April 14th, 2009 Headsman
On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln had a date for Ford’s Theater — and with John Wilkes Booth’s single-shot Derringer pistol.
But Honest Abe had one last order of business to attend to before his carriage called him away to destiny: the pardon of a convicted Confederate spy due to be shot in St. Louis two days hence. Lincoln’s handwritten clemency for George Vaughn was the last official act of his presidency.
Lincoln in Story (“The Life of the Martyr-President told in Authenticated Anecdotes,” a light 1901 volume for popular consumption) relates:
Before the war Vaughn, with his wife and children, lived in Canton, Mo. He was a friend of Martin E. Green, a brother of United States Senator James S. Green, both strong pro-slavery men. At the opening of the war Martin E. Green recruited a regiment and received a colonel’s commission from the Confederate Government. George Vaughn enlisted under Green’s command and fought through the war.
After a period of fighting, Green and Vaughn crossed into Mississippi from Tennessee, camping at Tupelo, Miss. Not having heard from his family, Green was anxious to hear from his old home, so he delegated Vaughn to go on the mission of delivering letters to his wife.
Vaughn had almost completed his trip, having reached La Grange, six miles south of Canton, when he was captured by a squad of Federal troops.
They searched his person, and, finding letters and papers concealed about him, he was tried as a spy and sentenced to be shot. John B. Henderson, Senator from Missouri, finally succeeded in getting an order from the President for a retrial, but the verdict remained as hitherto. Again Henderson appealed to Lincoln, who granted a third trial, with the same result.
Henderson was not disconcerted, and again went to Lincoln. It was on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 — a melancholy date — that the Senator called at the White House. He called the attention of Lincoln to the fact that the war was practically closed, and said: “Mr. Lincoln, this pardon should be granted in the interest of peace and conciliation.”
This story gravitates naturally to the clemency of “the Great Heart” (as, for instance, D.W. Griffith called Lincoln). Far be it from us to say otherwise, but this is also self-evidently a story of the unusual prerogatives of the well-connected: not just any accused spy could get two trial do-overs and then a pardon free and clear ordered straight from the White House.
Mr. Lincoln replied: “Senator, I agree with you. Go to Stanton and tell him this man must be released.”
Henderson went to the office of the Secretary of War. Stanton* became violently angry, and swore that he would permit no such procedure.
Vaughn had but two days to live, and Henderson hastened to make one more stand. After supper he went to the White House. The President was in his office, dressed to go to Ford’s Theatre, when the Senator entered and told of the meeting he had had with Stanton.
Lincoln turned to his desk and wrote a few lines on an official sheet of paper. As he handed it to Senator Henderson he remarked: “I think that will have precedence over Stanton.”
It was an order for an unconditional release and pardon — the last official paper ever signed by Abraham Lincoln.
* Stanton is supposed to have delivered the remark as Lincoln’s deathbed, “now he belongs to the ages” … an alleged epitaph whose actual content is subject, like all biography, to textual uncertainty and ideological redefinition.
Update: The excellent tale of a different soldier pardoned on this same date has recently been debunked by the National Archives in an academic scandal: in January 2011, researcher Thomas Lowry confessed to altering the pardon order for one Patrick Murphy from the true (and much less dramatic) date of April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865.
Vaughn was actually pardoned just before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater; Murphy (totally unconnected to Vaughn) was pardoned 365 days prior.
Also on this date
- 1922: George Hornsby
- 1950: Eugene LaMoore, the last hanged in Alaska
- Themed Set: Alaska
- 1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian
- 1647: Domenica Gratiadei and her coven of witches
- 1965: Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, In Cold Blood subjects
- 1682: Avvakum Petrov, Old Believer
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Milestones,Missouri,Not Executed,Notable Participants,Pardons and Clemencies,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions
Tags: 1860s, 1865, abraham lincoln, academia, american civil war, april 14, civil war, ford's theater, george s.e. vaughn, george vaughn, john b. henderson, maryville, national archives, st. louis, thomas lowry