1865: Not George S.E. Vaughn

On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln had a date for Ford’s Theater — and with John Wilkes Booth’s single-shot Derringer pistol.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for his clemencies.

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.

Lincoln was dead within hours. Vaughn passed away in 1899 in Maryville, Mo.

* 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.

On this day..

11 thoughts on “1865: Not George S.E. Vaughn

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  5. I blame multiple server migrations for my inability to distinguish names. Though it does still make the story more interesting even so.

  6. Jason, this is a tangle.

    As Vidor noted, Thomas Lowry in 1998 or so, altered the date on the pardon of Patrick Murphy at the national Archives in Washingtom DC. Lowry changed April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865 on Murphy’s pardon to basically gain notoriety for himself. It worked on a small scale, but even Lowry couldn’t have guessed the notoriety he has gotten by getting caught with the goods. Lowry and his wife initially admitted the forgery and are now (January 25, 2011) attempting to recant their confession and lay the blame to others

    Your entry for April 14th 2009 IS accurate. The story of George SE Vaughn and his pardon by Lincoln is an old one and has been authenticated many times over. It is the story of Patrick Murphy’s pardon that was faked by Thomas Lowry that is being called into question at this time.

    There are several excellent treatments of this sorry case of sniveling and forgery on the internet and I will post a link when the story sorts itself out.

  7. I never like running inaccurate information, but l’affaire Lowry actually makes this post more interesting. It’s intriguing, though, that my sourcing – popular lit, not professional history – is a century older. There must be a historiography to be found on the confusion (intentional or otherwise) of the date.

  8. In 1998 or so, Thomas Lowry, a Civil War historian, altered the date on the Lincoln pardon of Patrick Murphy. In the spirit (and with about as much skill) of every fifth grader who ever changed an “F” to an “A”, Lowry changed April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865 on Murphy’s pardon.

    This obtained some notoriety for Lowry. Largely based on his new-found fame, he published 3 Civil War books. But he was found out and the whole thing crashed down on him last week.

    Lowry’s career is ruined, but he won’t be prosecuted due to the statue of limitations expiring on his evil and silly deed.

  9. It just so happens that the historian who discovered this clemency had lied to the public and had actually tampered with the date. Lincoln did not pardon the general on April 14, 1865, but rather on April 14, 1864.

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