State pols back honor for Civil War soldier

Associated Press
Friday, January 05, 2018

BOSTON — Members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation are supporting a renewed bid to award the Medal of Honor to a Civil War soldier who was widely credited with capturing the eldest son of Gen. Robert E. Lee in the waning days of the conflict.

U.S. Secretary of the Army Mark Esper recently asked the Senior Army Decorations Board to reconsider its previous denial of a posthumous Medal of Honor for Cpl. David D. White, who served in the 37th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

In a letter sent Thursday to Esper, Democratic U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, along with Democratic Reps. Richard Neal and Niki Tsongas, cited contemporaneous accounts that claimed White was most responsible for the capture of Maj. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek in Virginia in April 1865. The battle occurred days before Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

The capture of the younger 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,” according to the letter.

Controversy over who deserves most credit for the capture has persisted for more than a century.

In 1894, Cpl. Harris Hawthorne of the 121st New York Infantry was awarded a Medal of Honor for his role in Custis Lee’s capture. That drew protests from veterans of the Massachusetts unit who were convinced that White in fact deserved the honor.

White’s great-great-grandson, New Jersey resident Frank White, researched and published a book in 2008 laying out the case for his ancestor based on eyewitness accounts from the battle and other historical material.

Frank White and members of the Massachusetts and New Jersey congressional delegations pushed in the years that followed for White to receive the Medal of Honor, but the decorations board declined in 2015. Esper has ordered a review of that decision based on recommendations from the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, according to the lawmakers.