Lincoln’s Forgotten Defender: A Tough Regular Army Officer Backed the President’s Controversial Suspension of Habeas Corpus
Career U.S. Army soldier William Walton Morris is the epitome of the statement that “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” as he faded so completely away after his 1865 death that he has been ignored and overlooked for more than 150 years. Mere fragments of his existence remain: a scattered array of war documents and newspaper clips; a list of combat engagements and garrisons in a West Point alumni register; and his image, captured in a handful of cartes de visite that he himself had commissioned. But a close look at that slim evidence reveals an impressive portrait of a man who devoted 45 years to the U.S. military, the four most important of which were during the Civil War. Indeed, this much-forgotten soldier would turn out to be among the earliest public defenders of Abraham Lincoln’s controversial suspension of habeas corpus.
Morris was born in 1801 in Ballston Springs, N.Y., the grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Lewis Morris. At age 14 he entered West Point and, in 1820, graduated from the academy last out of 30 cadets. Morris, however, would prove that class rank didn’t make the soldier. When he left West Point as a second lieutenant in the 6th Infantry, he dove right into action. In his first three years, he pulled duty on the Iowa frontier, seeing combat in an obscure action known as the “Attack on the Indian Towns.” In 1836 Morris became a captain in the 4th Artillery and saw service in the Second Seminole War. Within a year he became a brevet major thanks to his “Gallant Conduct on Several Occasions, and General Efficiency in the War against the Florida Indians.”
During the war with Mexico, Morris saw fighting at the Battles of Palo Alto and Resaca-de-la-Palma and participated in the military occupation of Texas. The latter experience made him an ideal candidate for his most significant assignment. On April 25, 1861, Major Morris took command of the harbor defenses at Fort McHenry in the pro-Southern city of Baltimore.
The country was in a bad way when Morris arrived at his new post. President Lincoln had faced a crisis of epic proportions from the moment he took the oath of office, one Southern state after another was peeling away from the Union.
Morris took his post at Fort McHenry after the country’s situation had begun to rapidly deteriorate. On April 12 Rebel batteries in Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter; three days later, the president issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 troops to protect the Union capital; and on the afternoon of April 19, the first drilled and equipped soldiers to answer this call came under attack in the streets of Baltimore.
Passing through the city on their way to Washington, 700 men of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia had to switch trains and march between the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore (PW&B) Railroad’s President Street station and the Baltimore & Ohio’s Camden depot. In the process, hundreds of furious Southern sympathizers unleashed a brutal assault, leaving four troops and 12 civilians dead and scores more wounded and maimed.
Early the next morning, Baltimoreans burned bridges on the Northern Central and PW&B railroads, and cut telegraph wires, severing communications and land travel between the Northern states and Washington. When Morris got to Baltimore, the city’s pro-Southern leadership was arming for war against the North. Fort McHenry was the lone Federal stronghold in the middle of it all.
Not until Brig. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s 8th Massachusetts seized Annapolis on April 21 could Northern troops bypass Baltimore. Even with Butler’s alternate path, the transit of South-bound soldiers had slowed to a crawl, placing the already besieged Union capital in greater danger.
Lincoln doubtless felt the pressure and on April 27 took drastic measures to secure Butler’s crucial transportation route. In a letter to Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, the president reluctantly authorized officers along the line between Philadelphia and Washington to suspend habeas corpus at their discretion. The removal of this age-old safeguard against unlawful imprisonment gave military officials limitless police powers. Furthermore, it effectively nullified the jurisdiction of civilian courts, state and federal.
A clash between military and civilian authorities was inevitable, the best-known instance being the standoff between Maj. Gen. George Cadwalader, the commander of Union-occupied Maryland, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney. The confrontation resulted in Taney’s landmark Ex Parte Merryman decision, in which the chief justice stridently denounced Lincoln for having exceeded his authority in suspending habeas corpus.
President Lincoln faced a crisis of epic proportions
Taney argued that the power of suspension belonged to Congress, and technically he was correct. Yet, despite its unquestionable legal acumen, the chief justice’s opinion ignored the swiftly ongoing national catastrophe and, more specifically, the perilous conditions in Baltimore. As Lincoln explained in his July 4 message to Congress, because “the provision [for the suspension of habeas corpus] was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it cannot be believed the framers…intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together; the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.”
Notwithstanding the country’s obvious state of emergency, Lincoln’s reasoning fell mainly on deaf ears from the day he authorized the suspension. He had his detractors both North and South. For many, the Constitution’s provisions were etched in stone, regardless of external circumstances or consequences—a fundamentally impractical, if not self-destructive position.
But if historians peer into the shadows cast by the celebrated Merryman ruling, they’ll find arguably the earliest and best public defense of Lincoln’s decision. It came more than two weeks prior to Taney’s opinion, not from a famed politician or an esteemed legal scholar, but rather an unassuming Army officer who had graduated last in his class from West Point.
The incident began when John Mullan joined the Union Army in April. While at Fort McHenry, a dispute arose over whether the newly recruited private was under age and therefore not subject to the terms of his enlistment. Major Morris believed he was obligated to serve and refused to discharge him. Petitioned by Mullan’s father, who insisted that he never gave his son permission to enlist, federal Judge William Giles issued a writ of habeas corpus for the major to produce the recruit in district court. But Morris quickly snubbed the order, saying that he “did not feel safe in coming to the city among a hostile people.” Besides, he added, the administration had suspended the writ of habeas corpus between Philadelphia and Washington.
