reluctance to aggressively attack the enemy. After a desultory campaign in the spring of 1862, the general was defeated outside Richmond and driven back to the James river. The president then created a new Federal army, designated the Army of Virginia, to operate in northern Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope. One of the few abolitionist officers of the pre-war U.S. Army, he adopted a less lenient policy towards southern civilians than those of McClellan and his supporters. Unfortunately for Pope, his army was soundly defeated by the Confederates at the battle of Second Bull Run at the end of August 1862. Pope blamed his defeat on the disloyalty of one of his subordinates, Major General Fitz John Porter. Porter had close ties to McClellan and allegedly disobeyed Pope’s order to attack the enemy on August 29 in order to discredit Pope as an alternative to McClellan. Porter was later court-martialed for disobedience and dismissed from the service, a sentence President Lincoln quickly approved.

Following the Union defeat at Second Bull Run, General Lee invaded Maryland and was in turn defeated by McClellan and the Army of the Potomac at the battle of Antietam, Maryland, on September 17, 1862. However, despite the President’s urging, McClellan failed to pursue Lee’s army into Virginia. It was in this context that, on September 25, Lincoln heard of Major Key’s remarks. They provided an explanation for both Porter’s disobedience and McClellan’s reluctance to pursue the enemy after Antietam. As Lincoln later explained to John Hay, he began to suspect that McClellan and his officers were “playing false,” that they “did not want to hurt the enemy.”[16] As a public example of what could happen to them, the president’s dismissal of Key might persuade McClellan and his supporters to take a more aggressive approach towards the enemy. However, if McClellan understood the message of Key’s dismissal, he did not heed it. His continued a dilatory pursuit of Lee until Lincoln removed him from command on November 5, 1862.

Maj. Gen. Geo. McClellan LN-0830

Finally, it is significant that Key’s remarks came only three days after Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Key had, after all, declared the purpose of the “game” was to “save slavery.” The president had already reversed two efforts by the military to set policies toward slavery. In September 1861 he countermanded a proclamation by General John C. Fremont freeing the slaves of Confederate supporters in the Department of the West; the proclamation had adversely affected public opinion in Kentucky, at that time still wavering between remaining in the Union or joining the Confederacy.[17] More recently he had reversed a similar proclamation issued by General David Hunter in the Department of the South. At that time he publicly declared that he reserved to himself the power to make policy on slavery and that no military officer in the field was authorized to make such policy.[18] Now the president was faced with a possible cabal of officers to undercut his Emancipation Proclamation. More than anything else, this made Major Key’s action unforgivable.


  1. Dr. Wright

Alanson L. Sanborn was an idealist. Appointed a Second Lieutenant in the new United States Colored Troops (USCT), he told his mother that the formation of the USCT was “a work of justice” and “a work of humanity to elevate downtrodden humanity.”[19] On July 11, 1863, Lieutenant Sanborn was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. That day he marched a column of troops from Company B, First USCT, down Main Street toward the U.S. Customs House, where the troops would be reviewed by a Union general. On the way they passed Dr. David M. Wright, a local native, who swore at Sanborn and called him a coward. The Lieutenant halted the column and told Wright he was under arrest, whereupon Wright raised a revolver and shot Sanborn in the hand and shoulder. The latter wound proved fatal and Wright was arrested and tried for murder by a military commission. Found guilty, he was sentenced to hang.[20]

Clemency efforts began almost immediately. Ninety five “citizens of Norfolk” asked President Lincoln to stay any sentence even before the trial had concluded, a request the president honored.[21] Dr. Wright had built up considerable good will in Norfolk due to his humanitarian efforts during a yellow fever epidemic in 1855.[22] There was also evidence that Wright had offered medical assistance to Sanborn after shooting him.[23]

Dr. Wright was a slaveholder who had opposed secession in 1861 and remained in Norfolk after it was recaptured by the Union in 1862. By 1863, however, his views may have changed. The New York Times described him as a “violent Secessionist,” and he had a son in the Confederate army who was killed at Gettysburg, though the family kept this news from his father as he awaited execution.[24] At his trial, he claimed that the prospect of being arrested by African-American soldiers pushed him over the edge unto violent action. At his trial the Doctor claimed he acted in self-defense because, as a slave owner, he could not accept being arrested by men who might have been his former slaves. “No, sir, I could not submit to that,” he said.[25]

