Lincoln Pardoned Ancestor of Biden, Records Show

Historian tells story of the Civil War conviction of the president's great-great-grandfather
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 19, 2024 7:45 PM CST
Thanks to Lincoln, Ancestor of Biden Left Army Prison
President Biden walks past a statue of President Abraham Lincoln with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in the Capitol in January 2022.   (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Some presidential pardons are turkeys, sure. But a newly discovered one has echoed through the centuries to be particularly meaningful to the current president. On Sept. 1, 1864, an order from President Abraham Lincoln freed Moses Robinette from a military prison where he was incarcerated after being court-martialed over a fight in a Union Army camp during the Civil War. Robinette was President Biden's great-great-grandfather. David J. Gerleman, a historian, documents the case in the Washington Post, using National Archives records. The tale is "an unknown piece of Biden family history," Gerleman says, as well as an untold Civil War story.

The fight was between Robinette and another civilian employee of the Army, John Alexander, who took issue with something he overheard Biden's ancestor say to a cook in a mess tent in March 1864. During the ensuing cursing, Robinette, a veterinary surgeon, pulled out a pocketknife. The brief fight left Alexander, a brigade wagon master, bleeding from several wounds. Watchmen arrested Robinette, Gerleman writes. Biden's relative was charged with inciting "a dangerous quarrel," as well as assault with "attempt to kill." Testimony in the court-martial described Robinette as "full of fun, always lively and joking," though witnesses disagreed about whether he was intoxicated at the time.

The judges' verdict was unanimous, per the Post, and he was convicted of all charges except attempted homicide. Robinette was sentenced to two years' hard labor and sent to a military prison on the Dry Tortugas islands near Key West, Florida. Three Army officers who knew Robinette petitioned for his conviction to be overturned, telling Lincoln it was overly harsh for a case of self-defense. They assured him Robinette had been "ardent, and Influential … in opposing Traitors and their schemes to destroy the Government." In late August, the president wrote an order that read: "Pardon for unexecuted part of punishment. A. Lincoln." Robinette returned to farming and lived until 1903. His obituary didn't mention his conviction but called Robinette a "man of education and gentlemanly attainments." His great-great-grandson now keeps both a portrait and a bust of A. Lincoln in the Oval Office. (More President Biden stories.)

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