The Army’s top political appointee has directed the service to launch a rare additional review in a case for the nation’s highest award for combat valor, the Medal of Honor, after the Defense Department inspector general’s office found errors in how the case was handled the first time.
Army Secretary Mark T. Esper directed a panel known as the Senior Army Decorations Board to again review the case of a Cpl. David D. White, a Civil War soldier with the 37th Massachusetts Regiment. Esper did not specify why but wrote in a Dec. 18 letter to Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) that he wanted to ensure that “all relevant documentation is examined” in the case.
Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman, said in an email that Esper “has directed the nomination be reviewed once more as an act of prudence.”
Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the inspector general’s office, said that based on the watchdog’s review, “it appeared that relevant documents were not provided to the Army Decorations Board.”
The directive comes after years of back-and-forth between the Army and White’s family, which submitted a Medal of Honor nomination on his behalf in July 2011. The family has accused Army officials of mishandling the case and being unwilling to admit they were wrong after the fact.
The military continues to face allegations that it has not appropriately recognized the heroism of all U.S. troops who served with valor. Several posthumous Medals of Honor have been awarded in recent years for actions from the Civil War through the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon is in the process of reviewing the cases of several modern veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
White’s colleagues credited him with capturing Maj. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee, the oldest son of Gen. Robert E. Lee, on April 6, 1865, during the Battle of Sailor’s Creek near Farmville, Va. But another soldier in the area at the same time, Cpl. Harris S. Hawthorne of the 121st New York Infantry, ultimately received a Medal of Honor for that action instead, prompting a protest among White’s fellow soldiers in the 1890s that was denied by the Army.
White’s great-great-grandson, Frank E. White of Clinton, N.J., submitted a nomination for his ancestor to receive the Medal of Honor. Army documents show that the Army Decorations Board recommended within days that White receive the Medal of Honor. The case was then forwarded to the higher-ranking Senior Army Decorations Board, which typically includes two Army generals and the top enlisted soldier as voting members and a Medal of Honor recipient in an advisory role.
The review fizzled with the senior board, prompting members of Congress from New Jersey and Massachusetts — the homes of Frank White and his ancestor, respectively — to press the Army to give the case a full look.
In a July 2014 letter, a delegation that included Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Edward Markey, Rep. Richard Neal, Rep. Niki Tsongas (all D.-Mass.) and Lance recommended that White receive the Medal of Honor and credited him with breaking through enemy lines to pursue Custis Lee after a fellow Union soldier was severely wounded while attempting to capture him. The general initially refused to surrender to White, who was then a private, but did so when White aimed a rifle at him.
“Private White’s capture of Major General Curtis Lee contributed to the disruption of the enemy command structure, helped to impede the ability of enemy leaders to coordinate effective resistance, and brought an earlier conclusion to the fighting,” said the narrative sent by the lawmakers. “Major General Lee, new to battle and without orders to surrender, had kept his division in the fight.”
The Senior Army Decorations Board voted in 2014 to return the recommendation without voting, and instead requested the Medal of Honor documentation for Hawthorne. Then it decided in April 2015 to deny White’s Medal of Honor outright.
Frank White said an Army contractor assigned to the case initially told him that his submission had to focus exclusively on the merits of his ancestor’s case, rather than including context about Hawthorne.
That prompted frustration when the Senior Army Decorations Board sought out documents about Hawthorne from the National Archives, but did not review the evidence the family included in the initial submission. After the denial in 2015, the White family asked the Defense Department inspector general’s office to review the case.
“He basically mandated that we strip out about half of the material that we had,” the younger White said of the contractor assigned to their case. “We’re hoping, naturally, that they will approve a Medal of Honor after looking at the evidence.”
The case is complicated by the evolving standards for the Medal of Honor. In modern times, it has become extremely rare, recognizing only those who distinguish themselves with “conspicuous gallantry” while in battle with an enemy of the United States.
White said that his great-great-grandfather settled into farm life in rural Hawley, Mass., after the war, and did not seek recognition. But in the years after the war, Hawthorne applied for the Medal of Honor, an action that was possible at the time, according to the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.
The original nomination package that the White family submitted concluded that Hawthorne lied about taking Custis Lee captive, but Frank White said he now thinks it as possible that both men could have had the general in their control at some point in the battle.
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