To fully appreciate the significance of the clemency movement, one must understand the unusual legal and political status of Norfolk in 1863. When Virginia seceded in 1861, representatives from the western counties of the state held a convention in Wheeling, today in West Virginia. There they formed their own government, claiming to be the legitimate, loyal government of Virginia with Francis H. Pierpont as state governor.[26] While the Pierpont government only controlled peripheral areas of the state that were occupied by the U.S. Army, in the areas it did hold it elected senators, representatives and a full range of state officers. Like other slave states that had remained in the Union, Norfolk and other counties controlled by the Pierpont government were excluded from the Emancipation Proclamation. At his trial, Dr. Wright was defended by Senator Lemuel J. Bowden and Lucius Chandler, who had been nominated as U.S District Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

After the trial and sentence, these loyal Virginians, one of whom had been nominated for federal office by Lincoln himself, led the clemency movement, which also included loyal Virginia congressmen, elected local officials and a former mayor of Norfolk. If Lincoln executed Wright, he would turn his back on Virginia Unionists whose support he could need in Congress and during reconstruction. Bowden and Chandler initially argued that they could not raise the defense of insanity before the military commission. In response, the President appointed a noted medical expert on insanity to go to Norfolk and examine Dr. Wright. When he reported that the accused was currently sane and had been sane at the time of the crime Lincoln approved the death sentence.[27] The Dr. Wright was hanged on October 23, 1863.

Dr. Wright’s action appears to have been a sudden, unpremeditated crime of passion, the product of deeply-seated racial prejudice, rather than an intentional act of meanness or cruelty. The evidence that, once he had calmed down, he had offered medical aid to his victim supports that conclusion. President Lincoln had already granted clemency in capital cases involving sudden passions. In a precedent that appears to apply to Wright’s case, where a soldier had been condemned to death for mutiny and assaulting a superior officer, Lincoln noted that the offense, “being to some extent the result of sudden passion, and not of premeditation,” the death sentence was mitigated to imprisonment and dishonorable discharge.[28]

Lincoln’s decision to reject the pleas of Virginia Unionists should be considered in the context of his support for the USCT, and the Confederate reaction. Initially reluctant for political reasons to raise African-American military units, by early 1863 he was an enthusiastic backer of the USCT. In a famous letter to Andrew Johnson, military governor of Tennessee, he declared that African Americans were “the great available, yet unavailed of, force for restoring the Union,” and optimistically predicted that the “bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once.”[29]

By August 1863, while the record of Dr. Wright’s trial was on his desk for review, the President had empirical evidence to support the value of the USCT. In his public letter to James C. Conkling, dated August 26, 1863, he declared that “that some of the commanders of our armies in the field who have given us our most important successes believe the emancipation policy and the use of the colored troops constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the Rebellion, and that at least one of these important successes could not have been achieved when it was but for the aid of black soldiers.”[30]

The Confederate government, on the other hand, regarded the enlistment of African American soldiers as part of plot to instigate a slave insurrection, contrary to the rules of civilized warfare. The Confederacy refused to recognize captured USCT troops as prisoners of war, and passed a law that declared white USCT officers like Lt. Sanborn to be subject to trial and execution if captured.[31] Lincoln issued a retaliatory order  “that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed.”[32] This seems to have deterred the Confederates from actually executing any USCT officers, but did not address the issues raised by Dr. Wright’s crime.

If the Confederacy could not punish white officers after capture for the “crime” of leading Black soldiers, the same result might be achieved by assassination of these officers before capture. Carried out by southern sympathizers behind Union lines, such attacks would avoid direct involvement of Confederate officials, though they might praise such patriotic acts after the fact. Leniency towards those who attacked white USCT officers would only encourage future attacks. Dr. Wright’s hanging foreclosed this possibility.

III. John Yates Beall

Trial of John Y. Beall 71.2009.084.04990

John Yates Beall, 24, was operating his family’s farm near Harper’s Ferry when John Brown raided the U.S. Arsenal there in 1859. Brown’s attempt to incite a slave revolt failed, but Beall, like many white Virginians, feared more abolitionist raids and joined the local militia company, “Botts Greys.” The Greys stood guard during Brown’s trial and execution, and when the Civil War broke out they were folded into the Second Virginia Infantry, part of the famous “Stonewall Brigade.” Separated from his regiment during its retreat up the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862, Beall became dispirited and joined his elder brother, a businessman in Iowa. Learning that his identity as Confederate soldier was about to be revealed he fled to Canada in September.[33]

While in Canada he formed two plans to help the Confederate war effort. The first would involve acquiring one or more vessels on the Great Lakes, to be armed and manned as irregular warships under Confederate authority (“privateers”). He would use his ships to rescue Confederate prisoners of war on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie and might also threaten U.S. cities on the Lakes with bombardment unless they paid a ransom. The second idea was similar to the first, only his privateering operations would take place on Chesapeake Bay, raiding Union shipping, prison camps, and military targets on the coasts.

