Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Says the Secretary of War?

While the Seventeenth is on duty in Clarksville, Tennessee under the leadership of Colonel A.M. Stout, there remains a current of hope that Colonel McHenry will soon be returned to command.  The volunteers were still puzzled by his sudden dismissal at the orders of President Lincoln.  There had been no court martial nor even a public reading of the charges against him.  They just woke up one morning in Russellville and the news of his absence spread through the camp like a wildfire.  Surely, he might return as suddenly as he had gone.

John Blackburn provides the following description of the days following the public reading of  McHenry's farewell to his troops in Russellville, Kentucky on December 15th, 1862.*

When this order was read to the assembled officers and men of the Seventeenth Regiment, not a man failed to weep.  This show of grief was a fitting farewell to one of the great men of Kentucky's famed military list.

On January 20, 1863, President Lincoln penned a note to Secretary Stanton:  "I have a strong inclination to give Colonel McHenry another chance.  What says the Secretary of War?"  The second chance was never granted, and the damage to the Union cause, brought about by the loss of McHenry, was never repaired.

The soldiers had every right to expect that Colonel McHenry would return, based on their experience with military justice.  They had seen Colonel John Turchin  tried and convicted for allowing, even encouraging the disgraceful conduct of his men in northern Alabama.  Much of the testimony concerned his behavior during "The Rape of Athens".  General James Garfield, presiding officer, found that Turchin should be dismissed from the service and remanded him to Washington where he was, instead, promoted.  Then there was the case of Colonel Jeff Davis who, only a few months earlier, had shot and killed an unarmed General William "Bull" Nelson in the presence of other officers in the lobby of a Louisville hotel.  He was sent to Washington for a court martial that never occurred.  

In light of these incidents, surely Colonel McHenry could be forgiven for his refusing to harbor escaped slaves in his Kentucky encampments.  It must be remembered that slavery was legal in Kentucky until December of 1865 upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Ammendment. McHenry could easily have argued that protecting runaways violated the laws of his state.  The only way Lincoln could avoid this challenge to his general order was to summarily dismiss the colonel, without benefit of court martial.

*  Blackburn, John, A Hundred Miles, A Hundred Heartbreaks, 1972, Self-published, LOC 72-93774, p.111

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