Family Roots Reveal a Presidential Pardon for Delaware Man - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Reported by Rebecca Gannon

Family Roots Reveal a Presidential Pardon for Delaware Man

Samuel Batson Hearn, above was a Confederate soldier from Delmar, Del. during the U.S. Civil War. Samuel Batson Hearn, above was a Confederate soldier from Delmar, Del. during the U.S. Civil War.
Bill Bruce, above, traveled from Nashville, Tenn. to Delmarva to trace his family tree. Bill Bruce, above, traveled from Nashville, Tenn. to Delmarva to trace his family tree.

GEORGETOWN- One man has come home to a place he has never been. 

Bill Bruce is from outside Nashville, Tenn.  For years he knew his great-grandfather's life was spared by President Abraham Lincoln.  Now, he is looking for others who played a vital role.

Samuel Batson Hearn was a Confederate soldier from Delmar, Del. during the U.S. Civil War.  He was captured by Union troops while he was traveling across the Chesapeake Bay after a 10-day furlow with four other Confederate soldiers.  He was convicted of being a spy and sentenced to be hanged in the gallows.

In a stroke of pure luck, Hearn was captured with some well-connected people who knew even more well-connected people.  Just past midnight on Aug. 27, 1864, some of those people woke up President Lincoln and asked him to pardon the men. He did, just hours before Hearn was scheduled for execution.

"I don't know his motivation in sparing my great-grandfather's life, but the fact is he did it," Bruce said as he sat on a shaded park bench just outside Delaware Tech's library on Thursday afternoon.

Bill Bruce is on a mission to find out more about a man he never knew.  He had never even seen a picture of his great-grandfather until he discovered one Thursday afternoon.

"I tried to find myself and some of my family in the man," he says as he stares down at the black and white image taken almost 100 years ago.  "Now that I know he is my great-grandfather, I can imagine some resemblances."

In a memoir Hearn wrote to his family, he says federal troops convicted him, then a soldier about 20-years-old, of spying. He was then sentenced to death.  But in the early morning hours before the sentence was carried out, the nation's 16th president intervened, and saved the life of a Confederate soldier.

Bruce reads off a photocopied piece of paper. 

"It just says, 'The sentence of this case is commuted to confinement of hard labor in the penitentary, Aug. 27, 1864,'" Bruce said. 

Bruce points to the last line of the handwritten order. 

"That's a copy of the commutation order issued by Lincoln.  That's Lincoln's signature," Bruce said.

That piece of paper saved his great-grandfather's life, and all the chances that went with it.  This included allowing Hearn to have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren - like Bruce. 

"Thank you Abe," laughs Bruce.

But stories like Bruce's are not as uncommon as you might think. 

"In almost every family, in every generation, there's one or more fantastic story," said Shirley Herndon, a professor and historian from Dover.  She hears stories a lot, but says this one is quite magnificent.

Unfortunately, these stories are getting lost each and every day. 

"It's something that's going to be lost, and it's losing it fast with development," said Delmar native and local historian Jack Adkins.  "But history is important for the ones, other people, in the future, to look back at their heritage of not just Delmar, but the state of Delaware and it's people. That's what's important."

People do not have to fly halfway across the country to find their family roots.
 
The Internet is a good resource.  And many families have kept up generations of records in their family bible.  Older relatives are also knowledgable about family history.

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