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Abraham Lincoln explains why he can’t fire a treasonous officer.
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“The appeal must be made, if at all, to the Governor.”

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Autograph Letter Signed as President (“A. Lincoln”), December 28, 1861, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., to Henry Liebenau, Esq. 1 page, 5 x 8 in.

Inventory #24189       Price: $22,000

Complete Transcript

                                      Executive Mansion

                                      Washington, D.C.

                                      Dec. 28, 1861

Henry Liebenau, Esq.

My dear Sir:

            Your private letter in regard to Mr. “Burtnete” is received.

I have no power to remove a Lieut Colonel appointed by the Governor of New-York. The appeal must be made, if at all, to the Governor.

                                                            Yours &c,

                                                            A. Lincoln.

Historical Background

John W. Latson, a New York attorney, began raising a regiment in April 1861.  In July, he received permission from the War Department to recruit a regiment of artillery, but his authority was revoked a month later and his recruits were consolidated with another regiment to form the 2d New York Heavy Artillery.  Latson’s troubles may have stemmed from his practice of securing uniforms for his men without paying a local merchant, claiming the authority of the federal government for doing so.  The merchant reported Latson’s actions to a justice, who had Latson arrested. He posted $500 in bail,[1] but was soon arrested again, charged with false imprisonment.  After being in jail for a week, Latson made a motion to discharge the case because his accuser, Henry Farrington, was a recruit and subject to military discipline.  The court granted the discharge and released Latson.[2]

After his release, Latson learned that Daniel H. Burtnett, who claimed to be “Major Commanding the Coast Brigade at Fortress Monroe,” had “ingratiated himself with the officers of Col. Latson’s Staff, and stirred up the difficulties with a view of superseding Col. L. in command.” Latson also learned that Burtnett had carried on a secret correspondence with P.G.T. Beauregard through the Confederate General’s sister, who lived in New York, and had communicated with Confederates from Fortress Monroe by a “secret telegraphic wire” that he had helped to lay.[3]

On September 6, 1861, Latson went to attorney William T. Birdsall’s office to make out an affidavit charging Burtnett with treason. Burtnett and several other officers reportedly entered the office, confronted Latson with a loaded pistol to his head, and left with Latson’s affidavit.  After Latson and Birdsall reported the incident to a justice of the peace, Burtnett and the others were arrested, but the court discharged them on their promising to return for a hearing.[4]

On November 2, their attorney denied the charges and filed a motion to discharge, claiming the application of an 1858 New York law that “no person belonging to the military forces shall be arrested on any civil process while going to, remaining at or returning from any place at which he may be required to attend, for the election of officers or other military duty.”  The Court held that the defendants were exempt and discharged them.[5]

Liebenau’s letter to Lincoln may have been an effort to have Burtnett discharged so he could not claim immunity based on military duty.

Accompanied by Special Order No. 49 from the Headquarters of the Seventh Regiment, National Guard, detailing companies to attend the funeral of Thomas H. Higginbotham.  Signed in print by Adjutant Joseph Henry Liebenau (1832-1878), Henry Liebenau’s nephew and foster son.

Henry Liebenau (1803-c1889). Born in New York, Liebenau was a portrait artist and inspector at the customs house in New York City.  As early as 1847, he advertised to paint or embroider military flags and banners.  In 1861, he helped Congressman Daniel E. Sickles raise a brigade.  In August 1861, he applied to the Secretary of War for appointment as a paymaster in the army, and in October sought Lincoln’s support for his application.  In November 1861, he asked Lincoln to appoint him as collector at the port of Beaufort, South Carolina.  After the war, Liebenau served as the corresponding secretary for the Constitutional Union Association, a conservative organization that supported President Andrew Johnson in his battles with Congressional Republicans.  He sought reappointment to the customs house in 1868, but Johnson did not appoint him.  He served as an Inspector of Markets for the city in 1867.[6]

Daniel Henry Burtnett (or Burtnete). Born in New York. On October 7, 1861, Burtnett was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in the New York 2d Heavy Artillery, but was dismissed on December 9th.  In April 1862, Burtnett received appointment as a major and additional aide-de-camp on General John C. Fremont’s staff.  He was dismissed from the service on October 19, 1862, for absence without leave, breach of arrest, and conduct unbecoming an officer.  In November 1863, Burtnett was found guilty of “keeping a bawdy house” in Washington, D.C. and sentenced to one month in jail and a $500 fine or six months in jail.  Burtnett sent a ten-page letter to Lincoln, protesting his innocence in taking a room at what turned out to be a house of prostitution.  On February 10, 1864, Congressman Francis Thomas of Maryland wrote to Lincoln, requesting Burtnett’s pardon.  Thomas was convinced that “a merciful exercise of the pardoning power, in Burtnets case, would, in restoring to society a reformed man, be, in no respect, detrimental to the cause of morality.” Lincoln pardoned Burtnett on February 11, after he had served just over three months of his sentence.[7]

John W. Latson (1815-1864) was an attorney in New York City from at least 1847 to 1861. Latson ran for Congress in the Seventh District in 1860, as a representative of the Minute Man party.[8]

Published in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 5:81.  Relying on a faulty transcription from Gilbert Tracy’s Uncollected Letters of Abraham Lincoln (1917), Roy P. Basler and the editors of the Collected Work could not correctly identify either Liebenau or Burtnett.  Tracy had mis-transcribed both tough-to-spell names.

[1] New-York Daily Tribune, 29 April 1861, 1:1; New York Times, 27 August 1861.

[2] New York Times, 6 September 1861.

[3] New York Times, 7 September 1861.

[4] The New York Herald, 7 September 1861, 8:6.

[5] The New York Herald, 5 November 1861, 4:6; New York Times, 8 October 1861, 4 November 1861.

[6] The Evening Post (New York), 8 September 1824, 3, 9 September 1824, 3, 11 April 1834, 2, 7 June 1836, 3; The New-York City and Co-Partnership Directory, for 1843 & 1844 (New-York: John Doggett Jr., 1843), 206; Register of Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval, in the Service of the United States on the Thirtieth September, 1861 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1862), 56; The Golden Rule and Odd-Fellows’ Family Companion (New York), 19 June 1847, 415:1; Paul H. Bergeron, ed., Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 12, February—August 1867 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 39-40; Paul H. Bergeron, ed., Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 13, September 1867—March 1868 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996), 535-37, 653-55; Paul H. Bergeron, ed., Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 14, April—August 1868 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 210-11, 333-35; Paul H. Bergeron, ed., Papers of Andrew Johnson, Vol. 15, September 1868—April 1869 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 499-500; John Hardy, comp., Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (New York, 1871), 86; U.S. Census Bureau, Tenth Census of the United States (1870),  New York, NY, Ward 12, District 1, 22; Henry Liebenau to Abraham Lincoln, 17 October 1861, RG 107, Entry 259: Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, Records of the Chief Clerk (1800-1931) and the Administrative Assistant (1931-47), Records Relating to Personnel, General Records, 1816-1899, Applications, Applications for Civilian Appointments and Regular Army Commissions, 1847-1887,  National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

[7] Francis Thomas to Abraham Lincoln, 10 February 1864, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress; Pardon of D. Henry Burtnete, 11 February 1864, Record Group 59, Entry 897: General Records of the Department of State, Appointment Records, General Pardon Records, Pardons and Remissions, National Archives College Park, College Park, MD.

[8] New York Herald, 22 October 1860, 1:4; U.S. Census Bureau, Eighth Census of the United States (1860), Ulster, Lloyd County, New York, 181.

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