Lincoln on Mercy


I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.

Abraham Lincoln

Running down the origin of this quote was a lot of fun.  It sounded like something that Abraham Lincoln would have said, but I had difficulty finding a source for it.  It is cited all over the internet, but no reference is given other than a speech in 1865, and such a lack of citation is often the sign of a spurious quote.  After some searching I found it.  It is sourced in a conversation that Joseph Gillespie had with Abraham Lincoln.  Gillespie was a fellow member with Lincoln of the Illinois General Assembly.  With Lincoln he helped found the Republican party in Illinois.  Elected a circuit court judge in 1861, he helped set up the Illinois Appellate Court.

During a visit to Washington in Spring of 1864, Gillespie met with Lincoln and,  among other subjects they discussed, Lincoln mentioned the problem of captured paroled Confederate troops who were found in arms before they had properly been exchanged:

These men are liable to be put to death when recaptured for breach of parole.  If we do not do something of that sort, this outrage will be repeated on every occasion…It is indeed a serious question, and I have been more sorely tried by it than any other that has occurred during the war.  It will be an act of great injustice to our soldiers to allow the paroled rebels to be put into the field without exchange.  Such a practice would demoralize almost any army in the world if played off upon them.  It would be nearly impossible to induce them to spare the lives of prisoners they might capture.  On the other hand, these men were no doubt told by their superiors that they had been exchanged and it would be hard to put them to death under any circumstances.  On the whole, my impression is that mercy bears richer fruits than any other attribute.

This was contained in a letter dated January 31, 1866 that Gillespie wrote to Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, who was gathering together recollections of Lincoln for his planned biography of Lincoln.  In a letter to the Saint Louis Republican, Gillespie recalled the final sentence in its present form.

In a last visit with Lincoln just prior to the end of the War, Gillespie recalled Lincoln, on the topic of what was to be done with former Confederates, said this:

Well some people think their heads ought to come off, but there are too many of them for that, and for one, I would not know where to draw the line between those whose heads, it might be said, ought to come off or stay on. 

Lincoln then cited the incident from the Old Testament where David pardoned Shimei, saying, “Shall there any man be put to death this day in Israel?

Share With Friends
  • 8

Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Too bad that mercy quote wasn’t in an earlier letter he could have sent to General Sherman. Reading it again makes me also think this arguments appears to be similar to the thinking behind the Gitmo as a prison creation.

  2. “Too bad that mercy quote wasn’t in an earlier letter he could have sent to General Sherman.”

    Lincoln in his conference with Grant and Sherman near the end of the War, when asked what sort of terms they should give, were told by Lincoln that he would suggest “letting them up easy” in regard to surrendering Confederate armies. Sherman gave such generous terms to Joe Johnston, that his terms were repudiated by President Johnson.

  3. I think it’s true that LIncoln, having engaged in total war, without mercy or concern for what Catholics call jus in bello, was prepared, when victory was apparent, to be merciful as a pragmatic matter, understanding that politically it is far better to foster reconciliation than exact vengeance.
    He was very prepared to be merciless when he deemed it required of him, as in his treatment of journalists and state legislators and others who opposed his policy of invasion of the south. Or as in his treatment of the Sioux Indians, recounted here:
    He was a mere man, after all, not a god, nor even a saint. He was willing to do whatever it took to accomplish his goal, without regard for the means. Victors write the history, and people generally liked or acquiesced in the goal, so much is forgiven or forgotten.

  4. The South was fully destroyed in 1865 and as completely (adjusting for 19th century technology/weaponry) wrecked as were Germany and Japan in 1945. Both sides proved themselves to be willing to “bear any burden and pay any price.” Each side would accept nothing less than total independence or return to the United States/unconditional surrender. As was preordained, even before Sumter, eventually the South was rendered critically deficient in arms, men and ground.
    Civil war, secession and slavery are unmitigated evils. America is blest to be (150+ years) rid of them.
    We will never know. Lincoln may have managed Reconstruction differently than did the radicals.