In January 1863 Beall travelled to Richmond to present his ideas to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who referred him to Secretary of the Navy Mallory. Concerned that privateering on the Great Lakes would compromise British neutrality, Mallory approved the Chesapeake Bay proposal. [34] After discharge from the Confederate Army, Beall was commissioned an Acting Master in the Confederate Navy. Provided with two small craft, he recruited about 20 men and began operations on August 1, 1863, when his men cut a telegraph cable crossing the Bay. Over the next few months they raided a light house, capturing 300 gallons of oil and seized eight Union merchant ships.[35] Captured by U.S. forces, Beall was released in a prisoner exchange in March 1864.

Confederate sensitivity to British neutrality had weakened by early 1864. Jefferson Davis then personally sent Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay to Canada with broad discretion to engage in clandestine activities to encourage anti-war forces in the North and otherwise weaken the Union war effort.[36] “Thompson’s operation included efforts to free the Confederate prisoners held … on Johnson’s Island … burn several northern cities, including New York, Boston and Chicago, poison the Croton Reservoir, which supplied water to New York City, and cause epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever in certain cities.”[37]

By August 1864 Beall was back in Canada. There Thompson assigned him to lead the operation to free prisoners of war on Johnson’s Island. On September 19, 1864, Beall and a team of nineteen men hijacked the ferryboat Philo Parsons, bound from Canada to Sandusky, Ohio. After capturing a second steamboat, the Island Queen, they placed the passengers and crew of both craft ashore, scuttled the Island Queen and headed towards Johnson’s Island. Their plan next called of them to surprise and seize the fourteen-gun U.S.S. Michigan. Unfortunately for Beall, the captain of the Michigan had been alerted to the threat by a union agent and the raiders decided they were not being paid enough to take on the U.S. Navy. Over Beall’s objections they returned to Canada empty-handed. [38]

Back in Canada, Beall next became involved in an ill-conceived plan to derail a passenger train in upstate New York. The true purpose of the raid is unclear. A sympathetic account by one of Beall’s friends stated that the original “scheme was to capture a military train on the New York and Erie Railroad, between Dunkirk and Buffalo, in the State of New York.”[39] Lt. Colonel Martin, 14th Kentucky Cavalry (CSA), the leader of the band, later claimed that they were trying to rescue Confederate prisoners of war on the train, two generals and other officers.[40] On the other hand, Major General Dix, in his order confirming the findings and sentence of the military commission, noted robbing the express company safe on the train as a possible motive.[41] All sources agree, however, that three attempts were made to stop a train on this route in December 1864. The first two efforts failed because a four-man raiding party was unable to remove a section of track. Finally, after the group was raised to five raiders, the train was stopped briefly on December 15 when Colonel Martin succeeded in placing a rail across the tracks. Beall appears to have played only a passive role, witnessing Martin alone placing the rail.[42] This series of events suggests that the raiders were trying to derail any train that came along, and not targeting a specific train carrying Confederate officers.

Beall was arrested on December 16 while trying to return to Canada. Brought before a military commission he was convicted of acting as a spy and guerrilla and sentenced to hang.[43] The charges covered both his Lake Erie and New York raids, but the most serious charge was that he carried on “irregular and unlawful warfare, as a guerrilla,” in the state of New York by attempting “to destroy the lives and property of the peaceable and unoffending inhabitants of the said State, and of persons therein travelling, by throwing a train of cars … from the railroad track.”[44]

Beall’s defense counsel, James T. Brady, immediately organized extraordinary efforts to secure clemency for his client, including a petition from 92 members of congress and personal appeals to the president by former Illinois senator Orville H. Browning, former Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, Lincoln confidant Francis P. Blair, Sr., and others. These efforts were unavailing and the president refused to intervene. Beall was hanged on February 24, 1865.[45]

In many respects, Beall’s case would appear to be appropriate for presidential clemency. There is little in his record to suggest meanness or cruelty on his part. There were no civilian casualties in either the Lake Erie or New York railroad operations, nor in the earlier raids he led in the Chesapeake. True, he was convicted of attempting to harm peaceable citizens by causing a train wreck, but an examination of the evidence reveals that he was not a leader in this plot, and that his role was largely passive. In fact, the railroad raids suggest more ineptitude than menace, from the raiders’ failure, three nights running, to bring the proper tools or manpower (only four to five men) to lift a section of track, to the pathetic attempt by Lt. Colonel Martin to stop a train by placing a single rail across the tracks.

