By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved
The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision in Ex Parte Milligan. In 2012, I wrote about “Lincoln’s Suspension of Habeas Corpus” for The Charger. In this archived article I recounted the issues and U.S. Supreme Court cases surrounding Lincoln’s controversial wartime policy.
The case of Lambdin Milligan is the one most remembered because it declared Lincoln’s use of military tribunals like the one that condemned Milligan and other Indiana opponents to his wartime policies to death for treason to be unconstitutional. As long as civil courts were operating, the Court ruled in a unanimous opinion by David Davis that Lincoln opponents like the “Copperhead” Milligan could not be tried by military tribunals.
Milligan’s execution was delayed first by Lincoln and then by his successor Andrew Johnson until it could be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court after the war ended. Milligan’s case and its aftermath featured three prominent lawyer-politicians:
- He was represented in his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by a team that included future President James Garfield;
- In his later suit for damages against those responsible for his imprisonment, he was represented by Thomas Hendrickson, future Vice President;
- The attorney representing General Alvin Hovey, who arrested Milligan, was future President Benjamin Harrison.
Milligan triumphed but the jury verdict in his favor resulted in an award of only $5.
The Milligan precedent continued to be cited in the litigation over the United States imprisonment at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba of enemy combatants captured during the war on terrorists.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Copperheads, I’d recommend Jennifer Weber’s 2006 book, Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North (Oxford University Press) and Nancy Baxter’s YouTube lecture “Copperheads in Indiana.”
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