American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Sympathy of Abraham Lincoln

During the earlier years of the Civil War, there were many desertions from the army. Military law when strictly enforced required that all deserters should be shot. But President Lincoln's big heart had pity for the young fellows, and he pardoned so many that they army officers became alarmed.

"If a man had more than one life," he said on a certain occasion, "I think a little shooting would not hurt this fellow; but after he is once dead, we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we may be. So the boy must be pardoned."

General Butler protested. "The whole army is being demoralized. There are desertions every day."

"How can it be stopped?" asked the President.

"By shooting every deserter," answered Butler.

"You may be right," said Mr. Lincoln, "probably are. But, Lord help me, how can I have a butcher's day every Friday in the Army of the Potomac?"

Once at the very turning point of a battle, a soldier was so overcome with fear that he dropped his gun and ran from the field. His action came near throwing his whole company into confusion. After the battle he was tried by court-martial and sentenced to die.

His friends appealed to the President.

"I will put the order for execution by," he said, "until I can settle in my mind whether this soldier can better serve the country dead than living."

Another case was that of a cowardly fellow for whom no one could say a good word. Not only had he run away during the heat of battle, but it was shown that he was a thief and untrustworthy.

"Certainly this fellow can serve his country better dead than living," said the officer.

But Mr. Lincoln had known the boy's father, a worthy man and patriot. He took the death warrant and said that the thought he would put it in the pigeonhole with the rest of his "leg cases." "These are cases," he said in explanation, "that you call by that long title, ‘Cowardice in the face of the enemy,' but I call them, for short, my leg cases. If Almighty God has given a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help running away with them?"

The President was never so taken up with the mighty affairs of the nation as to forget the humble needs of the common people. He was never so overcome with his own burdens and griefs that he could not speak words of sympathy and cheer to others who were sorrowful and broken-hearted. There are many examples that show how truly noble was his soul.

The following letter, written to a stricken mother whom he did not know, is one of such examples:—

"Dear Madam: I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so over-whelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.