Monday, April 5, 2010

Judge William H. Burns - Special Amnesty & Pardon

Amnesty papers, chiefly from the years 1865-1867, consist of applications for Presidential pardons by persons who were, for example, former high Confederate officials or persons owning $20,000 worth of property or more. The application files, which include supporting documents, can be a veritable goldmine for historians and genealogists.

The focus of this article is Judge William Harvey Burns who applied for amnesty and presidential pardon on Nov. 28, 1865.

Burns was born on Jan. 13, 1816, in Rockingham Co. VA, the son of Rowland Tiernan Burns and Catherine (Kate) Keyser. William Harvey Burns spent his childhood at Harrisburg, VA until his family moved to Monroe Co. VA [now WV], and from there to a point near the mouth of Big Sandy River in KY. His father's farm was known as the "Powers Homestead", and was located on Bear Creek in Boyd Co. KY. Rowland T. Burns was a farmer, preacher, lawyer and politician and represented Lawrence and Morgan Co. KY for two terms in the legislature.

William Harvey Burns and his brothers Roland T. Burns, Jr., of Louisa, Lawrence Co. KY and John M. Burns, of Catlettsburg, Boyd Co. KY, pursued legal careers and became distinguished lawyers.

On July 14, 1834, William Harvey Burns married Mary Sulser in Morgan Co. KY, where the couple settled. In 1860, William Harvey Burns lived in West Liberty, Morgan Co. KY, where he was a circuit judge of the 11th Judicial circuit. Census records show him as owner of 11 slaves - 2 black females age 40 & 28; 3 black males age 35, 9 & 2; 2 mulatto females age 15 & 6 months; 4 mulatto males age 35, 18, 10 & 8.

When the Civil War broke out he and his family were soon swept up by the events that took place in Eastern Kentucky.


Application for special amnesty and pardon, case # 3022

To his Excellency Andrew Johnson President of the United States.

your petitioner Wm. H. Burns by way of application for special amnesty and pardon beg leave to submit to your excellency the following statement of facts, which constitutes his case. Before the war and up to the 26th of October 1861, he resided in the county of Morgan in the state of Kentucky. he had never been a candidate for political office & had no aspirations that way. he was the circuit judge of the 11th Judicial circuit of that state and his constitutional term of office was within a few months of expiring. his circuit was in the extreme north Eastern part of the State, in the mountains thereof and was bounded for two hundred miles by the Big Sandy River & Cumberland mountains, Seperating it from Virginia, his residence was about fifty miles on the east and seventyfive miles on the South from Virginia in the midst of the mountains, and amid a people not distinguished for order or morals.

when Secession began my state seemed opposed to it, as it also did to coersion in this policy I fully concured. I thought the questions at issue would admit of a peaceful solution consistent with the safety, integrity & permanence of the union and national government to which I felt all the devotion that birth and education could inspire. I did not know & was slow to believe that any portion of the Southern people entertained hostile feelings to the national union or a desire to permanently interfear [sic] with the same and that the apparent hostility would cease as soon as guarantees were given for the security of thier [sic] slaves which I believe would be done & the matter settled, if a hostile collesion [sic] could be avoided until the minds of the two sections should coole [sic]. hence I felt it to be my sollum [sic] duty to oppose the war policy of the government by moral suasion [?] not to favor secession or enmity to the Union. But because I believed it to be the best remady [sic] to stop secession & save the Union it is due to candor now to state time has satisfied me I was mistaken for I now believe there was a deep laid plan to dismember the union permanently & forever but of which I was wholy ignorant and to which I would have been firmly opposed in this state of my belief a special election for members of congress was ordered to be held in Kentucky in June 1861

two parties appeared at that time, one advocating peace & denying Secession intentions. the other advocting coersion & war I supported the peace candidates believing it to be my duty to do so I was charged of being a secessionist I truly denied it but it suffised [sic] nothing the charge was generally made by those differing with me, after the Battle of Menasses [sic] my hopes of peace was much weakened and I determined to offer no further oposition [sic] to the government in the matter & I had no intention to participate in the pending struggle

I went on holding my courts urging order & obedience to the laws untill [sic] in Oct. 1861 large bands of armed men from the interior of the state came into my circuit pitched camps & commenced recruiting for the Confederate states they took possession of the town I lived in and commenced recruiting there, general confusion & anarchy now ensued I was warned by them that I would not be permited [sic] to hold courts any longer and I was warned by friends that there was orders to arrest & imprision [sic] me issued by the government for secession sentiments.

