It was President Lincoln’s intense love for his fellow men that led him to disapprove of the findings of court-martial, whenever there was a possible excuse, particularly in the cases of soldiers charged with desertion, with having fallen asleep at a post of duty, or with other offenses.
Secretary Stanton always insisted upon the strictest discipline in the army and frequently urged that derelict soldiers receive the severest punishment of military law and custom, but Lincoln rarely took any advice on such matters. He had meditated deeply on the subject and consulted his own judgment in disposing of cases of that kind that came before him.
The late Joseph Holt, who recently died at Washington, was judge advocate general of the army during the whole period of the war and it became his duty to report many cases of alleged cowardice of soldiers as well as other offenses. President Lincoln carefully read every line of the charges against such men, and as soon as he saw the slightest chance to excuse the poor fellow, a gleam of satisfaction would pass over his serious face. Then folding the papers together he placed them in a pigeon hole of his desk, and with his big eyes looking into those of the judge advocate standing before him, he would say:
"Holt, we will let those soldiers go. Order them set free."
It was after the battle of Chancellorsville that charges were brought against several men for failing to march with their regiments into the fight at a time when they were most needed. The charge of desertion was made.
When Secretary Stanton heard of these cases he commanded Judge Holt to present the charges against the men to the President in the strongest possible terms.
"We need stronger discipline in the army," said the stern secretary of war to the judge advocate. "The time has come when the President must yield to our opinion."
Judge Holt was himself one of the ablest lawyers of his day, and had won fame as a forensic orator long before the war.
"In presenting these cases," said he to the writer a few months before his death, "in obedience to the wish of the secretary of war, I used all the legal acumen at my command. One morning, with my papers all ready (and I was deeply in earnest in the matter), I proceeded to the White House; and, as I entered his private office, the President looked up with his long sad face saying:
"‘Ah! Holt, what have you there?’
"‘I have some important cases for your careful consideration, Mr. President, with documentary evidence sufficient to condemn every man.’
"He took the papers and read them carefully, stopping at times to reflect, then read on until he finished. There was no change in his countenance this time, unless that it grew more sad and his expression more serious. I had covered the cases in question with strong and convincing argument and evidence. He finally raised his eyes from the last paper and gazed intently through the window at some object across the Potomac. Then, rising from his chair, with the papers all folded together, he placed them in a pigeon hole already filled with similar documents. With his tall, gaunt form facing me, he spoke, in deep, sad tones, that would have touched the heart of the sternest officer of the army:
"‘Holt (it was his custom to mention only the last name), you acknowledge those men have a previous record for bravery. It is not the first time they have faced danger; and they shall not be shot for this one offense.’
"I then thought it was my duty as the head of my department of military justice to make further argument. For I knew Stanton would nearly explode with rage when he heard of the President’s decision. I began to speak and Lincoln sat down again, giving me his closest attention. Then, rising from his chair and riveting his eyes upon me, he said:
"‘Holt, were you ever in battle?’
"‘I have never been.’
"‘Did Stanton ever march in the first line, to be shot at by an enemy like those men did?’
"‘I think not, Mr. President."
"‘Well, I tried it in the Black Hawk war, and I remember one time I grew awful weak in the knees when I heard the bullets whistle around me and saw the enemy in front of me. How my legs carried me forward I cannot now tell, for I thought every minute that I would sink to the ground. The men against whom those charges have been made probably were not able to march into battle. Who knows that they were able? I am opposed to having soldiers shot for not facing danger when it is not known that their legs would carry them into danger. Send this dispatch ordering them to be set free.’ And they were set free that day.