A Lincoln Letter: ‘Quarrel Not at All’

Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James Madison Cutts, October 26, 1863.
First page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Army Capt. James Madison Cutts, counseling him to refrain from further quarrels with his fellow officers. (Library of Congress)

Today’s edition of The Journal of Interesting Things You Learn While You’re Supposed to Be Doing Something Else (this installment could be called “Abe Lincoln and the Peeping-Tom Hero Guy,” but that would be silly and wrong):

Researching one topic, I stumbled upon another in the form of this letter from President Lincoln to Captain James Madison Cutts, Jr., dated October 26, 1863. The letter is fairly well known , and I encountered it in the Library of America’s “Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865” (pp. 530-31). Here’s the entire letter as published:

“Although what I am now to say is to be, in form, a reprimand, it is not intended to add a pang to what you have already suffered upon the subject to which it relates. You have too much of life yet before you, and have shown too much promise as an officer, for your future to be lightly surrendered. You were convicted of two offences. One of them, not of great enormity, and yet greatly to be avoided, I feel sure you are in no danger of repeating. The other you are not so well assured against. The advice of a father to his son “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee,” is good, and yet not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield less ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

“In the mood indicated deal henceforth with your fellow men, and especially your brother officers; and even the unpleasant events you are passing from will not have been profitless to you.”

Reading this, one naturally wonders: who was the recipient of this profoundly wise and kind advice, and what became of him?

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First, Captain Cutts and his lineage: One grandmother was the sister of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison (hence Cutts’s name). One of his mother’s sisters was Rose Greenhow, the famed Confederate spy, and one of his sisters, Adele, was Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s second wife. James Cutts was born in 1838 and was educated at Brown University. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1861. He enlisted as a private when the Civil War broke out and quickly won an officer’s commission. By 1863, he was serving in Cincinnati as acting judge advocate in the Army’s Department of the Ohio. In May, Cutts served as chief prosecutor against Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio congressman and southern sympathizer who was court-martialed for agitating against the war, imprisoned, and eventually exiled to the Confederacy.

In June ’63, Cutts found himself sitting in front of a court-martial instead of prosecuting one, facing three counts of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”

According to the General Orders of the War Department, No. 330, issued October 8, 1863, Cutts’s troubles began this way: He got into an argument with another captain over the use of a desk. He informed a Captain Hutton, the aide de camp to General Ambrose Burnside, that “you have no right to my desk. If you take it again I will report you.” Hutton didn’t take kindly to Cutts’s approach and made noises about the proper way of “settling a difficulty between gentlemen.” Cutts called Hutton a variety of names, including blackguard, gambler, blackleg, and bully. Several days later, he loudly called Hutton a coward. Hutton sent Cutts a note demanding his honor be satisfied in a duel. At that point, Army justice intervened. Cutts was found guilty of two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and sentenced to be drummed out of the service. Hutton was convicted of violating an Army regulation that forbade soldiers from issuing challenges to fight duels and was sentenced to a reprimand.

Cutts’s case was actually a little more complicated than his trouble with Captain Hutton. The third count against him arose from his stay in a Cincinnati hotel. While there, he apparently found one lady guest particularly alluring. Here’s the General Orders summary of what happened:

“Cutts … did, on or about the 10th day of April 1863, while occupying room No. 79, Burnet House, Cincinnati, Ohio, on the afternoon of said day, attempt to look through the key-hole of room No 80 of said house occupied by a gentleman and his wife; and did, in the evening of said day at about half past eleven o clock, after said lady had retired to her room and while her husband was in the corridor below, said lady being at the time partly undressed, previous to retiring, take a valise or portmanteau from his room and place it in one of the open halls of the house against the jam or door of said room occupied by said lady, placing himself thereon did look through the Venetian blind or transom light in or over the door into said room and at said lady while undressing This to the great outrage of the feelings of the lady and her husband and to the great scandal and injury of the service.”

Cutts pleaded guilty to the charge–all except the part about looking through the keyhole; he was convicted of all but the part about the keyhole. In July, the court-martial verdicts went to Lincoln for approval. He reduced Cutts’s punishment to a reprimand and, citing the Army’s own regulations, increased Hutton’s sentence from a reprimand to dismissal from the service. One source speculates, based on the fact Lincoln’s draft of the document was unsigned, that Lincoln met Cutts and delivered the reprimand personally in late October.

What became of Cutts afterward? He lived until 1903, and I haven’t uncovered anything meaningful about his life after the war.

In the short term, though, Lincoln’s judgment about the promise Cutts showed was vindicated. Six months after the reprimand, he marched with his unit, the 11th U.S. Infantry, on the beginning of General Grant’s 1864 campaign. Over the space of a couple of months, Cutts distinguished himself on the battlefields of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg to the degree that he received the Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action.”

(As to Cutts’s later life, I did find this: “Hero of the Republic,” an amateur biography of Cutts published in 2001. The subtitle calls him “TRIPLE Medal of Honor Winner,” which, according to an archivist I spoke to at the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, isn’t quite the case. Cutts was cited for three actions, but received one medal, which was bestowed in 1891. According to the Society, there have been 19 multiple Medal of Honor recipients, including Tom Custer, who died at the Little Big Horn with his better-known brother.)

2 Replies to “A Lincoln Letter: ‘Quarrel Not at All’”

  1. Harvard Law, judge advocate, desk jockey. peeping tom, Medal of Honor recipient. That’s quite a resume. Probably alcohol figures in his offenses…although who can prove it. But it looks as though he switched from wine to whiskey in the spring of 1864. Guy must have been a real ball of fire. Lincoln’s letter is a gem. That sort of stuff is a pleasure to read.

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