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Civil War Tore Apart the Federal Judiciary Too
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Vignettes of 19 jurists with ties to both the Civil War and the judicial circuit that encompasses Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.
As the United States marks the 150-year anniversary of the start of the Civil War that so tested our nation, it must be noted that the long and bloody fight had a similar effect on the federal court system and its judges—a tearing at the very fabric of American justice.
"The national judiciary had never faced a crisis of such magnitude," wrote author Mark Lerner in his 2006 book, This Honorable Court. "Judges had to deal with potential treason, tensions between civil liberties and national defense, and the legal implications of federal military measures."
His book states that the broad wartime powers employed by President Abraham Lincoln's administration forced a significant change to the role of the federal courts: "The Civil War bench was less concerned with relationships with state law and authority than earlier courts. Its focus was chiefly national."
Many future judges saw military duty during the war, on both sides. Many judges resigned from their lifetime appointments and joined the judiciary of the Confederate States of America. Others became judges under extraordinary circumstances. Here are some of their personal stories:
U.S. District Judge Andrew Magrath, District of South Carolina
U.S. District Judge Andrew Magrath
Photo Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina
Appointed by President Franklin Pierce in 1856, Magrath addressed a meeting of a grand jury on November 6, 1860—the day Lincoln was elected. He waited until the end of the jury's work to make a personal announcement.
"Feeling an assurance of what will be the action of the state, I consider it my duty, without delay, to prepare to obey its wishes," he said, according to William Robinson Jr.'s 1941 book, Justice in Grey. "That preparation is made by the resignation of the office which I have held. For the last time, I have, as a judge of the United States, administered the laws of the United States within the limits of the state of South Carolina."
With that, Magrath tore off his robe and left the bench. Many who were present in his courtroom wept. Six weeks later, South Carolina seceded from the Union and declared its national independence.
Magrath subsequently served during the war as a judge in the District of South Carolina for the Confederate States of America and then as South Carolina's governor. After the war, he practiced law in Charleston, from 1865 to 1893.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Boynton, Southern District of Florida
U.S. District Judge Thomas Boynton
When Florida seceded in early 1861, the city of Key West—at the southern tip of the Confederacy—remained a Unionist stronghold. U.S. District Judge William Marvin, a New York native, presided until his 1863 resignation despite many suspicions that he harbored Southern sympathies.
In From Local Courts to National Tribunals, authors Kermit Hall and Eric Rise tell how replacing Marvin presented Lincoln with a distinct problem. His first two appointees to the job never arrived in Key West to hold court. On October 13, 1863, Thomas Boynton, the local district attorney, wrote to Washington and urged that the Southern District backlog of cases be eased by letting a Northern District of Florida judge preside over them.
Soon thereafter, Boynton received a recess appointment to the job from Lincoln. The President nominated Boynton to the same position in early 1864, and he was confirmed by the Senate. He was 25 when his bench service began, and he remains the youngest person ever appointed to an Article III judgeship. He served until 1870, when he resigned in poor health.
U.S. District Judge West Humphreys, Western, Middle, and Eastern Districts of Tennessee
U.S. District Judge West Humphreys
The Eastern and Western Districts were created by Congress in 1802, but one judge presided over both. When the Middle District was added in 1839, one judge presided over all three. It stayed that way through the Civil War, and a second federal judge wasn't appointed for Tennessee until 1878.
Humphreys, appointed to his three-district duties by President Pierce in 1853, pledged his allegiance to Tennessee and became a judge for the Confederate States in 1861, but refused to surrender his U.S. court commission. He was impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate in 1862, ending his U.S. judicial service.
After serving as a Confederate judge for four years, Humphreys took the oath of allegiance to the United States after the war and received a pardon from President Johnson. He practiced law in Nashville until 1882 and became a crusading champion of temperance.
U.S. District Judge Richard Field, District of New Jersey
A strong supporter of Lincoln and the Lincoln administration when appointed to the federal bench in 1863, Field wasted little time in establishing that he would not flinch from hearing cases against antiwar dissidents.
