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York in American History
The Presidential Pardon of Private Goodwin
Portsmouth Herald - 12/13/2017
Editor's Note: James Kences made a fas cinating discovery rummaging through the file boxes of the Civil War Veterans Project compiled by the Magocsi family in the archival collections of the York Historical Society: In 1863 President Lincoln had pardoned a York soldier, Private Goodwin. Through this lens the reader is able to comprehend one of the great tragedies of this war that ripped the country apart, divided families, and left a terrible legacy of death and suffering. Families on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line lost their bread winners through absence, death and loss of limbs or shell shock. The number of desertions was staggering but understandable given the sheer numbers of soldiers needed to conduct the war.
' P lease suspend execution of sentence in case of William F. Goodwin" President Lincoln telegraphed General George Meade on December 12 1863. At 4:20 in the afternoon, the general sent his answer, with notification of "order to suspend." Private Goodwin, sentenced to be shot for desertion just a week later, had appealed to Maine's senator, William Pitt Fessenden for clemency, "I have a wife and four children dependent upon me for support, which makes me all the more anxious. . ."
"The influence of liquor and false friends have brought upon me all my trouble," Goodwin was to acknowledge in his letter. A soldier in the 17th infantry, in garrison at Fort Scammell in Portland harbor, Goodwin had taken advantage of a pass into the city, and with encouragement from other soldiers, deserted in April of 1863. Captured five months later, he was put under arrest, and tried by court-martial.
By one estimate, as many as 80,000 Union soldiers deserted during the war, but the actual number may be many times larger. The punishments that could be administered depended upon the underlying circumstances, and could embrace anything from public whippings, the branding with a letter D, restraint with ball and chain, to the most extreme, execution by firing squad. One Maine soldier, William H. Laird of Berwick, was to suffer that fate at Fort Preble, July 15, 1863.
The chronic issue of desertion was to put the commanders of the army constantly at odds with President Lincoln, who regularly took advantage of his authority to grant pardons. The generals objected to the president's interference, and were quite candid about the harm this caused to discipline. The populations of the Northern States were equally provoked, and collectively regarded Lincoln's action as undermining the war effort as the pressure increased to obtain recruits.
"It makes me rested after a hard day's work if I can find some good excuse for saving a man's life," Lincoln said as his justification. He was sympathetic to the appeals of a soldier's family, and was reluctant to assume the burden upon his conscience of another death, already impacted by the enormous casualties. Lincoln displayed lenience in cases that were the most innocent, but was much less tolerant of repeat offenders, perpetrators of brutality, men who joined the enemy.
"Six hours for review of 100 court martials," John Hay his secretary complained in the summer of 1863. That particular session was but a fraction of the total, which exceeded 1600 cases. If the president had not undertaken this personal involvement, the 141 instances of execution for desertion would have been dwarfed by a figure which conformed to the military's exacting demands.
Private Goodwin in December of 1863 had much going in his favor. His offense was quite innocent, he possessed a wife and children in need, and he was sincerely apologetic. "Desertion I know is a crime which has been carried on to an alarming extent in our army, and too often gone unpunished," he wrote in his letter to Senator Fessenden, "I know I have done wrong and am sincerely sorry for it."
We can almost envision Lincoln studying over the case which so closely approached the conditions he found most sympathetic. It was close to Christmas, and he was described by observers as being in a happy, conciliatory mood. Only weeks earlier he had returned from Gettysburg, and the dedication of the Soldier's Cemetery made famous as the Gettysburg Address.
On December 8, just four days prior to Goodwin's pardon, Lincoln had issued a proclamation of amnesty applicable to any of the Confederates who were not high government officials or military officers, or were not excluded for some additional exceptions. And, at this same time, the president also introduced the initial steps of his plan for Reconstruction, what would come to be known as the Ten Percent Plan.
"When in any state the number of loyal Southerners amounted to 10 percent of the votes cast in 1860, this minority could establish a new state government. Its constitution must abolish slavery. . ."The immediate reaction was quite positive. "The president offers them not only a peace, which shall save them from the miseries of war, but an honorable pardon which shall imbue them with all the attributes of the citizen. . ." The comment published in a New York City newspaper the day before the York soldier was spared, reveals the prevailing conciliatory climate of the moment.
Within the White House during those days of December, Lincoln's sister-in-law, the recent widow of a Confederate officer killed at Chickamauga, was visiting with the First Family. Aware of how this might be received by the public, the president was careful to keep the event concealed from view. On December 14, he formally granted her amnesty, upon the requirement she would take an oath of loyalty. And thus Emily T. Helm was "fully relieved of all penalties and forfeitures, and remitted to all her rights."
There was unfortunately a confrontation that occurred between Mrs. Helm and Senator Ira Harris of New York that was to precipitate her departure from Washington. "Madam if I had twenty sons they would all be fighting rebels," the senator declared to her. In reply, she assured him, "if I had twenty sons, they should all be opposing yours." General Daniel Sickles, a former New York Congressman who had lost a leg at Gettysburg, then angrily said to Lincoln, "you should not have that rebel in your house!"
The war would not be over for another sixteen months. 1864 was to be a year of campaigns with heavy casualties, and it was also the year three York soldiers perished at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Private Goodwin was destined to spend the rest of the war in prison, at hard labor. His return to civilian life in the summer of 1865, was under the cloud of a dishonorable discharge. Life was not to be easy for him after the mistake in judgement that would have led to his demise, except for a president's intervention.
James Kences is a local historian writing essays and giving lectures at the York Library on the theme of "York in American History." David Ramsay is a correspondent for the York Weekly who works wit h Kences, providing editorial and writing assistance.