Abraham Lincoln Scrawled This Astonishing Note To Save a Soldier’s Life

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 2 2012 12:42 PM

Abraham Lincoln Scrawled This Astonishing Note To Save a Soldier’s Life

LincolnPardon

Courtesy the National Archives.

A friend at the Foundation for the National Archives recently invited me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archives’ vaults—certainly the best two hours I’ve spent all summer. It was national treasure heaven—George Washington’s handwritten First Inaugural Address, Annie Oakley’s letter to President McKinley volunteering to muster a battalion of lady sharpshooters for the Spanish-American War, the $7.2 million check that bought Alaska in 1868—but the prize by far was a brief note scrawled at the bottom of a sheaf of legal papers.

In 1863, the archivists told us, the Army’s Judge Advocate General sentenced Michael Delaney to death for deserting his Colorado regiment in 1862. Delaney’s case file was passed up to President Abraham Lincoln, who reviewed death sentences from court martials. In the file sent to Lincoln, the judge noted that Delaney had been captured while fighting for a different Colorado regiment: In other words, he had deserted, but then re-enlisted. Seeing this, Lincoln overturned the death sentence. He wrote on Delaney’s file:

“Let him fight instead of being shot. A Lincoln”

LincolnPardon_detail
Detail of Lincoln's note.

Image courtesy the National Archives.

Advertisement

I guess it’s not surprising that the author of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address could manage to convey humanity, common sense, and a flash of dark wit in just seven words. Still, it is thrilling, and humbling, to read it.

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.