Giles had no idea who he was dealing with. The leather-tough officer had seen enough of war’s ugly necessities to know that Giles was out of his realm. And so in his May 7 response to the judge, Morris provided a lucid reminder of why Lincoln had authorized the suspension in the first place:
At the date of issuing your writ…, the city in which you live, and where your court has been held, was entirely under the control of revolutionary authorities. Within that period United States soldiers, while committing no offense, had been perfidiously attacked and inhumanly murdered in your streets; no punishment had been awarded, and I believe no arrests had been made for these atrocious crimes. Supplies of provisions intended for this garrison had been stopped, the intention to capture this fort had been boldly proclaimed, [and] your most public thoroughfares…daily patrolled by large numbers of troops, armed and clothed…with articles stolen from the United States….To add to the foregoing, an assemblage elected in defiance of law, but claiming to be the legislative body of your State…was debating the Federal compact. If all this be not rebellion, I know not what to call it. I certainly regard it as a sufficient legal cause for suspending the writ of habeas corpus….In any condition of affairs, except that of civil war, I would cheerfully obey your order, and as soon as the present excitement shall pass away, I will hold myself ready, not only to produce the soldier, but also to appear in person to answer for my conduct; but in the existing state of sentiment in the city of Baltimore I think it your duty to sustain the Federal military and to strengthen their laws, instead of endeavoring to strike them down.
The words poured from his pen, unmistakably clear. Still, Giles would not concede, issuing a second writ, this time for Morris to stand before him to explain why he shouldn’t face arrest for disobeying the original order. Again, he failed to appear; however, presumably after prying the truth out of his young recruit, Morris, by then a lieutenant colonel, determined that Mullan was in fact under age and released him to Giles.
All the same, Morris had authored a remarkable, brilliant defense of Lincoln’s actions. This humble officer had managed to say more in a single hand-written letter than eminent legal experts had in dense, pontifical pamphlets like Horace Binney’s The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus Under the Constitution (1862).
Of course, his skillful justification of Lincoln’s decision wasn’t his sole contribution to the war effort. From 1861 to 1865, Baltimore was the North’s principal point of occupation. The loss of so critical a railroad hub at any time would have left Washington surrounded by the Confederacy. Morris played a key role in preventing this from happening.
A hands-on officer, he helped run occupied Baltimore for the duration of the war. On December 11, 1865, he died while on active duty at Fort McHenry. On April 16, 1866, President Andrew Johnson posthumously promoted Morris to the rank of brevet major general for “Faithful and Meritorious Services during the Rebellion.” The Senate confirmed the rank the next month, which was made retroactive to December 10, 1865, the day before the old soldier’s death.
Michael Williams writes from Glen Arm, Md. When he’s not writing about military history and firearms, he enjoys hunting and long-range shooting.
‘Poor Old Nick’
The north’s first casualty was a former slave
Nicholas Biddle, a 65-year-old African American and former slave, shed some of the first blood of the war for the North during the April 18, 1861, Baltimore riots. Biddle was accompanying the Washington Artillery from Pottsville, Pa., as an aide to Captain James Wren, when a brick tossed by the angry mob of Confederate sympathizers knocked him dazed and bloody to the ground.
Biddle had been associated with the Washington Artillery since its inception in 1840, but was not allowed to enlist as a soldier because he was “colored.” He was beloved by his fellow militiamen, however, and they allowed him to wear their uniform—a source of outrage for many of the rioters. Captain Wren would later remember the crowd yelling, “Nigger in uniform!” and said, “Poor old Nick had to take it.”
On April 19, in Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln thanked the men who had arrived to defend the city only four days after he called for 75,000 volunteers. The president learned the Pennsylvanians had been attacked and Biddle, wearing his uniform with his head wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, especially caught Lincoln’s attention. He suggested Biddle seek medical attention, but the battered soldier stoutly refused, saying he preferred to remain with his company.
The Pennsylvanians were the first volunteers to arrive in the District of Columbia and became known as the “First Defenders.” In July 1861, the company mustered out after its three months of service, but many reenlisted. When Wren and his men left Pennsylvania again in September 1861, Biddle stayed behind. He became a local celebrity, and spent the rest of his life performing odd jobs around town and selling copies of a photograph of himself in his bloodied uniform. Unfortunately, he died penniless at the age of 80 in 1876.
The surviving members of the Washington Artillery paid for his funeral and burial. They inscribed upon his tombstone, “In Memory of Nicholas Biddle, Died August 2, 1876, Aged 80 Years. His Was the Proud Distinction of Shedding the First Blood In the Late War For the Union, Being Wounded While Marching Through Baltimore With the First Volunteers From Schuylkill County 18 April 1861. Erected By His Friends in Pottsville.”
Vandals destroyed his original gravestone at Pottsville’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It has since been replaced with a new marker, although it remains overlooked despite Biddle’s significance to history—a sentiment Chaplain James M. Guthrie deftly expressed in his poem titled
“The Grave of Nick Biddle”: The grave of Nick Biddle a Mecca should be To Pilgrims, who seek in this land of the free The tombs of the lowly as well as the great Who struggled for freedom in war of debate; For there lies a brave man distinguished from all In that his veins furnished the first blood to fall…
–Melissa A. Winn