DON’T SHOOT THAT BOY! ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND MILITARY JUSTICE, by Thomas P. Lowry, Savas Publishing Company, 288 pages, $24.95.
“I don’t believe it will make a man any better to shoot him,” Abraham Lincoln once told Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, “while if we keep him alive, we may at least get some work out of him.” Lincoln was nothing if not practical, but his treatment of soldier-convicts was even more a reflection of his compassion.
Thomas P. Lowry’s book on the subject, Don’t Shoot That Boy! Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice, offers no real surprises, yet it is a unique work. Lowry is known for his studies of the seedier sides of Civil War life (Tarnished Eagles and The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell), as well as for his patient research. His latest effort details 500 criminal cases that reached Lincoln’s desk during the Civil War. Convicted and sentenced (often to death) by courts-martial or military commissions, Union deserters, treasonous officers, murderers, Confederate spies, and other hard cases waited anxiously as Lincoln pondered their appeals or pleas for clemency. The author shows how much time the embattled president spent on this unpleasant work, despite the pressure of countless other tasks demanding his attention.
Unfortunately, misspellings and missing words plague Lowry’s text. The author often concludes case summaries by mentioning an event (“That day at Cabin Creek, in Indian Territory . . . .”) happening at the same time elsewhere in the war zone–an admirable attempt to provide context, but awkward and confusing here. Still, Don’t Shoot That Boy! deserves praise for its revealing look at military justice during the Civil War. Its real appeal, though, lies in its original treatment of a subject already written about countless times–Lincoln’s superlative qualities as a human being.
Eric Ethier is a former associate editor of American History. He is now the assistant editor of Civil War Times Illustrated.