President Joe Biden’s great-great-grandfather was freed from a South Island prison during the Civil War after an intervention from a sympathetic senator and a presidential pardon from Abraham Lincoln, newly discovered records reveal.
Moses J. Robinette, a relative of Biden on his father’s side, grew up in western Maryland and was hired by the Army as a veterinarian in 1862 or 1863, despite lacking specific education in the trade, according to newly discovered records in the National Archives. The scholar David Gerleman wrote in the Washington Post.
His qualifications for the position were “unstated,” Gerleman wrote, but that was not exceptional at a time when the United States lacked many veterinary schools.
The role would take Biden’s relative to an Army camp in Virginia, where a fight with another civilian military employee would land him in prison after a court-martial.
Robinette, whose last name is the president’s middle name, appears to have had a good run and, potentially, a taste for alcohol (the president himself has shown anger at targets of Donald Trump’s special counsel, and he doesn’t drink).
Forgiveness: President Joe Biden’s great-great-grandfather was pardoned after being convicted by a military court after pulling out his knife during a fight
Robinette also supported the Union, despite living and working in Maryland and Virginia, where loyalties were mixed in the lead-up to the Civil War.
Records that survive to this day tell how he got into a fight after a brigade tank commander named John J. Alexander “heard Robinette say something about him to the cook and rushed into the barracks.” from the dining room to demand an explanation,” according to the account.
Tempers flared, insults followed, and Robinette pulled out his knife. A brief fight left Alexander bleeding from several cuts before camp guards arrived to arrest Robinette,’ Gerleman writes.
The event set into motion the distant relative of the future president’s confinement in a military prison at Fort Jefferson off the coast of present-day Florida on the Dry Tortugas Islands.
The president’s ancestor was charged with inciting a “dangerous dispute” after being intoxicated and using the knife as a weapon with “intent to kill.”
He was able to overcome that later charge during his military trial, but was found guilty of the others.
Moses Robinette was stationed at Fort Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas Islands off what is now Florida.
Pardon Power: ‘Pardon for Part of Punishment Not Executed,’ President Abraham Lincoln Wrote, Erasing Remaining Sentence for Biden’s Ancestor
Senator Waitman T. Willey, a former Whig who became one of West Virginia’s first senators after the state was admitted to the Union, rejected the clemency request after officials vouched for Robinette’s character.
Hard Times: Robinette spent a few months in the island prison before Lincoln’s pardon shortened her sentence.
Although his temper may have flared in the argument, he was willing to let bygones be bygones, saying that “Everything I have done I have done in self-defense and I have had no ill will toward Mr. Alexander before or since. He grabbed me and could possibly have seriously injured me if I had not resorted to the means I did.’
It’s all new information about a branch of a family tree that the president discusses less frequently than the Finnegans and other Irish ancestors.
In an episode that his ancestor Biden would recognize from his 36 years in the Senate and his tenure in the White House, Robinette’s conviction launched a lobbying campaign that ultimately freed him.
It began with a plea from Army officers who claimed he was acting in self-defense, with an old-fashioned Washington twist. The fight ended in a cut “with a knife, a truck driver far superior to him in strength and size, all under the impulse of the emotion of the moment,” they wrote.
They were also political allies, noting that Robinette had been “ardent and influential…in opposing the traitors and their plans to destroy the government.”
That earned a favorable hearing from Waitman T. Willey, one of the first two senators from the new state of West Virginia after it was separated from Virginia and incorporated into the Union in 1863.
That finally brought the matter to Lincoln, who issued a brief “Pardon for Part of Punishment Not Executed,” signed, ‘A. Lincoln’ on September 1, 1864. The War Department then released him.