Bittinger: Presidential Pardons

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(HOST) President Obama’s recent pardon to "Apple", the White House Thanksgiving turkey, reminded commentator Cyndy Bittinger of other presidential pardons, especially one involving a young Civil War soldier from Groton.

(BITTINGER) The William Scott Sleeping Sentinel Monument is near his birthplace in Groton.  The story behind this memorial bears repeating since it represents one of the most famous pardons in Civil War history.

Private William Scott, a farm boy from Groton, had volunteered to fight with his four brothers and had traveled by train to Camp Lyon where he was assigned guard duty at the Chain Bridge over the Potomac River in August of 1861. The Confederate Army, located only 10 miles away, easily could have attacked Washington, the Union’s capital.  On his second night of sentry duty, Scott replaced a sick soldier, but fell asleep and was arrested between 3 or 4 in the morning.  The standing orders were that sleeping on duty meant death by execution.  Nearly 200 enlisted men and officers objected and signed a petition to spare Scott’s life. Their chaplain feared the worst and appealed the case to President Lincoln. This extreme punishment was intended to instill discipline in the ranks and the New York Times even printed an editorial endorsing the execution of Scott.

Yet President Lincoln issued a swift order: grant clemency in this case, but do not set a precedent.  General McClellan wrote to his wife, "Mr. Lincoln came this morning to ask me to pardon a man that I had ordered to be shot."  However, the commanding officer, Brigadier General Smith decided not to tell Scott about the pardon and prepared as if to carry out the death sentence.  Scott was blindfolded, 12 soldiers loaded their muskets, and the order was read.  Then Smith took out President Lincoln’s pardon and returned Scott to active duty.

Seven months after his pardon, Scott marched with 192 Union men to Lee’s Mills, Virginia for battle.  After saving several men from drowning in the Warwick River and carrying a fellow soldier to shore, he was mortally wounded.  He requested that his comrades attest to the fact that he had not feared to die in battle and blessed his leader, Abraham Lincoln.

Pardons can be surprising and reveal less well known aspects of a president.

President Warren Harding, a Republican conservative, commuted the sentence of socialist Eugene Debs convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917.  Debs had opposed the participation of the United States in World War I. From his jail cell, Debs ran against candidate Harding in 1920.  Yet, President Harding freed him in December of 1921 and even invited him to the White House.  Debs was then nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Recently, President Obama pardoned 9 people, but as a former staff attorney in the pardon office said, "this reflects the department’s continuing program to reserve pardons only for old and minor offenses…"  In October, 71 pardons and 605 commutations languished in the Obama justice department.  As we experience good will with the holidays this December, our president could turn to President Lincoln’s inspiring action and grant forgiveness.

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