  5. I think Lincoln would have been much better for the south during Reconstruction than the radical Republicans, whom Andrew Johnson could not control and who imposed martial law on the south and dissolved their governments in 1867, two years *after* the end of the war. Then they disenfranchised former confederates and installed essentially puppet governments in southern states, under which the Civil War amendments were spuriously passed (since they would never pass if former confederates had the franchise) and the states were basically blackmailed into ratifying the amendments as a condition to “readmission” to the union (an odd idea, since the north had insisted for 5 years of war that these states had never *left* the union).
    Lincoln would have set his own policy, which would have been different, and probably milder, than that of the radicals. It would have been an interesting thing to see how Lincoln would have handled the radicals of his own party, and whether he would have been willing, with them, to shoehorn amendments to the constitution by essentially blackmailing prostrate, war-devastated states, or if he would have followed some other course entirely.

  6. In Lincoln’s last public address, he gave a preview of his idea of what reconstruction would entail, focusing on Louisiana, where the Radical Republicans were already champing at the bit to impose a harsher solution. He would have had a much lighter hand than the Radicals.
    It’s safe to say that Lincoln would have had a fierce, bitter battle on his hands with a powerful section of his own party. But he also would have had many advantages that Johnson did not–starting with significant party support, the aura of victory and genuine political skills the haplessly combative Johnson lacked in their entirety. More than anything else, the last really crippled Andrew Johnson.

  7. We are having technical difficulties on the blog that have prevented me from posting new content today. We are working on it and hopefully we will be back to normal operations by tomorrow.

  8. Don, memory tells me the Shermans’ terms to Johnston were rejected by Stanton,contrary to Lincolns directive, indicative of Stantons hatred for the reb’s- and that is why Sherman refused to acknowledge Stanton[snubbed him] in the reviewing stand of the Grand Review day 2 of the Army of the Republic in Washington. I’ve not read of President Johnson having a hand in the reversal of terms; sherman always held halleck first and stanton ultimately for the reversal and embarrassment over the terms offered and forced to be withdrawn from Joe Johnston…… will read back on that after sending this; beautiful glimpse into the man who is Lincoln; myth and all. t-u

  9. “Don, memory tells me the Shermans’ terms to Johnston were rejected by Stanton,contrary to Lincolns directive, indicative of Stantons hatred for the reb’s- and that is why Sherman refused to acknowledge Stanton[snubbed him] in the reviewing stand of the Grand Review day 2 of the Army of the Republic in Washington.’

    Sherman bore life long hatred for Stanton for the rejection of the peace terms. However, Sherman had gone far beyond the surrender terms that Grant gave Lee, to dealing with long term policy that had to be decided in Washington. Any President, including Lincoln, would have rejected the terms, and that is what Johnson did. See the link below for a post that I wrote on the subject.


  10. “How could prisoners of war acquire weapons before they were released from custody?”

    Paroled prisoners were immediately released. That is what Grant did to Pemberton’s entire army after the fall of Vicksburg. They could not fight again until they had been exchanged with an enemy POW who was released. Grant was dismayed during the fighting at Chattanooga to see among the Confederates captured, men he had paroled at Vicksburg who had not yet been exchanged. The system of parole and exchange broke down in 1864 when the Confederates refused to allow Union colored troops to be part of the system, and when Grant realized that due to his manpower superiority exchanging prisoners benefitted Lee far more than him.

  11. Don – excellent re-direct. I have seen a number of commentators who state that the decision to reject shermans’ terms to Joe Johnston was done at the cabinet level in discussions led by Stanton, but i had forgotten the broader conditions Sherman had included regarding civil affairs in his MOU.

    Most students of that ugly affair between the states recall the animosity between Stanton and Sherman and the famous snub on the review stand- ah those jesuits!

    No where can i find wherein Pes. Johnson, himself, explicitly rejected the proposed terms.
    Can you help?

