- Historic Sites
Lincoln Saves A Reformer
The Navy and contractor Smith accused each other of fraud. The Navy won—until the President took a hand
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
The way of the reformer is hard. The way ofthat idealistic David who slings his polished stones at the Goliath of military bureaucracy is trebly hard. He needs a firm heart and strong friends. Franklin W. Smith, the principal in a celebrated naval court-martial during the Civil War, found one such just and farseeing advocate in Abraham Lincoln.
Without the President’s help Smith would have lost everything—business, fortune, reputation, health, freedom itself. Even with Lincoln’s last-moment intervention, he went through a prolonged agony that would have utterly overwhelmed a less dedicated idealist. It is disquieting to note, too, that if Lincoln had not acted when he did, Smith’s unjust sentence might have been executed. For this was probably Lincoln’s last act of personal justice; he was assassinated less than four weeks later.
Smith’s difficulties began on the morning of Bunker Hill Day, June 17, 1864. Across the harbor Charlestown was noisily celebrating the famous battle for freedom, but Boston was quiet. The stores were closed. Through the half-deserted streets marched squads of the ißth Veteran Reserves. With no warning and no warrant except a telegraphed order from the Secretary of the Navy, they seized Smith, a prominent young merchant and Sunday-school superintendent. Giving him no chance to see his ailing wife or even to put on adequate clothing, they dragged him to a waiting tug and carried him across the harbor, chill in a blustery east wind, to Fort Warren on bleak Georges Island.
Meanwhile other soldiers and marines were battering through the door of his hardware store, ransacking his office, and, with the help of a locksmith, forcing his safe. Shortly afterward, still with no warrant, they roughly invaded his home on Shawmut Avenue. They searched it thoroughly, even breaking open the locked drawers in the desk in his bedroom and confiscating his own and his wife’s most intimate family letters. This rude invasion, intensely embarrassing to Mrs. Smith, who was pregnant, was the first notice she or Smith’s aged parents had of his arrest. In the afternoon of the same day, Franklin Smith’s older brother and partner, Benjamin, was arrested in similar manner at his home in Cambridge. At Fort Warren, where both were lodged, only the humanity of the commandant, who invited them to his own lodgings, kept these men of high reputation from being herded in with Rebel prisoners and hardened malefactors.
The following days brought more examples of official severity. Smith’s clerks were arrested as they came to work next morning, and though they were released after questioning, the store was kept under military guard. Since all the business books and papers had been taken, the prosperous firm of Smith Brothers and Company, the fruit of twenty years’ hard work, had to close its doors. When Smith’s family and friends tried to provide bail for him, they were told at first that no bail would be accepted. Then no one in Boston could be found with authority to take bail. Finally bail was set—at the outrageously high sum of $500,000. Yet so solid was Smith’s reputation among Boston merchants that this huge amount and more—in all, about a million dollars—was pledged within two days. Still Smith was held incommunicado, denied counsel, his every letter censored. On June 23 almost the whole Massachusetts delegation to Congress called in a body on Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and offered to be personally responsible for Smith’s appearance in court. But it was not until July i, fourteen days after his arrest, that Smith was finally released. Still no specific charges had been lodged, but the bail had by this time been reduced to twenty thousand dollars.
Smith’s troubles had just begun. The pretense for his arrest had been a vague allegation of “fraud upon the United States” in connection with contracts for naval hardware and “wilful neglect of duty as a contractor” with the Navy Department. But instead of being remanded for civil trial in United States federal court, Smith, though a civilian, was ordered to report for criminal trial to a naval general court-martial sitting in Philadelphia, far away from his home, his witnesses, his means of defense. Again the Massachusetts senators and representatives stepped in. Obtaining no satisfaction from Secretary Welles, they appealed over his head to President Lincoln. When Lincoln read the memorial that Senator Charles Sumner had drawn up and the others had signed, and when he had looked over the testimonial to Smith’s business integrity, subscribed to by ninety prominent merchants of the Boston area, he proposed to quash the whole case.
“I believe a great injustice is being done to that man,” said the President (according to a secondhand account published long afterward in the Boston Herald ), “and I will put a stop to it at once.”
“Mr. President,” said Senator Sumner (or Senator Henry Wilson—accounts differ), “we trust you will do nothing of the sort. To do that would be to leave a stigma on a good man’s name. Smith Brothers want it never to be said that this charge was fixed up through influence. They challenge the fight but want protection against a conspiracy and a court chosen by their enemies. We only come to ask you that when the court convicts, as it is evident it means to do, you will personally review the case.”
Lincoln agreed. “If I find that men have been pursuing the Smiths,” he added, “I will lay my long hand upon them, no matter who they are.”