Joseph W. Clifton was 37 when he enlisted as a private in the Union army in August 1861. He was much older than most of the men he fought with, yet like many of his comrades, Clifton probably enlisted out of patriotism, a need for money or merely to escape the doldrums of daily life. At home in the South Jersey town of Burlington, he was the father of five children, and he worked as a stonemason.
Serving in the 6th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, Clifton fought with the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. As the summer months grew hotter and the combat became more strenuous, Clifton suffered under Virginia’s oppressive heat and humidity. “I have been under the wether for two months,” he told his brother in July 1862, and the pain “in my Side and my Stomache,” he reported, was not improving.
Writing from Harrison’s Landing, just southeast of Richmond, Clifton described the “verry hard battles” to his brother. But if the fighting was not bad enough, “it was horrible the next day to walk over the Battle field to see the dead and dying and to hear the wounded.” The experience had a profound impact on the green volunteer. “I never want to see any more fighting for I am sick of it now,” he wrote. He wanted to go home to see his family. “I have got another little girl that I never seen yet,” he added despondently.
Eventually, because of the increasing pain in his stomach and side, army surgeons sent Clifton to a military hospital in Chester, Pennsylvania. After about four months of recuperation, he decided to take what in Civil War days was called a French leave. On December 5, 1862, Clifton left the hospital without permission.
Instead of reporting back to his unit, he went home to Burlington to work and be with his family. Around July 17, 1863, he was arrested and returned to his regiment. Less than a week later he again deserted, this time “while in pursuit of the enemy,” as the army was “hourly expecting an engagement.” In October he was captured a second time. Two months later, he was court-martialed and found guilty of desertion. He was sentenced to be shot. The commanding general, George Gordon Meade, approved the court’s decision and set the execution date for January 29, 1864.
Clifton’s impending fate was published in newspapers throughout the United States. Almost immediately, a torrent of letters flooded President Abraham Lincoln’s desk asking for commutation of the sentence. Two New Jerseyans, U.S. Senator John C. Ten Eyck and former senator James W. Wall, were the among the most prominent correspondents. Ordinary citizens from New Jersey and Delaware (the place of Clifton’s birth) also beseeched Lincoln to show mercy for the sake of “the extreme destitution of his wife and little ones, who will thus be deprived of all support.” Some writers alluded to Clifton’s record of good military service prior to falling ill; others mentioned his father’s service in the War of 1812 and his grandfather’s patriotism during the American Revolution. His longtime family doctor in Burlington told the president that Clifton was “weak in mind, eccentric in character, and far below the average in intellect.” For these reasons, the doctor believed his life ought to be spared.
The most touching—and heart-wrenching—letters came from the condemned man’s wife. “How shall a woman with a heart breaking with sorrow find words wherewith to address you?” she asked the President. “But—I expect this is to you an everyday tale.”
Hannah Clifton was right. These sorts of cases reached the President’s desk almost daily. Still, with no other place to turn, she poured out her heart to the commander in chief. She reminded Lincoln of the specifics of the case—that her husband had deserted, been found guilty and “been sentenced, Oh how can I write it!—Sentenced—to be shot.” But she had to try one last time to save his life. “For though he may be erring I am his wife and love him still; and how can I endure the thought of the father of my five little children being taken out—not to fall by a foeman’s hand, but to be cut down by the hands of his own comrades.” Reminding Lincoln of her poverty, her struggles to raise her children, and of Lincoln’s “good and kind” heart, she begged the president to spare her husband’s life.
Lincoln struggled daily over how to deal with desertion. There were an estimated 200,000 desertions in the Union Army during the Civil War—roughly one in every seven Union soldiers. It was like a plague. Men were needed in the field, Lincoln wrote in November 1862, for the war would only be won “by hard desperate fighting.”
“Long experience has shown that armies can not be maintained unless desertion shall be punished by the severe penalty of death,” wrote Lincoln just before the Battle of Gettysburg, in the summer of 1863. Still, he commuted many death sentences during his time in office and permitted many other deserters to return to the ranks.
On January 16, 1864, Lincoln suspended the execution of Private Clifton “until further orders.” Two days later, Hannah Clifton again wrote to Lincoln. Pleading for mercy, she extolled her husband’s “patriotic motives” in volunteering to join the army in 1861. “And though a large family depended on his labour for support, I saw him go with pride and satisfaction to fight the battles of his country.” He had served his country faithfully, she wrote, and had received a debilitating injury to his lungs. After being at the hospital and realizing that he could no longer serve in the army, he applied for a discharge, and hoping that it would be granted, he “returned home to help support his family who were in want.” In this he had committed an error, she insisted, but not a crime. She again asked for mercy to soften “the stern rule of military law” for the sake of a “wretched wife and helpless infants.”
Lincoln’s mind was certainly consumed with other, more pressing matters than the fate of one lowly deserter. For about a year Clifton’s fate hung in limbo. In March 1864 he was dishonorably discharged from the military and transferred to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, an island group about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. There, the prisoner got very sick. He complained of having “the Scurvy in one of my legs.” The meager amount of meat that prisoners received “stinks so that we cannot eat it and the Bread is full of little bugs and worms.” Letters from loved ones came rarely, and he worried about his family and home. “I have got the horrors for I have almost give[n] up all hopes of getting out of this place,” he told his brother, “but I will try and keep up my spirits but it is hard for me to do it for my wife is verry bad sick and has been for over a month and the doctor sais that he cant cure her.” He asked his brother for 25 cents to buy tobacco so that he wouldn’t have to beg for it any longer. Although he had no money, he promised to repay his brother “some way,” adding, “I have got a lot of curiositys to Bring home with me if ever I do live to get out.”
Many citizens continued to petition Lincoln for Clifton’s release “before the Hot season sets in,” when he would likely die. On March 22, 1865, a group of 92 citizens of Lewes, Delaware—Clifton’s place of birth, where much of his family still lived—sent a letter to Lincoln asking for clemency for “our friend and former citizen.” The letter was endorsed by George P. Fisher, a former Delaware congressman and a Lincoln appointee to the federal court in Washington, D.C. “I earnestly recommend the pardon and release of this soldier,” wrote the judge. Under Fisher’s signature Lincoln later added:
The following day Lincoln was shot while taking in a show with his wife at Ford’s Theatre in Washington. He died the next morning.
Shortly after the President’s assassination, the military fulfilled Lincoln’s wishes by issuing an order to release Private Clifton. The sick and weary prisoner walked out of Fort Jefferson on July 3, 1865.
Clifton returned to his home in Burlington to be with his wife and children. He died of what seems to have been a heart attack on September 12, 1901. Shortly after his death, Hannah Clifton applied for a widow’s pension, but because her husband had been dishonorably discharged from the army, her application was rejected.
Jonathan W. White is assistant professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University and author of Abraham Lincoln and Treason in the Civil War: The Trials of John Merryman (Louisiana State University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a study of Union soldiers and the election of 1864.