  12. nice try Don, but no cigar- Where does Pres Johnson specifically reject the Sherman terms? was my question- saying it was “Washington ” is too vague…… i contend that it was done at the cabinet level, led by Stanton, hence the animosity between Sherman and Stanton – i would not be surprised to learn it was Grant himself who told Sherman personally , when he traveled to see him 3 days after the cabinet meeting, it was Stanton who took him out at the knees – note this lifting from your post- from G.W.’s diary – the president was invited but he does not mention him being there or even a word quoting the presidents feelings on this- i suggest that is “conspicuous by it’s absence”. G.W. itemizes Stantons objections…… but not one word about the Presidents comments.

    ………..General Grant had just received Sherman’s terms. “They are of such importance,” he wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, “that I think immediate action should be taken on them and that I[sic] should be done by the President in council with his whole cabinet.” He strongly urged them to meet that night. By 6pm, Stanton was calling at the door of Gideon Welles, and two hours later, the meeting commenced.

    “Among the Cabinet and all present there was but one mind on this subject,” recorded Welles in his diary. “The plan was rejected, and Sherman’s arrangement disapproved. Stanton and [Joshuah] Speed were emphatic in their condemnation, though the latter expressed personal friendship for Sherman. General Grant, I was pleased to see, while disapproving what Sherman had done, and decidedly opposed to it, was tender to sensitiveness of his brother officer and abstained from censure. Stanton came charged with specified objections, four in number, counting them off on his fingers. Some of his argument was apt and well, some of it not in good taste nor precisely pertinent. It was decided that General Grant should immediately inform General Sherman that his course was disapproved, and that generals in the field must not take upon themselves to decide on political and civil questions, which belonged to the executive and civil service.”

    I’m not arguing the right or wrong of the rejection of the terms, only who did the rejection? as the basis for some of the hatred between these men. Stantons treatment of Lincoln when alive is another part of this picture me thinks, No where can i find Johnsons hand in the formal rejection but i know where to look – i have to get to a libraryfor J.G. Barrett . more later and best wishes…..

  13. “nice try Don, but no cigar- Where does Pres Johnson specifically reject the Sherman terms?”
    Come off it Paul. He was at the cabinet meeting. He was in charge not Stanton. General Grant mentions that the rejection was done pursuant to his order. Are you seriously contending that Johnson did not want the terms rejected or you are arguing now simply for the sake of arguing?

  14. i missed where Pres. Johnson was at this particular cabinet meeting. – i have yet to find , after considerable looking, any documented text that states President Johnson was in that cabinet meeting or that he specifically rejected the sherman terms. I did find that Grant asked permission of Johnson [sic] to go tell his ‘ subordinate’ in person about the rejection [rebuke] of terms – and then there is your own post that affirms it was Stanton , under his own signature, who rejected the terms –

    Hon. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War, Washington.

    DEAR SIR: I have been furnished a copy of your letter of April 21st to General Grant, signifying your [ YOUR pc, not A.J’s. ,] disapproval of the terms on which General Johnston proposed to disarm and disperse the insurgents, on condition of amnesty, etc. I admit my folly in …..

    Recall April 17 and beyond, just days after the assassination of Mr. Lincoln , ‘Washington’ must have been a very busy place with lots of delegation going on and extra security[ hindrance to movement]- I will not ‘ come off it’ until i am satisfied . You risk appearing at times to be ‘too’ condescending – no research until monday when a library opens.
    once again don, you got some of us thinking…… never argue for the sake of argue ;

    do you not find it peculiar that Gideon Welles in his diary records nothing of what the President had to say, but itemizes 4 things of Stantons, to defend the rejection? We’re talking about bagging some 90,000 confederates here…and peace. I find it very odd that a subordinate would not in the first or last sentence of his letter invoke the authority of his greater, i.e. by Order of the President of the United States etc. etc. Stanton does not do this…… later

  15. most excellent! i no longer need to go to the library – i am better for your time and help.
    thank you!

