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Biographical Cyclopaedia and Portrait Gallery
Vol. 6, page 1354

Burnett, Henry L., General, was born at Youngstown, Ohio, December 26th, 1838. The Burnett family -- or Burnet, as it has been frequently spelled -- is one of the oldest and most honorable in the United States. More than one of its representatives have occupied positions of eminence and usefulness in the history of the country. One of the first of the name who attained distinction was William Burnet, colonial governor of New York and New Jersey from 1720 to 1728, and afterward governor of the Colonies of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Governor Burnet is the director ancestor of the branch of the family from which General Henry L. Burnett is descended.

Another in the line -- the grandfather of Henry L. -- was a prominent supporter of the Revolution. His name is not infrequently mentioned in old records of the time, and he shared with Robert Morris and other patriots the honor of becoming bankrupt by the dedication of his fortune to the cause of independence.

Others of the family -- near relatives of this man, and living in the same State of New Jersey -- rendered like distinguished service to the country in that early struggle. William Burnett, a prominent New Jersey physician was a member of the famous Continental Congress of 1776, and of the same body in 1780-91. From the year '76 till the close of the war he held the responsible position of surgeon-general for the Eastern District of the United States. He also suffered a great loss of property in the contest, including his valuable library, destroyed by British marauders.

He was the father of several illustrous sons: Dr. William Burnet, Jr. of New Jersey; Major Ichabod Burnet, of Georgia; Hon. Jacob Burnet, a distinguished Ohio pioneer; and David G. Burnet, colaborer with General Houston in securing the independence of Texas, elected Provisional President of the Republic of Texas, chosen Vice-President of the same during Houston's term as President, and elected to the United States Senate from Texas in 1866.

Along other collateral lines of the family were Henry Clay Burnett, of Kentucky, who served four terms in Congress, and during the War of Secession, was a representative from that State in the Confederate Senate; Peter Hardeman Burnett, born in Nashville, Tennessee, and afterwards made governor of California; Waldo Irving Burnett, of Massachusetts, author and naturalist, who gave great promise, but who was stricken down by disease at the age of twenty-six; and General Ward Benjamin Burnett, who won distinction in the Mexican War.

We have no space, however, and it is not our purpose here, to furnish a complete catalogue of the distinguished members of this family, but to consider briefly the remarkable career of one of its later represenatives. Returning to the grandfather of General Burnett, we find him a man of rare culture and polish for the times in which he lived. But there was also latent in his character the stern will-power and rugged self-reliance which had earlier enabled his Puritan ancestors to contend successfully against the obstacles of a new country. Finding himself impoverished by his patriotism, he left the State shortly after the close of the Revolution, and removed his family as far west as the territorial wilderness of Northern Ohio.

For many years a severe struggle for existence ensued, and, while he succeeded in establishing a substantial home, he could not confer upon his children the educational advantages he had enjoyed, nor create about them the atmosphere of comfort and civilization he had enjoyed in the older State. Consequently the father of General Burnett manifested more of the rugged force and less of the cultivation and refinement nad gentle bearing of the grandfather. Yet the father, notwithstanding, was a remarkable man. He was a builder, contractor, and farmer, and while devoid of anything more than the merest rudiments of an English education -- not having mastered the simple principles of arithmetic in schools -- he yet had devised an original system of mathematical calculation which answered all the purposes of his business. When Henry had mastered, not merely arithmetic, but the higher mathematics, he found his father's methods of computation as convenient and accurate as the rules in the books.

The tastes and propensities of the son, however, reverted to the grandfather rather than to the father. The latter discouraged him in the acquirement of any education beyond that comprised in the very limited curriculum of the primitive district schools, wishing him to follow a business career rather than a professional life. But the boy's tastes inclined him to study, and his aspirations pointed to a professional career.

As a spur to his ambition he had the example of a brilliant career of a man of his own name in Ohio, a first cousin of his grandfather, Judge Jacob Burnet, already mentioned. This man was an able lawyer and jurist, a judge on the bench, a State senator in the early Ohio Legislature, and the author of "Notes on the Early Settlements of the Northwestern Territory" -- one of the most valuable and interesting contributions to the early history of that region.

The determination of the father that his son should follow his own homely business, and abandon his dreams of education and distinction, at length aroused the resolution of Henry, who seemed to have been born with his full share of the hereditary willpower. Accordingly, one night, he stole out of the loft where he slept, and with a bundle of clothes, forty-six dollars in his pocket -- which he had carefully saved -- and two books -- "Thaddeus of Warsaw" and the "Lady of Lyons" -- he left his home, and set about the realization of his own dreams.

He was fifteen years of age at that time. He traveled one hundred miles on foot to Chester Academy, where James A. Garfield was then a student. His expenses while studying there were about $1.25 each week, which he partly met with his earnings by ringing bells, building fires, and turning his hand to whatever odd jobs offered a chance to make a penny. Young Burnett continued his studies, later on, at Hiram Institute, where, for a time, Garfield was his tutor. Afterward he entered the Ohio State and National Law School, and was graduated in 1859.

