Saturday, May 05, 2012

William Henry Chase Has His Habeas Suspended

You may know that in the beginning months of the Civil War President Lincoln issued a series of directives suspending the writ of habeas corpus.  Most of the suspensions were geographically defined (e.g., "at any point on or in the vicinity of the [any] military line, which is now [or which shall be] used between the City of Philadelphia and the City of Washington, via Perryville, Annapolis City, and Annapolis Junction").

But did you know that one suspension was directed toward a single individual?  On June 20, 1861 Lincoln sent a letter to Gen. Winfield Scott authorizing the suspension of habeas as to one "Major Chase, lately of the Engineer Corps":

To Winfield Scott

State Department, June 20, 1861.

The Lieutenant-General Commanding the Armies of the United States: You or any officer you may designate will, in your discretion, suspend the writ of habeas corpus so far as may relate to Major Chase, lately of the Engineer Corps of the Army of the United States, now alleged to be guilty of treasonable practices against this government.  ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

By the President:


So who was "Major Chase"?  The Lincoln Log identifies him as  "Major William Henry Chase [, who] resigned from the U.S. Army, October 31, 1856.  In 1861 he was commissioned colonel and major general of Florida state troops in the Confederate Army."

Wikipedia has an entry on Chase, although, strangely, it does not mention his unique recognition by the president.  Born in 1798, Chase was 63 years of age at the beginning of 1861.  Wikipedia describes his activities in Florida at the time of that state's secession that presumably resulted in Lincoln's order:

As the outset of Civil War became inevitable in January 1861, Chase sided with the Confederate partisans in Pensacola and was commissioned a colonel in the Florida militia. On January 8, two days before Florida officially seceded from the Union, Florida Governor Madison S. Perry authorized Chase to seize all federal forts in Pensacola. He was active in securing the surrender of the Navy Yard on January 12. On January 15, he and a small party rowed out to Fort Pickens, where Union forces had relocated, to demand surrender from Lieutenant Adam Slemmer. As recounted by J. H. Gilman, Chase said the following to Slemmer:

 "… It is a most distressing duty to me. I have come to ask of you young officers, officers of the same army in which I have spent the best and happiest years of my life, the surrender of this fort. I would not ask it if I did not believe it right and necessary to save bloodshed; and fearing that I might not be able to say it as I ought, and in order, also, that you may have it in proper form, I have put it in writing and will read it." He then took the manuscript from his pocket and began to read, but, after reading a few lines, his voice shook, and his eyes filled with tears. He stamped his foot, as if ashamed of exhibiting such weakness, and said, "I can't read it. Here, Farrand, you read it."

After the demand for surrender was read, Slemmer and Chase discussed what chance of success the 800 Confederate troops would have in seizing Pickens by force. Chase insisted that a defense would be futile:

"I could carry it by storm. I know every inch of this fort and its condition. … If you have made the best possible preparations, as I suppose you have, and should defend it, as I presume you would, I might lose one-half of my men. … You must know very well that, with your small force, you are not expected to, and cannot, hold this fort. Florida cannot permit it, and the troops here are determined to have it; and if not surrendered peaceably, an attack and the inauguration of civil war cannot be prevented. If it is a question of numbers, and eight hundred is not enough, I can easily bring thousands more."

Slemmer refused to surrender and held the fort until reinforcements could arrive. Pickens remained under Union control throughout the war.

Chase was promoted to brigadier general and later major general of the Florida forces, but due to his age and health, he had little active role in the war.

He died at his home at the southwest corner of Palafox and Wright Streets (now the site of Episcopal Day School) on February 8, 1870.
 In Justice in Blue and Gray: A Legal History of the Civil War, Stephen C. Neff observes that Chase "thereby obtained whatever degree of immortality a footnote is capable of conferring."

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