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Thomas Ewing, Jr., 1829-1896

Thomas Ewing, Jr., 1829-1896

Thomas Ewing, Jr., who among his many other civic services served for a time on the Yonkers Board of Education, moved here around the year 1882, living at various times on High Street, Lamartine Terrace, and Locust Hill Avenue.

Seldom if ever did the city welcome a man with a more distinguished past.

Born in Lancaster, Ohio, on August 7, 1829, Thomas Ewing attended Brown University and the Cincinnati Law School. He moved to Kansas in the years preceding the Civil War, practicing law there and later serving as Chief Judge of the state’s Supreme Court. In 1862, he joined the Union Army and eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General (he was later brevetted Major General of volunteers). He is credited with helping to save the State of Missouri for the Union side by his defense of Fort Davidson in the face of overwhelming odds. After the war, General Ewing moved back to Ohio where he was elected to Congress in 1876 and then again in 1878. He left Ohio after a failed campaign for governor in 1879.

Less celebrated, perhaps, but of considerable interest is his first work as a lawyer immediately after the war, when he served as defense counsel for Doctor Samuel Mudd and two other men accused of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

General Ewing’s role in that trial, which was held not in a civil court but before a military tribunal known as the Hunter Commission, has been described at some length by his great-great-granddaughter, Candida Steel, in the Fall 2006 issue of The Yonkers Historian, the newsletter of the Yonkers Historical Society.

Chief Administrative Judge in 2006 of the U.S Department of the Interior Board of Contract Appeals, Candida Ewing Staempfli Steel of Washington, D.C. served in effect in the 1990s as co-counsel to her great-great-grandfather, as she continued to pursue the Mudd family’s efforts to set aside Dr. Mudd’s conviction. (Dr. Mudd and the two other men whom General Ewing defended, Samuel B. Arnold and Edward Spangler, were convicted. Each was sentenced to a life of hard labor. President Andrew Johnson pardoned them all in early 1869.)

The reader is strongly urged to read Ms. Steel’s article. Two points that she touches on will be mentioned here.

1. In defense of his clients, who were all civilians, General Ewing argued against the jurisdiction of a military tribunal to try the men for a civilian offense. (See his statement, below.) And citing family lore, Ms. Steel suggests that the general, as a sort of personal protest against the proceedings, refused to wear his uniform during the course of the trial. 

2. Ms. Steel tells also of General Ewing’s attempt to save Mrs. Mary Surratt from being executed. Owner of a Washington, D.C., boarding house frequented by John Wilkes Booth, Mrs. Surratt had been charged as a conspirator in the assassination and had been convicted by the Hunter Commission. On the eve of her scheduled execution, her lawyer, Reverdy Johnson, appealed to General Ewing for help. Ms. Steel quotes a letter that General Ewing wrote to his father at the time, expressing his skepticism about the guilt of Mrs. Surratt and detailing the legal steps that he took in the early hours of July 7 in what proved to be a futile attempt to save her from the gallows.

Thomas Ewing was struck by a cable car in New York City on January 20, 1896. He died the next day without ever regaining consciousness. (He had relocated to New York about a year earlier, having taken the position—which he had to leave because of poor health—of Counsel to the New York City Building Department.)

The funeral services were held on the rainy and windy afternoon of Friday, January 24, 1896 in the First Presbyterian Church on North Broadway. (The church building burned down in the mid-20th century and was never rebuilt.) Details of the services were fully reported the next day in the Yonkers Statesman.

The eulogy was delivered by the Rev. A. W. Pitzer of Washington, D.C., who stated his intention to speak successively of Thomas Ewing as a man, as a general, as a lawyer, as a judge, as a statesman, and as a Christian.

“It is in the accordance with the fitness of things,” Rev. Pitzer began, “that the last sad words of this occasion should be spoken by a life-long friend of General Ewing …. Fitting that a Southern man and a Confederate should speak of the heroic patriotism of a Northern man and a gallant Union Major General. Fitting that these services should be held in this historic Church, on this historic river, and that his body should rest with the people who, during the last 14 years had learned to esteem and love him as he went in and out among them ‘with malice toward none and charity toward all.’ “

“When the war for the Union ended,” Rev. Pitzer noted, “[Thomas Ewing] was not the man to continue the war upon a conquered people, but the earnest advocate of amnesty, fraternity and restoration. He saw clearly that the question whether the allegiance of the citizen was primarily due to the State or the National Government had been left unsettled in the Constitution and in our early history, and that therefore good citizens might espouse either side, and that the people of the South, who had perilled all on the issue, were as sincere and conscientious in their convictions and conduct as the patriotic Northern men who fought for the supremacy of the Nation, and on these questions his opinions were held in common by Greeley and Chase and Lincoln and Grant and Sherman—and now by nearly all the old soldiers of the Union Army.”

Following the funeral service, Thomas Ewing, Jr., was buried in Oakland Cemetery.

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Argument on the plea to the jurisdiction of the Military Commission by Thomas Ewing, Jr. (June 23, 1865):

Our judicial tribunals, at some future day, I have no doubt, will be again in the full exercise of their constituted powers, and may think, as a large proportion of the legal profession think now, that your jurisdiction in these cases is an unwarranted assumption; and they may treat the judgement which you pronounce, and the sentence you cause to be executed, as your own unauthorized acts.
Because our Chief, so venerated and beloved (and no one venerated and loved him more than I), has fallen by the hand of a ruthless assassin, it ought not to follow that the Constitution and law should be violated in pursuing men suspected of having compassed his death, or that men not legally found guilty should be sacrificed in vengeance as victims generally because of the crime.
There may be a lurking feeling among men which tends to this harshness of retribution, regardless of the innocence of those men on whom vengeance may fall…. Homer makes Achilles immolate, on the funeral pyre of Patroclus, twelve Trojan captives, simply because they were Trojans, and because Patroclus had fallen by a Trojan hand. If that principle of judicial action be adopted here, it were surely not too much to sacrifice to the manes of one so beloved and honored as our late Chief Magistrate a little lot of rebel sympathizers, because, like the assassin, some of them, at some time, participated in the rebellion, or gave aid and comfort to rebels…. Indeed, a position taken by the learned Assistant Judge Advocate, in discussing my objection to the part of the evidence which relates to my clients, goes to this—and even beyond it—namely, that participation in the rebellion was participation in the assassination, and that the rebellion itself formed part of the conspiracy for which these men are on trial here.