THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Mass. soldier’s scion stakes claim for his Civil War due

Frank White believes the true captor of G.W. Custis Lee was David White. Frank White believes the true captor of G.W. Custis Lee was David White. (Jennifer S. Altman for The Boston Globe)
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / July 27, 2011

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WASHINGTON - The Army long ago presented the nation’s most hallowed award, the Medal of Honor, to a Civil War soldier from New York for capturing Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s eldest son. But sometimes history calls for a bit of revision.

Now, 146 years after the capture, the Army has agreed to take another look at whether it made a mistake and whether a young private from the Berkshires deserved the honor instead. Regiment accounts provide reason to think Private David D. White, of Cheshire, nabbed Lee during a barbaric battle in the wilds of Virginia in the war’s waning days.

The Army’s unusual reconsideration is a victory for White’s descendants, particularly his great-great-grandson, Frank E. White Jr., who has worked for decades to set the record straight. He recently enlisted the aid of Massachusetts lawmakers in the effort.

In reviewing the case, the Army also casts a light on a key battle that is largely unknown, except among historians and Civil War buffs who note its frenzied viciousness, even in the context of a war known for its brutality.

At one junction in the Battle of Sailor’s Creek in the waning days of the war, White and his Massachusetts brethren fought a desperate hand-to-hand assault against the rebels near the banks of a swollen Virginia creek, slashing with bayonets, clubbing one another with muskets, and biting one another’s throats as they grappled on the muddy ground.

The battle was a stunning victory for the Yankees; the South called it “Black Thursday.’’ Yet it became a footnote, eclipsed by the Confederate surrender days later at Appomattox.

Not so for Frank White. He wrote a 2008 book, “Sailor’s Creek: Major General G.W. Custis Lee, Captured with Controversy,’’ rekindling the dispute over whether the infantryman from Cheshire should have received the Medal of Honor for capturing George Washington Custis Lee.

“To me, this is really not bragging rights,’’ said White, a New Jersey resident with deep family roots in Massachusetts. “This is really just setting the record straight. History is history.’’

White’s book methodically argues that his ancestor deserved the medal rather than Harris S. Hawthorn, a soldier with the 121st New York Infantry who also fought at Sailor’s Creek.

Members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation agree.

“This kind of thing doesn’t come up very often, but when it does, the government should make the correction,’’ said US Representative John W. Olver, a Democrat whose letter to the chief of the Army’s awards and decorations branch started the official review process last fall. Senators John F. Kerry and Scott P. Brown have also written on White’s behalf.

White’s request for a review is rare. “I’ve never had anybody say that somebody else got my medal. This is kind of new territory in some ways,’’ said Victoria Kueck, director of operations with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. The group was created by Congress in 1958 to preserve the medal’s legacy and honor its recipients.

Army spokesman Mark Edwards confirmed that the case was under review by the awards and decorations branch, based at Fort Knox, Ky., but said the Army cannot comment on pending award reviews, a process that can take years.

Today, there are 3,455 Medal of Honor recipients, with the most recent granted this month to an Army Ranger.

There are not a lot of people sticking up for the official recipient of the award, but Hawthorn does have one champion. Atlanta History Center president Salvatore G. Cilella Jr., who wrote a book about Hawthorn’s regiment, has debated White for years over the issue and believes that the evidence lies with Hawthorn.

Either way, the controversy is fascinating, he said, calling it “a human story - a great human story.’’

“The answer to the whole thing is that no one really knows. In history, that’s what we deal with - we deal with ambiguity and we deal with unknowns,’’ he said.

The Battle of Sailor’s Creek took place April 6, 1865. Robert E. Lee’s army was retreating southwest from Richmond. About half of the force, including its wagon trains, lagged behind, and the generals in the rear decided to turn and face the federal forces behind them.

When Union forces surged across Sailor’s Creek, they were met with withering Confederate fire, and many retreated.The 37th Massachusetts Infantry - armed with state-of-the-art repeating rifles - held its ground.

In the middle of the battle, a Confederate column set upon the Massachusetts men. One Confederate officer described how “the battle degenerated into butchery’’ as soldiers fought “like wild beasts’’ with every weapon they had, including their teeth and fists.

When the battle was over, about 1,100 Union soldiers were dead, injured, or missing. The toll for the Confederates was devastating: 7,700 soldiers - one quarter of Lee’s army - were casualties, including more than 3,000 soldiers and eight generals captured. Upon seeing what was left of his force, Lee exclaimed, “My God, has the army dissolved?’’

He would surrender three days later.

What happened with Lee’s son is at the heart of the dispute. According to transcripts of letters and battlefield reports that White submitted to the Army, Private White spotted Custis Lee on the battlefield and charged him. Lee initially refused to surrender to an enlisted man and then gave up his sword and pistol to an officer, Captain William C. Morrill.

The official Army record says that White captured Lee, but it separately lists Hawthorn as his captor, backed by an affidavit from the New York regiment’s chaplain.

Hawthorn’s commander noted in his report that “there was some controversy in the matter.’’ In addition, at least two other men bragged about capturing Lee.

Though both Hawthorn and White received credit for Lee’s capture and received promotions, only Hawthorn applied for the Medal of Honor, but not until 1894. He was one of hundreds of veterans who scrambled for medals, some making spurious claims of bravery in support of their applications.

When the Massachusetts regiment learned of the award, it vehemently contested the decision, calling it “a great injustice.’’ But Secretary of War Russell A. Alger rejected the appeal.

In 1916, a panel of Army generals reviewed every medal and rescinded more than 900, but not Hawthorn’s.

For decades, White has been researching the dispute, digging up letters from members of the Massachusetts regiment and scouring the National Archives. He has been in contact with a Morrill descendant who says he still has Lee’s pistol.

There is a plausible explanation for why two soldiers could claim to have captured the same man: After Lee surrendered to White, he was ordered behind Union lines for processing, and Hawthorn stopped him again as he milled among other captive soldiers, perhaps as he sought an escape route. “I don’t think there was any slight intended, but that’s possibly how it happened,’’ said Chris Calkins, manager at the state historical park that marks the site.

Sharon S. MacDonald, a retired Illinois State University history professor who helped a black Union soldier receive a posthumous Medal of Honor and is now aiding White, sees a more sinister explanation: Hawthorn committed fraud. She believes the medal’s integrity is at stake.

“There is absolutely no doubt that Harris Hawthorn fabricated his application for a Medal of Honor. No doubt at all,’’ she said.

The American Legion post in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., the site of Hawthorn’s grave, held a memorial for him in 2006. Walter Zwinge, the post commander who presided at the ceremony, knew nothing of the dispute.

While he is intrigued by the controversy, he has no reason to doubt Hawthorn’s claim.

“As far as I know, [Hawthorn] is a Medal of Honor winner, and that’s the way it stands,’’ Zwinge said. “Until somebody can prove to my satisfaction that he doesn’t deserve it, then we have to go with what we’ve got.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com.