I like to think I would have got to him eventually, but an email query from distant descendent Gene Siscoe brought Captain J.M. Cutts, Jr. (1837-1903) to my attention yesterday. The question concerned his actions on General Burnside’s staff at Antietam in 1862. Sadly, I can’t help much there, Cutts is only listed as present in Burnside’s after-action report.

But the Cutts story does have tendrils reaching interesting spots and connects with some names you’ll certainly know.

J.M. Cutts (etching)
etching by B. Wall from A Lincoln Reprimand (1950)

Cutts served for about 6 weeks in mid-1861 as Private in the 1st Rhode Island Volunteers, and then accepted an appointment as Captain in the new 11th United States Infantry. He was then about 24 years old. By Antietam he was an Aide-de-Camp to Major General Ambrose Burnside, under whom he had served in the 1st Rhode Island. Because of his apparent lack of previous military experience, I’d guess his US Army commission and staff postion were based on family connections.

His father’s uncle was President James Madison, and while the senior Cutts was not wealthy or particularly distinguished, his name did have a certain cachet in Washington DC society in the middle of the 19th century. Senior had began the study of the law in Washington in the 1820s, but reportedly had to give it up and take a job as a clerk at the US Treasury for financial reasons. Junior and his sister Rose Adele (1835-89) were raised in Washington City as their father worked his way up to Second Comptroller of the Treasury during the Buchanan Administration.

In 1856 Senator and future candidate for President Stephen Douglas, widowed since 1853, met sister Addie:

Although his grief was somewhat assuaged, Douglas had not yet entirely recovered from the loss of Martha. His feelings remained a carefully guarded private matter until the summer of 1856, when he made the acquaintance of a twenty-year-old Washington beauty named Adele Cutts. Like Martha Martin, Adele came from a southern family with an impressive political pedigree. Her father, James Madison Cutts, was the namesake of his uncle, President James Madison. As the grand-niece of Dolley Madison, Adele had grown up in the same household with the president’s widow when Dolley was the doyenne of Washington society. Adele’s mother came from a prominent Catholic family in Maryland, and Adele had been educated at a Catholic academy in Georgetown […].

Stephen Douglas and Adele Cutts were married in Washington in November 1856.

Dolley Madison lived with the Cutts’ until her death in 1849, and may have had considerable influence in her nephew’s family.

With or without family connections, Captain Cutts served well and was apparently very highly regarded until June of 1863, when he was courtmartialled on three specifications:

(1) that Cutts had used unbecoming language in addressing Captain Charles G. Hutton, aide-de-camp to General Burnside, when Hutton attempted to take over Cutts’ desk;

(2) that Cutts had sent a written communication to Major William Cutting derogatory to the accomplishments of Captain Hutton as an officer; and

(3) that the said “James M. Cutts . . . did, on or about the 10th day of April, 1863, while occupying room No. 79, Burnet House, Cincinnati, Ohio, on the afternoon of said day, attempt to look through the key-hole of room No. 80 of said house, occupied by a gentleman and his wife; and did, in the evening of said day, at about half past eleven o’clock, after said lady had retired to her room, and while her husband was in the corridor below, said lady being at the time partly undressed, previous to retiring, take a valise or portmanteau from his room and . . . placing himself thereon, did look through the Venetian blind or transom light in or over the door into said room and at said lady while undressing. . . .” (AGO General Orders No. 330, October 8, 1863).

To the first and second specifications Cutts pleaded not guilty; to the third, he acknowledged the facts “with deep regret,” and pleaded guilty. The court found him guilty on all three specifications and sentenced him to be dismissed from the service.

Lincoln-reprimandclick to see larger image
etching by B. Wall from A Lincoln Reprimand (1950)

All was not lost, however. On review, President Lincoln confirmed the findings of the Court, but remitted the sentence to a formal reprimand, and restored the young Captain to duty. In this regard, the the President wrote Cutts the following, which he may have delivered in a personal interview:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Oct 26, 1863.

Capt. James M. Cutts.

Although what I am now to say is to be, in form, a reprimand, it is not intended to add a pang to what you have already suffered upon the subject to which it relates. You have too much of life yet before you, and have shown too much of promise as an officer, for your future to be lightly surrendered. You were convicted of two offences. One of them, not of great enormity, and yet greatly to be avoided, I feel sure you are in no danger of repeating. The other you are not so well assured against. The advice of a father to his son “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee,” is good, and yet not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

In the mood indicated deal henceforth with your fellow men, and especially with your brother officers; and even the unpleasant events you are passing from will not have been profitless to you.

Captain Cutts did return to active duty, served through the War, and continued in the Regular Army into 1868.

In 1891 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “gallantry in action” during 1864 at the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, and Petersburg. In March 1865 he was awarded brevets–honorary rank–to Major and Lieutenant Colonel for his combat service.

In September 1866 he transferred to the new 20th US Infantry regiment.

