Abraham Lincoln and the Leg Cases

The Commander-in-Chief

Abraham Lincoln had very little military knowledge when he became Commander-in-Chief.

Lincoln’s Military Experience…

A recreated New Salem.

…was next to nothing in 1861 when he became President. Thirty years earlier, as a young man, he volunteered with some New Salem fellows to fight in the Black Hawk War against some native tribes. It was a mere skirmish. His militia unit saw no enemy, fired no shots in anger, and the entire episode was more like a camp-out with marching drills. It lasted about a month.

But one thing Lincoln learned very quickly as President (and thus Commander-in-Chief), was the importance of military command and obedience to orders. If order is not strictly enforced and maintained, anarchy results, and an army can quickly collapse.

The casualties were overwhelming.

When 75,000 Union volunteers were recruited, the raw soldiers were unused to the rigors of military discipline, and as might be expected, the commanding officers had their challenges. Sometimes harsh punishments were needed to set examples.

Once the Civil War began, Lincoln made a point of borrowing books on military command and strategy from the Library of Congress.

Harsh Penalties

As the War progressed, and the predicted three-month hoo-hah lasted for four years, court martial and similar disciplinary measures were routinely effected. Death penalties were not uncommon.

Lincoln was a kind man, a fact quickly learned to the dismay of military brass. The waiting room of Lincoln’s White House office was packed with family members come to plead with the tender-hearted President to spare the life of their dear one, condemned to death.

Many of those miscreants were little more than teenagers, away from home for the first time. Some, after long days of marching and drilling – and fighting – nodded off on sentry duty: a hanging offense.

The war was far bloodier than anyone expected.

Some of the aforementioned were just plain “skeered” as Lincoln put it. Fear is common to all soldiers. Even the most heroic admit to it. It is a natural response in the face of death. So a lot of them ran away. Some merely to a place of nearby safety. Some actually got lost in the fog of war. Some ran further, as the war went on endlessly.

Some deserted because they got tired of military life. Some were just plain homesick. Some had families who needed them.

Some, however, enlisted for the bounty the government paid to recruits. They got the bounty money, deserted after a month or so, and re-enlisted in another town or state to collect another bounty. A few did that on a regular basis and managed to accumulate a great deal of money.

But if caught and court martialed, they would be shot.

So their loved ones came to Lincoln, some on their knees, begging for the President’s mercy.  He called them his “leg cases.”

The Origin of “Leg Cases”

Hanging was a common punishment for desertion.

Lincoln the great story-teller, occasionally told the yarn of the Irish immigrant soldier caught running from battle, court martialed and sentenced to hang. When he was given a chance to speak on his own behalf, he said, “I ain’t a coward. My heart beats as brave and true as Julius Caesar. It’s me legs, gen’ral. Me legs are the cowardly culprits that run away with me.”

Abraham Lincoln understood the essence of the tale, and referred to the hundreds of legal and military transcripts piled on his desk as his “leg cases.” It is said those documents make up the greatest percentage of Lincoln’s wartime correspondence. It is also said that in private conversation, he was not so sure that he might not be among those leg-case fellows himself.  

Few things pained him more, especially the hundreds of tearful and distraught parents and wives pleading for him to spare their boy.


Early in the War, Lincoln learned that as Commander-in-Chief, he was responsible for the general welfare of the soldiers. As a man, he believed their grievances should be heard out. Lincoln-the-Lawyer also admitted that he tried to find whatever extenuating circumstance he could to pardon or reduce the sentence. Thus, most of the death-sentence punishments were required (by him) to come to his desk for final resolution. 

He tried hard to find some rationale for his well-know mercy and once said of a particular rascal, “I think if he had more than one life, a little hanging wouldn’t hurt him. But after he is dead, we cannot bring him back, no matter how sorry we might be.”

Military brass complained frequently that their discipline was being subverted by the President’s tenderness. Lincoln didn’t quite see how hanging a scared teenager who ran away at Antietam would benefit anyone. 

The Commander-in-Chief was tender-hearted when it came to punishment.

According to Civil War historian William C. Davis, Lincoln once heard rifle shots being fired from across the Potomac, and told an army chaplain, “This is the day they shoot deserters. I am wondering if I am using the presidential pardon as much as I ought.” 

It reached a point that Lincoln issued a blanket order that death sentences for desertion (unless otherwise indicated) be lessened to “hard labor.”  

Outmaneuvering the Generals

Pardons, commutation of sentences, and other mercies made up a good deal of Lincoln’s paperwork.

Benjamin Butler was an accomplished attorney, politician and political General, known for his harsh, no-nonsense treatment for miscreants. He finally sent Lincoln a telegram: “President Lincoln, I pray you not to interfere with the court martials of this Army. You will destroy all discipline among our soldiers.” B.F. Butler.

One of Butler’s soldiers was about to be shot, and his elderly father had come to plead with the President. Lincoln decreed that the fellow was not to be shot until further orders, but the old man was concerned that the President could order his son shot the following week. Lincoln smiled, saying that “if his son waited for those orders to come from me, he would live to be older than Methuselah.”


Davis, William C. – Lincoln’s Men: How President Lincoln Became Father to an Army and a Nation – Free Press, 1999

Donald, David Herbert – Lincoln – Simon and Schuster – 1996

Waugh, John C. – Reelecting Lincoln: The Battle for the 1864 Presidency – Crown Publishing, 1998



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2 Responses to Abraham Lincoln and the Leg Cases

  1. stephen berthold says:

    Lincoln was a great president but during his tenure many treaties were broken with American Indians. Indians were massacred and his response was to turn his back and not to be the least concerned

  2. Stephen berthold says:

    Lincoln was a kind man but also a cruel one. He allowed Sherman to burn Atlanta leaving elderly women and children homeless. I visited governor’s island in NY RECENTLY and rebel prisoners were put in small holding cells where they were cramped elbow to elbow while their officers stayed in neat tidy and spacious cottages.

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