Such passion for the tiny slices of Civil War history is not unusual. It often starts with a youngster visiting a battlefield or reading a particularly good book. For White, it was a chance visit to a Massachusetts library as a young man in which he read that his ancestor had captured Gen. Robert E. Lee’s eldest son, Maj. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, on April 6, 1865, at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek.
“Wow! How cool is that?” he remembers thinking. But then he discovered someone else had not only received the credit for arresting Custis Lee but had also received the Medal of Honor for it.
White, an informational technology consultant living in Lebanon, N.J., said that from then on he was hooked. He had to settle “this unresolved historical event. Who captured Lee? Who should get the credit?”
There are many reasons for confusion over what exactly happened during the war. Government bureaucracy, political favoritism and human egoism all play a part. Add to that the rush by veterans to get a Medal of Honor in the 1890s, when the already vague rules were relaxed; a soldier could apply for himself and little documentation was needed.
At the time, capturing an enemy flag even at a mass surrender was considered worthy of a Medal of Honor, a creation of Congress during the Civil War. The standards now are much higher and involve “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of [one’s] life above and beyond the call of duty.”
At Sailor’s Creek, 56 medals were approved, eight for “gallantry,” many for seizing a Confederate regimental flag and one for the capture of an enemy general.
All of this played into why White of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry did not get a Medal of Honor and Cpl. Harris S. Hawthorne of the 121st New York Infantry did. Hawthorne applied for and received the medal in 1894. Three years later, colleagues of White protested the Hawthorne medal and applied for White, to no avail. An appeal of that rejection was also turned down.
Although many of the Civil War-era medals would be withdrawn in a 1916 review of the awards process, Hawthorne’s was not.
This Virginia battle, three days before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, is a particularly difficult one to document. It was one of the more vicious battles. Not content with just shooting at the enemy from a distance, Union and Confederate soldiers slugged it out. Rifle stocks were swung as clubs. Knives were stuck in guts. Ears and noses were bitten. Thousands of soldiers were involved.
When the melee was over, the Confederates realized that no matter how good they were at landing a punch, they were still greatly outnumbered. About 8,000 Confederates eventually surrendered, as did eight of their generals, including Custis Lee.
Later on, White would claim that he saw Lee trying to escape from the battlefield and grabbed him, sending him to the rear. Hawthorne would say he saw Lee trying to escape from a group of prisoners, seized him and sent him to the appropriate official.
Chris Calkins, executive director of the state-owned Sailor’s Creek Battlefield, said both could be right.
“It’s like a police arrest and someone is handed over for processing,” he said. “Prisoners were sent to the rear and would pass through a lot of hands.”
In 2008, Frank White published a 300-page book, “Sailor’s Creek: Major General G.W. Custis Lee, Captured With Controversy,” in which he included every scrap of his research. It became the basis of a request for reconsideration of the denial of the Medal of Honor for David White that was submitted to the Army’s War Decorations Board a year ago. The appeal was written by former college history professor and Civil War historian Sharon MacDonald.
She concluded that Hawthorne lied in his application and that the medal should be withdrawn. She hopes that this will be obvious to the board and that they will act on it. As for White, she said she is not advocating for him but thinks that he was unfairly treated and that his case deserves reconsideration.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army Awards and Decorations Branch at Fort Knox, Ky., said the Army cannot comment on pending cases. If that board approves the medal for White, it would be only the first of eight reviews before a final decision is made, including a vote by Congress and approval of the president.
Linda Wheeler blogs about Civil War news, history and events in A House Divided. This story was included in a Washington Post special section, “Civil War 150: Ripples of War.” See more stories on the Civil War.