To many Victorians, Beall’s activities may have called to mind those of a young romantic outlaw, a Rob Roy or Robin Hood, or some other character out of Sir Walter Scott’s novels. This may help explain why it was so easy for his lawyer to mount a major clemency movement in only a few weeks.

This was not, however, the total context in which President Lincoln considered the case. A month after Beall’s Lake Erie raid, a force of approximately twenty Confederate soldiers in disguise left Canada to infiltrate the town of St. Albans, Vermont. On October 19 they rounded up the town population, robbed two banks of about $200.000, and escaped back to Canada. Three townspeople were shot by the raiders, one fatally. The raiders also attempted to burn the town using an inflammable substance called “Greek fire.” Pro-Confederate Canadian officials blocked efforts to have the raiders extradited to the United States.[46]

A month after the St. Albans raid, on the evening of November 25, 1864, a team of six Confederate agents attempted to set fire to at least a dozen hotels in New York City, along with Barnum’s Museum, a popular tourist attraction, and docks on the Hudson River. Again, Greek Fire proved less than effective, and little damage was done. The intent, nevertheless, was to set lower Manhattan ablaze.[47]

In this context, the New York railroad raids were part of pattern of escalating Confederate attacks on northern civilians. The Lake Erie raid arguably had a legitimate military purpose, the freeing of prisoners of war, though it could have proved deadly for the passengers and crewmen of the Philo Parsons or Island Queen if they had failed to respond to the orders of Beall’s men quickly enough. However, the raids on St. Albans and New York City appear to have been solely directed against civilians and civilian targets.

While an effort was made to establish a legitimate military goal for the raids on the New York railroad, at trial the Judge Advocate, in his role as prosecutor, ridiculed the idea that “with a force of five men, armed with five revolvers, a sledge-hammer, and a cold chisel,” the raiders could have “expected to capture a train of fifteen cars and fifteen hundred passengers, and to plunder the express-man’s iron safe!” It was “a glaring absurdity,” he argued. The true purpose of the raid was “to endanger the lives, destroy the property, and weaken the strength of those Yankee citizens whom these brigands of the border so bitterly hate.”[48] In other words, to terrorize the civilian population.

Abraham Lincoln OC-0059

Presidential approval of Beall’s execution sent a strong signal that the United States would not tolerate, and would punish severely, direct attacks on northern civilians. This message was reinforced when Robert Cobb Kennedy, who had participated in the New York city incendiary attacks, was sentenced to death by another military commission. In his order affirming the findings and sentence, General Dix stressed that the “lives, the property, the domestic security of non-combatant citizens must be protected against all invasion not in strict accordance with the laws and usages of civilized States in the conduct of war.” Crimes in violation of these laws and usages must not only be punished, “but the sternest condemnation of the law must be presented to others to deter them from the commission of similar enormities.”[49] Kennedy was hanged a month and a day after Beall, on March 25, 1865.


One theme runs through all these case studies. While President Lincoln always leaned toward mercy, he was willing to deny clemency in key cases to underscore important general policies. In the case of Major Key, he would punish an officer for “silly” treasonable talk to emphasize that the officers of the army would not be allowed to undercut the Emancipation Proclamation and “save slavery.” Dr. Wright would go to the gallows to show unyielding administration support for the United States Colored Troops, and that it would respond strongly to unlawful Confederate violence against them and their officers. Young Beall would hang to demonstrate a similarly strong response to Confederate attacks on northern civilians. Finally, Captain Gordon would die to end the era of official tolerance for the slave trade.

Burrus M. Carnahan is a Foreign Affairs Officer at the United States Department of State and a Professorial Lecturer in Law at George Washington University.  He is the author of Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War.



[1] John Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, ed. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, paperback ed. 1999), 64.

[2] Interview with John G. Nicolay, Oct. 29, 1879, in Michael Burlingame, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 69-70.

[3] Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House, 64.

[4] Burlingame, Oral History, 69.

[5] Ron Soodalter Hanging Captain Gordon (New York, Atria Books, 2007).

[6] Part of this section appeared earlier in Burrus M. Carnahan, “The Limits of Lincoln’s Clemency: The Post-Antietam Case of Major John J. Key,” The Lincoln Forum Bulletin, Spring, 2019, 10-11.

[7] Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House, 41.

