Historian finds note from Lincoln interceding in a local treason case

March 08, 1994|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Sun Staff Writer

For more than 130 years, the case of Josiah J. Grindall, a Baltimore man charged with treason during the Pratt Street riots of 1861, was nothing more than a footnote to Civil War history.

Then, in a moment every researcher dreams about, Kellee Green Blake made a startling discovery while poring over federal court records of Maryland Civil War treason cases at the National Archives office in Philadelphia.

There, in the margins of a clemency petition sent to the White House on March 31, 1864, was a hand-written note from Abraham Lincoln, telling prosecutors he wouldn't object to dropping the treason charge against Grindall.

It is the only known instance of Lincoln's personal intercession in the hundreds of treason cases brought in Maryland, a state where sympathies were sharply divided between North and South.

Scholars say the note from Lincoln is significant because it demonstrates the president's legal acumen and, perhaps, his compassion at a time when the tide was turning in the war.

"I recognized the writing and then I saw the signature," said Ms. Blake, 32, a student of Lincoln who found the paper in November while preparing for a seminar on National Archives holdings. "My mouth fell open, but I was all by myself so there was no one else there to appreciate the moment."

The note from the president said simply: "In this case, not as a precedent for any other case, the District Attorney will be justified by me, if in his discretion, he shall enter a Nolle Prosequi. April 2, 1864. A. Lincoln."

No one knows today exactly what Grindall did to get into the trouble that led to this extraordinary presidential intercession.

A role in the riots

He was charged with treason for his part in the riots of April 19, 1861, when troops of the 6th Massachusetts traveling by rail to Washington clashed with mobs on Pratt Street between President Street Station and Camden Station.

Four soldiers and 12 civilians were killed, the first casualties of the war. Many people were arrested, although the exact number unknown. Grindall was indicted more than a year later.

His lawyer sent a clemency petition to the president after a federal judge refused to quash the case -- even though Grindall ** had sworn allegiance to the Union under a presidential amnesty issued while he was awaiting trial.

The president replied two days after the letter was sent, a rapid response under any circumstances.

The Grindall document -- particularly its precise language -- buttresses the view that Lincoln was "a very sophisticated lawyer and not the country bumpkin lawyer of legend," said Ms. Blake.

"Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer who was president and not a politician who dabbled in law," she said.

Ms. Blake and Shirley J. Burton examined 122 of Lincoln's federal court case files in the Chicago archives office and and wrote a play called "Lincoln at the Bar, Interpretations of Abraham Lincoln in the Federal and State Courts in Illinois."

A lawyer in the White House

Susan Krause, of the Lincoln Legal Project, in Springfield, Ill., which has studied Lincoln's state and county cases, said the Grindall document "is evidence that there was a

lawyer in the White House, someone who was embroiled in a civil war yet who made a very precise legal point and even used the Latin phrase."

Although some historians have discounted Lincoln's legal career, Krause said, "He had a prodigious law practice, over 5,000 cases, including 300 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court in 25 years."

The Grindall document "is definitely important because it shows that [Lincoln] knew exactly what he wanted done," Dr. Burton said. "I'm excited that this kind of information is still out there. The intriguing thing is that if anyone but Kellee had found it they probably wouldn't have realized the significance of the note."

Whatever the note says about Lincoln the lawyer, there is room for debate about the president's motives in granting clemency.

He may have been showing compassion as the war reached a turning point in 1864. He may simply have responded to a lawyer clever enough to write to him personally. Or he may have been paying a political debt.

Both Grindall's lawyer, John Van Lear Findlay, and U.S. Attorney William Price, who endorsed dismissal of the treason charge, had supported Lincoln's struggle to save the Union and helped to prevent Maryland's secession.

Descended from a family prominent politically in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Findlay was elected from Washington County as a member of the Unconditional Union Party to the 1861 special session of the state legislature, where Maryland decided to stay in the Union.

Called in IOUs

Findlay established a claim on Lincoln's good will by supporting him, as did Price. He may have been calling in his political IOU when he wrote to the president on March 31, 1864.

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