Immediately upon his admission to the bar, in 1860, Mr. Burnett began the practice of law at Warren Ohio. But just at this juncture the war-cloud of the Rebellion burst over the country, and he enlisted in response to one of the earliest calls for volunteers. An incident connected with this fact is worthy of record as illustrating the courage, energy, and impetuousness in action which afterward characterized his service to the country.

The first command of cavalry enlisted in Ohio was authorized to be raised by a special concession from the War Department to Senator Benjamin F. Wade and Congressman John Hutchins. The call to enlist was for volunteers who should bring horses with them, for which they would receive pay at the hands of the Government. In response to this call, a company -- afterward organized as Company C of the Second Ohio Cavalry -- gathered at Warren, Ohio. Here the men were astounded to learn that, in exchange for their horses, certificates or receipts were to be given in lieu of cash, the time of payment being in the discretion of the Government.

The dissatisfaction was general. A large part of the men had come in the hope of leaving behind them the prices of their horses for the support of their families. Many refused to enlist. They were upon the point of scattering for their homes when one of their number, the young lawyer Burnett, mounted a fence, and shouted: "Those who go into this war to fight for the cause, and not to sell their horses, follow me into this yard." For a moment the men hesitated, and then, amid cheers, one after another guided their horses into the inclosure, and were soon transferred to camp at Cleveland, Ohio, where they were mustered into the service, with young Burnett as their duly elected captain, he being only twenty-three years of age.

The Second Ohio Cavalry, under command of Colonel Doubleday, was sent to Missouri, and took an active part in the battles of Carthage and Fort Wayne, and accompanied the expedition into the Cherokee country, through Arkansas and Indian Territory. The commander of this expedition devolved upon a Colonel Weir, who was utterly incompetent at the time by reason of his intemperate habits. He finally left his men stranded on the prairie near Fort Gibson, Arkansas, in a starved and dying condition, cut off from their base of supplies and all communication with the rear, while he indulged in prolonged dissipation.

In this emergency a council of the colonels of regiments composing the command was held, and resulted in the arrest of Colonel Weir. Major Burnett was detailed, with a squad of men, to make the arrest of Colonel Weir. He also prepared the manifests, issued to the soldiers in defense of this action by Colonel Salomon, of the 9th Wisconsin. Major Burnett was also dispatched, to proceed with all speed ahead, along the line of retreat, and inform General Blunt, at Fort Leavenworth, of what had been done.

Colonel Weir, released from custody by some blunder on the day following Major Burnett's departure, discovered the latter's destination, and a long race of about two hundred miles occurred between the two men, as exciting and romantic as any incident of the war. By a fortunate combination of energy, ingenuity, and good luck, Major Burnett succeeded in getting the ear of General Blunt a few minutes before Colonel Weir's arrival, thus permitting him to file prior charges, and save the troop and his brother officers from summary treatment as mutineers.

General Burnett also served under General Burnside during a part of the Knoxville campaign, and was promoted, from time to time, to the rank of brigadier-general.

In July, 1863, Captain J.M. Cutts was relieved from duty by General Burnside as judge advocate of the Department of the Ohio, and ordered to be himself tried by court-martial. General Burnside sent to the front for an officer to act as judge-advocate in Captain Cutts's case, and Major Burnett was selected. July 20th, 1863, General Burnett's conduct of the case of Captain Cutts resulted in his conviction; and gained General Burnett no little reputation, and he was confirmed in the position of judge-advocate of the Department of the Ohio by appointment from Washington.

His jurisdiction was eventually extended to the Northern Department, that department and the Department of the Ohio being merged into one. The duties of this position were onerous, and entailed great responsibility. Among many important cases tried by him, the conviction of F.W. Hurtt was almost as notable as that of Captain Cutts. Upon the application of Governor Morton, of Indiana, he was detailed to try the famous cases of the Indiana conspirators, and he acted in these cases at Indianapolis by day, and traveled to Cincinnati each night to direct the work of the clerks in his department, instruct the special judge-advocates under him, and examine and correct all papers before proceedings were begun in the various cases to be tried.

The Department of the Ohio included the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, while the Northern Department embraced the great Northwestern States, where were situated nearly all the Government military prisons. Cases were constantly arising for trial in connection with these prisons. The burden of work thus thrust upon General Burnett's shoulders might easily have occupied the entire attention of a half-dozen men.

Scarcely had he finished the Indiana case when the trial of the still more notorious Chicago conspiracy was forced upon him. This proved to be a widespread and cunningly-planned scheme to liberate and arm the large force of Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas. In order to secure the services of General Burnett's abilities and experience, the defendants and witnesses in this case were brought from Chicago to Cincinnati.

The strain upon him had become almost unendurable, yet while he was in the very act of delivering his closing address in the Chciago conspiracy case, a telegram was handed him from Secretary of War Stanton, summoning him to Washington to take part in the trial of the Lincoln assassins.

