LEE'S COMPASSION FOR A SOLDIER’S DIFFICULT DECISION
A.C. Battle of the Confederate army presided over a court martial of the Army of Northern Virginia. Case after case was disposed of and then the case of Edward Cooper was called; a young artilleryman charged with desertion. The prisoner pleaded not guilty and the judge advocate was beginning for the prosecution when the court interposed to ask the accused who his counsel was.
I have no counsel was the reply. The specifications against him were all sustained by the evidence and he was told to introduce his witnesses. “I have no witnesses,” he answered.
The president of the court astonished at the prisoner's calmness said, “Have you no defense? Is it possible that you abandoned your comrades and deserted your colors without any reason?”
“There was a reason,” said the young man. “But it will not avail me before a military court.”
“You may be mistaken.”
“The prisoner trembled and for the first time tears filled his eyes. He stepped up to Colonel Battle and handed him a letter. “There, Colonel, is what did it.”
The president read the letter and in a moment his eyes too were moist. The paper was passed from hand to hand and soon the whole court was in tears. This was the letter as Colonel Battle read it in the prisoner's defense: “My Dear Edward, I have always been proud of you and since your connection with the Confederate Army I have been prouder of you than ever. I would not have you do anything wrong for the world, but before God, Edward, unless you come home we must die. Last night I was roused by little Eddie crying I called and said, ‘What's the matter, Eddie?’ and he said. ‘O, mamma, I am so hungry.’ I and Lucy, your darling Lucy, she never complains, but she is growing thinner every day and I repeat; unless you come home we must all die, Your Mary.”
“What did you do when you received this letter?” asked Colonel Battle.
“I applied for a furlough.” was the prisoner's answer. “The application was rejected. Again and again I made application and it was rejected. Then one night, as I wandered back and forth in the camp with Lucy's eyes on me and her mother's words burning into my brain. I was no longer the Confederate soldier. I was the father of Lucy and the husband of Mary. And I would have passed those lines if every gun in the battery had fired upon me. I went home. Mary ran out to meet me. Her arms were round me as she whispered, ‘0, Edward, I am so happy. I am so glad you got your furlough.’ She must have felt me shudder. She turned pale as death and catching her breath at every word, ‘0, Edward, Edward, go back, go back. Let me and the children go down to the grave, but save the honor of your name.’ And here I am; not brought here by military power, but in obedience to Mary's command to abide the sentence of your court.”
Moved as the officers of the court martial were, they did their duty as they understood it and each in turn pronounced the same sentenced. Guilty.
Fortunately, the proceedings of the court were reviewed by the commanding general. He endorsed the record thus: Headquarter Army Northern Virginia. The finding of the court is approved. The prisoner is pardoned and will report to his company. RE Lee, General.
Source: The Confederate Veteran Magazine, Volume 3
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