[8] Case Files of Investigations by Levi C. Turner and Lafayette C. Baker 1861-1866 (Washington, National Archives and Records Service, 1970) 1-2,

[9] Record of Dismissal of John J. Key, September 26-27, 1862, in Roy P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1953) 442-43.

[10] William Winthrop, Military Law and Precedents (Washington D.C., GPO, 1920 reprint of 1886 ed.) 737.

[11] “The Dismissal of Major John J. Key,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 1862, p. 8, <>; Stephen W. Sears, Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) 423

[12] John J. Key to Abraham Lincoln, September 27, 1862, Abraham Lincoln papers in the Library of Congress, <>

[13] To John Key, November 24, 1862, in Basler, Collected Works 508.

[14]Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House, 232.

[15] To Abraham Lincoln, July 7, 1862, in Stephen W. Sears, ed., Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence 1861—1865 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1989) 344.

[16]Hay, Inside Lincoln’s White House 232.

[17] To John C. Fremont, September 11, 1861 in Basler, Collected Works, vol 4,  517.

[18] Proclamation Revoking General Hunter’s Order of Military Emancipation of May 9, 1862, May 19, 1862, in  Basler, Collected Works vol. 5, 222.

[19] “A Civil War crime of passion,” Barre Montpelier Times Argus Online, February 8, 2015,

[20] David Lee Miller, President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2008) 276-86; George Holbert Tucker, “The Hanging of Dr. Wright,” in Norfolk Highlights 1584 – 1881,; “Civil War crime of passion;” “Affairs in Norfolk, VA,” New York Times, July 14, 1863, The details vary in accounts of the events of July 11, 1863. For example, two days after the killing, the New York Times reported that Sanborn belonged to the Second Regiment USCT, while all other sources place him in the First Regiment USCT. Some accounts have Wright drawing the pistol from his clothing, while others claim a bystander handed him the gun. The account above is based mainly on the contemporaneous New York Times report.

[21] To John G. Foster, August 3, 1863 in Basler, Collected Works, vol. 6, 362.

[22] David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995) 150-53; David Homer Tucker, “Hanging.”

[23] Miller, President Lincoln 277.

[24] Tucker, “Hanging.”

[25] “Civil War crime of passion.”

[26] Davis Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster 1995) 300-301; Mark E. Neely Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992) 331-32.

[27] Approval of Sentence in Case of David M. Wright, October 7, 1863, in Basler, Collected Works, vol. 6, 505

[28] Order Mitigating Death Sentence of Conrad Zachringer, October 25, 1862, in Basler, Collected Works, vol. 5, 476.

[29] To Andrew Johnson, March 26, 1863, in Basler, Collected Works, vol. 6, 149-50.

[30] To James C. Conkling, August 26, 1863, in Basler, Collected Works, vol. 6, 406, 408-09.

[31] Aaron Sheehan-Dean, The Calculus of Violence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018) 146-49.

[32] Order of Retaliation, July 30, 1863, in Basler, Collected Works 357.

[33]Cameron S. Moseley et al., “John Y. Beall (1835–1865),” in Encyclopedia Virginia,

[34] Daniel Lucas, A Memoir of John Yates Beall (Montreal: John Lovell, 1865) 18-19.

[35] Moseley, “Beall;” Lucas, Memoir, 24-26.

[36] Clint Johnson, “A Vast and Fiendish Plot:” The Confederate Attack on New York City,  (New York: Citadel Press, 2010) 112-13; Cathryn J. Prince, Burn the Town and Sack the Banks: Confederates Attack Vermont! (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006) 100-01.

[37] Edward Steers, Jr., The Lincoln Assassination Encyclopedia (New York: Harper Collins, 2010) 538.

[38] Moseley, “Beall.”

[39] Lucas, Memoir, 50.

[40] Lucas, Memoir, 62-63.

[41] General Orders No. 17, Hdqrs. Department of the East, New York City, February 21, 1865, in War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II—Volume VIII (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899) 279, 280

[42] Trial of John Y. Beall as a Spy and Guerrillo by a Military Commission (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865) 34-35.

[43] Trial of John Y. Beall, 42-43.

[44] General Orders No. 17, War of the Rebellion, 279.

[45] Moseley, “Beall;” Lucas, Memoir, 68-74.

[46] Prince, Burn the Town, 139-59.

[47] Johnson, Vast and Fiendish Plot, 206-217.

[48] Trial of John Y. Beall, 88.

[49] General Orders No. 24, Hdqrs. Department of the East, New York City, March 20, 1865, in War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II—Volume VIII (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899) 414, 416.