March 29, 1864

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Telegram Sent on: March 29, 1864.
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Next telegram March 29, 1864 (2)


Washington, March 29, 1864

Gov. Johnson Nashville, Tenn.

Judge Catron is asking for the

discharge of W. M. Bell, now at Rock Island,

and whom he thinks was arrested as a hostage by

you or by your authority. What say you?

A. Lincoln

No. 2 P

02 Chg Exec Mans.

Recd: 9:50am

Sent: 10:05am


Historical analysis

This analysis makes use of a heuristic for historical thinking know as SCIM-C developed by David Hicks, Peter Doolittle and Tom Ewing. For more about this historical thinking heuristic please see [ttp://]

Summary of the telegram

In this telegram, President Lincoln asked Tennessee governor Andrew Johnson for information about arrest of W. M. Bell on the request of Supreme Court Justice John Catron.

The Context for this telegram

Andrew Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee by President Lincoln in 1862. Johnson had served in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. He opposed secession in Tennessee, although he backed slave owners' rights. Johnson remained a strong supporter of the Union during the war. Johnson was picked by Lincoln as his running mate in 1864 and served as Vice President until Lincoln's assassination after which he served as the 17th president of the United States.

Judge John Catron was an associate justice on the Supreme Court. He was also from Tennessee and held many of the same views as Johnson. He was among the six justice majority in the Dred Scott decision.[1] Part of Catron's responsibility as a Supreme Court Associate justice was to ride circuit, or hear appeals cases, in the 8th Circuit Court district which consisted of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri.

Little is known about W. M. Bell. Johnson did reply to Lincoln's telegram three days later on April 1 saying he was unaware of Bell or his arrest. Johnson wrote, "Wm Bell was not arrested by authority. I assume he was a prisoner of war. I have not been able to find out much about him. There are doubt, who are more entitled to executive clemency than he is..." [2]

Inferences about the telegram

In this telegram, Lincoln was conveying a request from Supreme Court justice John Catron. This suggests that Lincoln must have had an occasion to interact with Catron. We know that Catron was from Tennessee, and thus may have known Andrew Johnson. Catron was also the Circuit Court judge for the 8th district which included Tennessee. We might infer that W. M. (Wm) Bell was also from Tennessee or was arrested for some offense in Tennessee. Bell's case might have been on appeal or brought to Catron 8th Circuit Court if Catron thought Johnson was involved in the arrest of Bell. The fact that Lincoln sent the telegram on the behalf of Catron suggests that some federal politicians and authorities did not have access to the military telegram system or that Catron followed some protocol by going through Lincoln to make his request.


  1. For more on Judge Catron see
  2. This telegram from Johnson along with the original March 29, 1865 telegram from Lincoln are available in the The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 7 (1957), p. 273 online at;cc=lincoln;type=simple;rgn=div1;q1=catron;singlegenre=All;view=text;subview=detail;sort=occur;idno=lincoln7;node=lincoln7:592