Monday, December 10, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Sunday, Dec. 8, 1861

“A Case of Murder

Vegetating in Fayetteville, western Virginia, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio makes an informal inspection of winter quarters, writes three letters, has dinner with some other officers, records the weather in his diary (“A cloudy morning…After 10 a.m. cleared up and a bright, warm day”) and watches Col. Eliakim Scammon and some other officers play whist.

In the Cairo, Illinois, headquarters of Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, however, Sunday is a day of neither relaxation nor light duty.. The commander of the District of Southeast Missouri grinds out six letters on reporting on such topics as firearms received, intelligence received, and the condition of a nearby railroad.

Perhaps the most unpleasant duty for Grant is selection of a list of officers available for the court martial of one Col. Michael K. Lawler, commander of the 18th Illinois. Lawler has made a serious mistake. When a local civil court refused to take jurisdiction over a murder case involving two of his soldiers, an impatient Lawler simply turned the whole thing over to the angry men of the accused’s own company.

Within three days, the soldiers selected a jury of 12 men, tried the accused murderer, and hanged him. It was a kangaroo court and a hanging jury, and the whole thing smelled very bad to Grant’s superior, the fussy commander of the department of the Missouri, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck.

Now Halleck wants to try Lawler. But Lawler will beat the court martial and go on to great success in the war, eventually winning the brevet (honorary) rank of major general. And so justice, or at least the finer points of it, will give way to the pressures of war.

It was not the first time in this war nor will it be the last.

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