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When Leopold Salomon, an immigrant from France, volunteered to join the 20th NY Infantry three weeks after the start of the Civil War and four days before his 23rd birthday, one can safely assume he had no idea that he would end up receiving a pardon from the Commander in Chief himself, Abraham Lincoln, for a crime Salomon did not believe he committed.
Salomon served honorably with his comrades of the 20th NY for two years, fighting at multiple pivotal battles including Antietam and Fredericksburg, even surviving being captured at the Battle of White Oak Swamp and held prisoner for over a month. By April of 1863, Salomon and his comrades were ready to go home. As their commanding officers led them towards the next engagement, great discord spread through the regiment.
The 20th NY Infantry, like many of the volunteer regiments, was originally mustered into state service before they mustered into federal service. As a result, in the minds of these soldiers, the date of the end of their two year commitment was April 29th, 1863, but the US Army believed the men owed two years from the date the 20th NY Infantry was mustered into federal service (May 6, 1861); adding an additional week to their term.
On April 29th, 1863, two hundred and two members of the 20th NY Infantry, including Leopold Salomon and his Jewish comrades, Henry Mayer and Joseph Unger, refused to cross the Rappahannock River into Spotsylvania County, insisting they would serve no longer and should be discharged. All were arrested, and as they took their stand on the eve of the Battle of Chancellorsville, it was considered not only mutiny, but misbehavior before the enemy. The soldier and his compatriots were found guilty at their court martial, and sentenced “to be dismissed from the service of the United States with a dishonorable discharge; then to be confined at hard labor, in charge of the guard, during the remainder of the war, at such places as the proper authorities may direct.”
Shortly thereafter, the Turners, a German social and political organization, led a campaign to pardon the mutineers, petitioning Salmon P. Chase, then US Secretary of the Treasury. They argued that the men from the regiment they sponsored “being patriots and soldiers of undoubted proof, would have readily consented to continue in the service for any term of emergency, if the matter had been presented to them with proper regard for their utter want of instruction on the subject and for their character of citizens having fully volunteered and most gallantly fought in the defence [sic] of the Union. Instead of which they were told by their officers: ‘you may have right on your side, but we have the power.’”
This petition rang true with Chase, and he forwarded it on to President Lincoln, who requested a report from Judge Advocate Joseph Holt on the case. After receiving Holt’s report, on 10 August 1863, Lincoln exercised his famous magnanimity and ordered, “The persons spoken of within are hereby pardoned for the unexecuted part of their Sentence.”
This story and many others were discovered by the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s Roster Project researchers in the textual records of the United States National Archives at Washington, DC. The court martial file for the mutineers from the 20th NY Infantry contains a large variety of petitions and court records pertaining to all 202 men. Within the many pages, there is only one document specific to an individual soldier; an exceptionally personal letter from the father of Leopold Salomon to President Lincoln. It alludes to a previous letter his wife wrote to Lincoln and Lincoln’s reply, and provides a glimpse of the immigrant experience in a new country embroiled in war:
“A few days ago my wife sent you a communication respecting our son, who is one of the unfortunate 200 soldiers of the 20th N.Y.V. Regt. that refused to do duty under the belief that the period for which they volunteered had fully expired. In your reply just received, allusion is made to the word ‘revenge’ which was unconsciously made use of by my wife. Permit me to say that, we did not then, and do not now, believe such a spirit ever emanated from the man of our choice as ruler of these U. S.
I would now join my wife in her prayers to you for mercy to our Boy. When this unhappy war broke out I, being too old to go to Battle prevailed on my son who was the chief support we had to go forward and do his utmost to save the Country of our adoption from destruction. [I]t was a fearful sacrifice to his Father & Mother yet they quietly submitted and even felt proud to see their son as one of the many brave defenders of their Country’s rights. [H]e went forward and for two years did nobly, his heart naturally good, then looked homewards–wishing once more to embrace his parents and believing his time had really expired it would seem he did wrong in acting as he did by refusing to remain at that time any longer in the army and I would here most respectfully be leave to suggest that his case can barely be called one of desertion. [Y]ou as a ruler and a lawyer will see the difference. A man makes a contract to serve two years. [H]e serves [the] same faithfully and then believes himself free from that contract. Such I take it is my son’s case–and such I sincerely trust will be the opinion of yourself and the Judge Advocate.
In conclusion Mr. President permit me as a broken hearted Father to humbly beg for your kind interference for my son who though wrong probably according to military regulations is innocent in the eye of our Creator, and, belonging to a nation (France) whose regulations so differ in so many respects to this Country[.] I earnestly hope you will take these extenuating circumstances into consideration and that you will gratify our hearts by allowing our son once again to enter the family circle by ordering his discharge from custody.
Believing it is your wish to do right to all and trusting in your largeness of heart
I beg leave to subscribe myself Honorable Sir
Your most obt sert
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