  16. in doing some liesurley discovery, i came across this- pretty sure you’ve seen this- 1 more note to come-
    Shreman and Johnston
    battled each other time and time again throughout the Atlanta and Carolinas’ campaigns in 1864 and ’65. But the two men never met in person until 17 April 1865, when, a week after Lee’s surrender to Grant, Johnston decided to surrender almost 90,000 of his and other Confederate troops to Sherman, the largest surrender of the war.
    The two men met three times during the surrender negotiations. Johnston convinced Sherman to try to end the war once and for all by negotiating both military and civil terms. But the document Sherman drew up was rejected by President Johnson and his cabinet, who felt the proposed terms were too lenient with the South, and they insisted that Sherman give Johnston the same terms that Grant gave Lee and not concern himself with civil matters. Sherman wasn’t surprised by the cabinet’s rejection of the proposed terms, and Johnston—ignoring a suggestion from the Confederate secretary of war to fall back with his troops to Georgia—agreed to the Grant-Lee terms, which admittedly were already fairly generous. Sherman also gave Johnston 10 days’ worth of rations for 25,000 men, and the two generals left with a high opinion of each other.

    Johnston never forgot Sherman’s generosity, and the two cultivated a friendship after the war. When Sherman died in 1891, Johnston, then 84 years old, attended his funeral as a pallbearer. It was a cold February day, but when Johnston was told he should put on his hat so he didn’t catch cold, Johnston replied, “If I were in [Sherman’s] place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat.” Johnston consequently caught a cold at the funeral, which turned into pneumonia, and he died a month later.

  17. my last word- confirming your statement; and yes, i cannot spell. note in this recounting, it is Halleck who sends Grant?? – that is purely captains mast stuff, i think. – your thoughts are always welcome and esteemed.

    ← April 20, 1865: Sherman’s mistake — beaten by BreckinridgeApril 22, 1865: Halleck sends Grant to end Sherman’s truce →
    April 21, 1865: Sherman’s agreement with Johnston rejected

    William Tecumseh Sherman

    The New York Times reports that Sherman’s agreement with Johnston was rejected by the President and cabinet in Washington. They sent him Lincoln’s instructions to Grant from March to use as a guide for the surrender renegotiations. A dispatch from Richmond suggests that one goal of Johnston and Breckinridge in the surrender was to provide an opportunity for Jefferson Davis to escape the country with the Confederate treasury. Grant is on his way to take over in North Carolina.

    WAR DEPARTMENT, WASHINGTON, Saturday, April 22.
    Yesterday evening a bearer of dispatches arrived from Gen. SHERMAN.

    An agreement for a suspension of hostilities, and a memorandum of what is called a basis for peace, had been entered into on the 18th inst., by Gen. SHERMAN with the rebel Gen. JOHNSTON.

    The rebel Gen. BRECKINRIDGE was present at the conference.

    A Cabinet meeting was held at 8 o’clock in the evening, at which the action of Gen. SHERMAN was disapproved by the President, by the Secretary of War, by Gen. GRANT, and by every member of the Cabinet.

    Gen. SHERMAN was ordered to resume hostilities immediately, and was directed that the instructions given by the late President in the following telegram, which was penned by Mr. LINCOLN himself, at the Capitol, on the night of the 3d of March, were approved by President ANDREW JOHNSON, and were reiterated to govern the action of military commanders.

    On the night of the 3d of March, while President LINCOLN and his cabinet were at the Capitol, a telegram from Gen. GRANT was brought to the Secretary of War, informing him that Gen. LEE had requested an interview or conference to make an arrangement for terms of peace.

    The letter of Gen. LEE was published in a letter of DAVIS to the rebel Congress.

    Gen. GRANT’s telegram was submitted to Mr. LINCOLN, who, after pondering a few minutes, took up his pen and wrote with his own hand the following reply, which he submitted to the Secretary of State and Secretary of War.

    It was then dated, addressed and signed by the Secretary of War, and telegraphed to Gen. GRANT.


    WASHINGTON, March 3, 1865 — 12 P.M.
    Lieut.-Gen. Grant:

    The President directs me to say to you that he wishes you to have no conference with Gen. LEE unless it be for the capitulation of Gen. LEE’s army or on some minor and purely military matter. He instructs me to say that you are not to decide, discuss or confer upon any political question. Such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. Meantime you are to press to the utmost your military advantages.

    EDWIN M. STANTON, Secretary of War.

Comments are closed.