Addressing Mr. Liebenau, Lincoln explains, "Your private letter in regard to Mr. 'Burtnete' is received—
"I have no power to remove a Lieut. Colonel appointed by the Governor of New-York. The appeal must be made, if at all, to the Governor."
John W. Latson was a New York attorney who began raising a regiment in New York in April 1861. He received permission from the War Department in July 1861, to recruit a regiment of artillery, but his authority was revoked a month later and his recruits were consolidated with another artillery regiment to form the 2d New York Heavy Artillery regiment. As reported by contemporary New York City newspapers, Latson’s troubles may have stemmed from his practice of securing uniforms for his men from local merchants, claiming the authority of the federal government for doing so. The merchant reported Latson’s actions to a local justice, who had Latson arrested, and he posted $500 in bail. He was soon arrested again, when Henry Farrington, one of his recruits, charged him with false imprisonment. After being in jail for a week, Latson made a motion to discharge the case because Farrington was a recruit and subject to military discipline. The court granted the discharge and released Latson.
After his release, Latson tried to determine the cause of his problems. He learned that Daniel H. Burtnett, who claimed to be “Major Commanding the Coast Brigade at Fortress Monroe,” had “ingratiated himself with the officers of Col. Latson’s Staff, and stirred up the difficulties with a view of superseding Col. L. in command” of the regiment (New York Times, 6 September 1861). Latson also learned that Burtnett had had secret correspondence with Confederate General Beauregard through Beauregard’s sister, who lived in New York, and that he had communicated with Confederates from Fortress Monroe by a “secret telegraphic wire” that he had helped to lay ( New York Times, 7 September 1861).
On September 6, 1861, Colonel Latson had gone to the office of attorney William T. Birdsall at No. 1 Park Place to make out an affidavit charging Burtnett with treason for offering aid and comfort to the rebels. Daniel H. Burtnett and several other officers of Latson’s regiment, entered Birdsall’s office, where they confronted Latson. According to Latson, Burtnett seized the affidavit, held a loaded pistol to Latson’s head, and threatened to kill him. Burtnett and his accomplices left with the affidavit. Latson and Birdsall reported the incident to a justice of the peace, who had Burtnett and the others arrested. The court discharged them on their promising to return for a hearing.
On September 20, the Supreme Court held each defendant to a bail of $500, and on November 2, their attorney denied the charges and filed a motion to discharge them on the ground that they were exempt from arrest, under an 1858 New York law that “no person belonging to the military forces shall be arrested on any civil process while going to, remaining at or returning from any place at which he may be required to attend, for the election of officers or other military duty.” The Court held that the defendants were exempt from arrest and discharged them.
Liebenau’s letter to Lincoln may have been an effort to have Burtnett discharged so he could not claim immunity based on military duty.
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