"For the last two years, we have been engaged in a war, which, whether we consider its character, its causes, or the consequences which are likely to flow from it, cannot but be regarded as one of the most remarkable that the world has ever witnessed," he stated in open court while making a charge to a grand jury. "This war must be prosecuted with vigor until the authority of the Government is respected and obeyed over every foot of territory belonging to the United States, or we must submit to ruinous and ignominious peace."
But U.S. prosecutors did not win all their cases. Author Lerner states, "The record indicates that all trials followed due process: defendants had counsel, rules of proceeding were as usual, and the judge exerted no pressure for particular verdicts. As eager as he was to promote support for the war effort, Field evidently did nothing overt to subvert the judicial process… However furious he was with those who opposed the war effort, Field never allowed anger or passion to overcome a commitment to the law or at least a grudging regard for civil liberties."
Sixth Circuit Display: "They Were Soldiers Once . . ."
Eli Shelby Hammond, a lieutenant and adjutant in the 14th Tennessee Cavalry, served as a general's aide until he was captured and interned in a Union prison. Hammond was released after seven months as part of a prisoner exchange, and returned to fight for the Confederate Army until the end of the war.
Thirteen years after the war, in 1878, he was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, where he served until his death in 1904.
The details of Hammond's war service is one of 19 vignettes of jurists with ties to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit on display at federal courthouses throughout the judicial circuit, which today encompasses Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio.
The display, created by Circuit Historian Rita Wallace and librarians throughout the circuit, features biographies of judges who served the North and the South.
"It was a collaborative effort to give the public a look into our court in this Civil War anniversary year," Wallace said. The display can be seen in courthouses in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Columbus, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga.
Charles Clark was a private in the 8th Tennessee Cavalry from 1862 to 1865, 30 years before being appointed as a district judge in Tennessee; Albert Thompson was a captain in the 8th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry from 1861 to 1863, 35 years before his appointment to the Southern District of Ohio; and William Hays served as a lieutenant colonel in the 10th Kentucky Infantry for most of the war before joining the federal bench in 1879 as a district judge in his home state.
Hays took command of his regiment when Colonel John Marshall Harlan—who in 1877 became a U.S. Supreme Court justice and shortly thereafter a circuit justice for the 6th Circuit—resigned in 1863.
Justice John Marshall Harlan
Harlan, one of three future Supreme Court justices/circuit justices for the 6th Circuit to see Civil War action before his judicial career, led his regiment in protecting the Louisville and Nashville Railroad from John Hunt Morgan's irregular cavalry, known as Morgan's Raiders. The Raiders became infamous in the North for wreaking havoc from Nashville to the Upper Ohio Valley, sabotaging Union railroads, bridges, and communications stations.
One of the Raiders was Horace Lurton, who in 1893 was appointed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and in 1910 became a U.S. Supreme Court justice. For a year, he served on the nation's highest court alongside Harlan.
Lurton had been imprisoned twice before escaping from his confinement in Columbus, Ohio, and joining up with Morgan's Raiders. He sold a watch his father had given him to purchase the required horse.
Supreme Court Justice and 6th Circuit Justice Stanley Matthews (1881–1889) once served for two years as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His tent mate was a future U.S. President, Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes.
These men are among the thousands of men and women who have served the federal Judiciary and helped make it a model for court systems worldwide. In the preface to Justice in Grey, Robinson 70 years ago wrote, "In no other country of the world has the judicial branch of government been entrusted with such power as in America. Its influence, protecting and prohibiting, extends into every field of national life; upon the pages of its records are written stories of peace and war, of industry and commerce, of individual behavior and collective order—stories comic and tragic, dramatic and melodramatic—as well as the cold logic of the law."
The Civil War itself provided dramatic stories of the federal courts and those who served them.
Artwork by: Neil Reed, Sixth Circuit Library.