MEDAL OF HONOR | Globe Editorial

Unraveling a Civil War mystery

July 31, 2011

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IT’S DIFFICULT to imagine that a New Yorker could engage in shameless self-promotion. Yet that seems to be what happened in the case of a Civil War infantryman who hoodwinked the Army into granting him an honor that records show should have gone to a Massachusetts soldier instead. Now, thanks to diligent sleuthing by one of the Bay State soldier’s descendants, the Pentagon is revisiting the case, and could right this historical wrong.

The controversy stems from a vicious battle in Virginia during the closing days of the war, when the Union army took Robert E. Lee’s son prisoner. Private David D. White, of the 37th Massachusetts Infantry, received credit in battlefield reports, and was promoted. But another veteran of the battle, Harris S. Hawthorn of Otsego, New York, applied for a medal for the deed and got it in 1894.

And not just any medal: Hawthorn received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military distinction. Just over 3,400 have been awarded in 150 years. A grand total of two have been issued in the Afghanistan war, both posthumously. (It seems unlikely that simply receiving an enemy’s surrender would be deemed medal-worthy by today’s standards, but nevermind that.)

Even today, the fog of war makes it difficult to pin down exactly what happens on the battlefield; witness the shifting accounts of the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Medal of Honor decorations are only granted today after extensive investigation. Reopening a 146-year old case may seem like a pointless task, since both men are long dead. But the historical record should be accurate, and the military owes it to all recipients to uphold the integrity of its most hallowed honor.