I became alarmed knowin [sic] it was imposible [sic] to hold my courts as well as dangerous. I wrote to the governor the facts ceased to offer to hold courts & went on my farm to work with my hands intending to resume my Judicial labors as soon as the impediments were removed in a few days I was informed a federal force was approaching and that the officers and men had been highly prejudiced against me by enimies [sic] of mine and if they got hold of me death or imprisionment [sic] was inevitable I feared and really believed my life was in danger

I with others hastily withdrew from home & went higher up in the mountains intending to return as soon as I could learn it was safe to do so I did not leave my home with any intention of aiding the rebellion but only to secure my personal safety. the federal army came and drove off the confederates & my horses cattle & other valuable property was taken and my wife threatened and alarmed. alarming rumors reached me day by day of threats against me which brightened my fears and induced me to still keep out of the way which I did. about the 25th December my wife came to me and give me information of the distruction [sic] of my property and of my negroes runing [sic] off & of threats against me and advised me that I could not safely live at home, owing to personal enimies [sic] & merauders [sic] that infested the country.

I believed it, as a means of safety the best I then could desire for myself & prosperity I determined to get my slaves the first chance I found to do so and some household furniture and moved into virginia and thus try to preserve my self & property during the war I knew which is true that my residince [sic] in Kentucky could not be regularly Protected by either army & would be the abode of lawless men during the war. I was now away from home with my family in a destitute condition without meanes [sic] of support, and no meanes [sic] open to me except to do some service in or for the armies of the confederates I accordingly as a hand done service in the subsistence department for a time, and about the 20th of January 1862, I was appointed capt. commissary of the 5th Regiment of Ky. confederate Volunteers, which I excepted [sic] (seeing it announced in the papers of Virginia that Kentucky had seceded also) this position I held & filled untill [sic] Oct 1862

I then met an opportunity to get out the remainder of my slaves that had not escaped, & a waggon load of household furniture & commenced keeping house in Scott County Va where I have resided ever since this I did not to aid the rebellion but to enable me to leave the service since which time I have not been connected with the army in any way nor have I given the rebellion any aid or comfort except to settle my commissary accounts which I done in march 1863 the business having bin [sic] done in the time by a sargent [sic], I had become convinced the rebellion had been matured and put on foot to disclose forever the Union and that Kentucky had not finaly [sic] secured I therefore wholy ceased to aid it further declined ______ positions that was afterwards tendered me and devoted my time trying to support my family, by toiling with my own hands and in trying to get security against injurys [sic] in future and reparation for injurys [sic] past for a class of persons here who maintained friendly veins towards the United states for which they were often oppressed and since the fall of Richmond by trying to restore law and order & reconcile the people to the government of the United States.

This is a faithful statement of all I ever did with the causes that led to it which I never intended or sought but which was forced on me as herein stated and for which I am truly penatent [sic]. I am fifty years old there are no charges against me in either kentucky or Virginia that I know of & I know none can be truthfully made except the facts heirin [sic] stated.

I took the oath of amnesty at Liberty, the 12th of June 1865 - rode over two hundred miles to do it. and being now advised that all Kentuckians who left their homes as I did are excluded from the benefit of the amnesty, offered in your Excellencies proclamation. Therefore being ardently desirious to again become a citizen of the United states & live under its protection the residue of my life humly [sic] ask your Excellency to grant me a special pardon & amnesty from the consequences of treason & rebellion hereby earnestly promising your excellency in the future to faithfully observe my allegience [sic] and studiously and in all affileation [sic] with treason or rebellion and as in duty bound your petitioner will ever pray &c.
Wm. H. Burns

Filed Nov. 28, 1865
Recommended by Gov. for immediate pardon [last word underlined]
Pardoned June 27, 1866


Supporting documents in the application papers show that Burns left his home in West Liberty with his wife on Oct. 23, 1861, upon the approach of the 2nd OVI, which was part of General William "Bull" Nelson's Federal troops who were on their way to the Big Sandy Valley.

Burns' military records indicate that he received a commission as Commissary of Subsistence, with the rank of captain, in the 5th KY Mounted Infantry [CS], dated November 3, 1861, near Pound Gap, VA. He continued to serve in this capacity until his resignation April 21, 1863.

According to Jesse Barber, a witness in this case, Burns returned to West Liberty in September 1862 and removed his remaining slaves and household goods to Virginia. It is unclear how many of his slaves made the trip to Virginia.

William Harvey Burns settled with his family at Estillville in Russell Co. VA. After the war, he once again pursued his legal career. He died on June 31, 1884 at Lebanon, Russell Co. VA, where he is buried in the North Cemetery along with his wife Mary and daughter Anna.

Amnesty application transcribed and researched by Marlitta H. Perkins, April 2010.

1 comment:

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