.. after a delightful sail up the Mississippi the regiment disembarked at New Orleans on the 27th day of January, 1867. On the 28th, the following assignments to stations was made, and the organizations proceeded to them by companies or battalions direct from this point:

… Company H (Captain J. M. Cutts, bvt. lieut.-col.), Shreveport, La…

During the two years next succeeding, the regiment was employed on duties connected with the reconstruction of the States of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, with frequent changes of stations of companies within the District and Department…

Cutts was commander of the post at Shreveport, part of the 5th Military District under General Philip Sheridan. However, all may not have been well with Captain Cutts. In an 1867 letter to former BGen Thomas Ewing he wrote that ‘the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 effectively turned the country over to “the black man” and the necessity of military occupation by a larger force’. His attitude doesn’t seem out of character, but he was also in legal trouble again.

Gene Siscoe notes that Cutts spent 90 days confined to quarters for a conviction, in 1868, on a charge of conduct unbecoming an officer, the specifications of being abusive and indecently dressed in public.

Later that year yet another trial was in the future for Captain Cutts. It was, relates Mr Siscoe …

… precipitated by the arrest of a poltically well-connected carpetbagger and was also related to the physical abuse of his troops. Cutts was drunk when he abused his troops. The foregoing remarks are extracted from other documents and are little more than gossip without something more substantial. But, Cutts was told that court intended to prosecute for dismissal and would not ask President Johnson for a reprimand instead. Based on that, Cutts resigned. The president accepted the resignation.

That ended his military career, but by the 1880 Federal Census, James Madison Cutts was well setup in Washington DC as a lawyer and family man, with young wife Mary E., and 4 children, the oldest, a daughter named for her mother, then 6 years old.

He died in Washington on 24 February 1903, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

What a ride he had.

The prints above are etchings by Bernhardt Wall (1872-1956) from a hand-made book of his called A Lincoln Reprimand, which was inspired by the Lincoln letter when Wall came upon it at the US Library of Congress.

An illustrator, artist, and historian, he was known for his postcards, and also published a massive “pictorial biography” created between 1935 and 1942, of 85 volumes,

comprised of etchings entitled Following Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865. It was etched and printed by Bernhardt Wall, of Lime Rock, Connecticut, and each plate, signed by the etcher, contains descriptive text. It took eleven years and four months of work to complete the series. The hand-printed pages were done from six hundred thirty plates, of which four hundred forty-five are pencil-signed pictures. Altogether, the pictorial biography of Abraham Lincoln consists of one thousand thirty-five pages (from Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum notes)


For more you might try Bing Spitler’s Hero of the Republic: The Biography of Triple Medal of Honor Winner, James Madison Cutts, Jr. (Burd Street Press/White Mane, Shippensburg, 2001). I’ve not read it, but the title is at best an overstatement and smacks of marketing hyperbole. There was one Medal of Honor. To my knowledge there are no triple MoH recipients. That and White Mane’s spotty reputation don’t augur well for this one.

The Lincoln letter and the description of the 1863 court martial quoted above are from the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 6 and the notes accompanying, found in the online version from the University of Michigan.

The quoted passage on Senator Douglas is from the exhibition catalog for Stephen Douglas and the American Union at the University of Chicago.

The Wall etchings are from an online description of his book from bookseller Sloan Rare Books.

Cutt’s military history is from Heitman’s Register, and we have his Medal of Honor citation (such as it is) on AotW. The deployment of the 20th US Infantry to Louisiana is documented online from the Center for Military History, and his opinion of Reconstruction is noted in the guide to a collection of the library at Louisiana State University.

Thanks to Mr. Gene Sisco for the information about the 1868 courts martial and for raising the Captain in the first place. I hope we’ll hear more from him as he continues his research.

4 Responses to “James Madison Cutts of Washington, DC”

  1. Bing Spitler says:

    I liked your write up regarding James Madison Cutts. You wrote in one page what it took me 7 years to research. I know the title is somewhat controversial; however, the notation “Triple Medal of Honor,” is listed in the Congressional Records and Carl Sandburg used it in his description of the Lincoln Reprimand, pg 581-582, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. No disrespect intended but I stand with Sandburg. Bing Spitler

  2. Brian says:

    Hi Bing,

    Thanks very much for weighing in – certainly no disrespect shown or felt! My disagreement with “Triple MoH’ is largely semantic, not deeply substantive. Also, I doubt my one-pager can be compared to your years of work …

  3. CD Cutts says:

    Thanks for the tidbit on a distant Cutts

  4. N. Damer says:

    You may know this already, about Cutts’ pre-war education, and history.
    Cutts had a BA from Brown and a law degree from Harvard. He was the chief prosecutor against Clement Valladigham. Cutts likely had a lot of promise and talent in addition to whatever family connections he had.

    Like a similarly impressive Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, coming into an army with an impressive educational background, and as a volunteer too, probably played a great part in their being quickly promoted.

    Cutts’ family background may well have been a factor, though, in having Lincoln take the time and trouble to personally hand write that amazing letter. It should be required reading for a lot of today’s uncivil politicians!

Please Leave a Reply