The part he performed in this capacity is a matter of national history. With Judge Holt and Hon. John A. Bingham, he shares the distinction of convicting the conspirators, and of exposing the connivance of famous Confederate officials in the attempt upon the lives of the chiefs of the Federal Government. General Burnett was appointed to prepare the official account of this trial, and the large volume published by the War Department -- "The Assassination of President Lincoln, and Trial of the Conspirators" -- was compiled under his supervision, with the assistance of a stenographer.

In two interesting papers, read before meetings of the New York State Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, December 5th, 1888, and April 3rd, 1889, General Burnett carefully sets forth two important phases of this famous case, and completely refutes slanders which have long assailed the reputations of two of the most honorable officers concerned -- General Hancock and Judge Advocate-General Holt. These papers have been published by the Loyal Legion.

The first, on "General Hancock's Relation to the Trial and Execution of Mrs. Surratt," disproves the reiterated assertion that General Hancock, then commanding the Middle Military Division of Washington, refused to surrender Mrs. Surratt on a writ of habeas corpus, issued by Judge Andrew Wylie, of the Supreme Court, and conclusively shows that the refusal to surrender the woman was by order of President Johnson, Commander-in-chief of the Army, and General Hancock's military superior; whereas General Hancock appeared before Judge Wylie, delivered the President's order, and was himself excused by the court from all responsibility, Judge Wylie declaring that the court had "no fault to attach" to him.

The other paper, on "The Controversy Between President Johnson and Judge Holt," is an equally conclusive exoneration of Judge Holt in the question of veracity between him and Preisdent Johnson as to whether the judge-advocate had withheld or suppressed the recommendation to mercy of Mrs. Surratt, signed by five members of the commission of nine which condemned the conspirators to death and imprisonment. These papers, from the hand of one of the persons most intimately connected with the history of the assassination trial, are not alone able and intensely interesting to the reader, but timely and important in setting at rest for the future historian some mooted questions which grew out of the affair.

After the conviction of the Lincoln conspirators, General Burnett undertook some special work confided to him by the War Department. When this was completed, in December, 1865, he resigned from the army, and began the practice of law in Cincinnati in association with Judge T.W. Bartley, late chief justice of Ohio. In 1869, Judge Bartley removed to Washington, while General Burnett formed a new partnership with Ex-Governor J.D. Cox and Hon. John F. Follett, of Cincinnati. This association continued until 1872, being only interrupted by the few months when General Cox served as Secretary of the Interior in President Grant's Cabinet.

During the years from 1865 to 1872 he removed to New York City, and immediately took a strong and influential position at the bar of the metropolis. In 1873 he was appointed associate attorney and counsel of the Erie Railway Company. He gave his entire time and services in this capacity throughout the administration of President Peter H. Watson, but resigned his position in 1875, when the Hon. Hugh J. Jewett succeeded Mr. Watson.

At this juncture General Burnett once more resumed the general practice of law in partnership with Hon. B.H. Bristow, William Peet, and W.S. Opdycke. He subsequently withdrew from this firm, and formed a partnership with Ex-Judge James Emott, which continued until the latter's death, several years later. Since that time he has been associated in practice with Mr. Edward B. Whitney.

The general's law practice has always been important and iminently successful, and he has been identified with many notable cases, not alone in New York State, but in various other parts of the country. He was counsel for the English bondholders in the famous Emma Mine litigation. Among the opposing counsel was the Hon. Edward J. Phelps, late United States minister to England. The final result was in favor of General Burnett's clients.

He was also associated with Hon. A.F. Walker, and made the closing argument, in 1885, in the celebrated case of the Rutland Railroad Company versus Ex-Governor Page, of Vermont. The plaintiff sought to recover something like four millions of dollars, and the evidence covered the review of Governor Page's transactions for a period of twenty-five years, covering more than fifty millions of dollars. The trial was in actual progress for nearly three months, and was one of the most heated and exciting legal battles ever fought in New England. "It is the most important civil suit on the docket for trial," declared a journal at the time, "since the celebrated case, heard in 1824, in which Daniel Webster was one of the counsel."

The resulting mental strain and tension caused the sickness or death, soon after, of several persons concerned. But, although he had been most active throughout the entire cause, the wonderful constitution which had before served him so well during his extraordinary serves as judge-advocate, once more stood General Burnett in good stead, and he merely suffered a short mental exhaustion, which a few weeks of rest entirely dissipated.

At the outset, popular prejudice was quite formidable against Governor Page; but as the case progressed, a revolution in sentiment ensued, with the result of a complete victory and vindication for the governor. This case attracted the attention of the press thorughout the country, and especially in the city of Boston. Many references to General Burnett's management of the defense and final argument of a character highly commendatory and complimentary, appeared in the leading journals. Concerning his skill in cross-examination, one editor bears this testimony: "Even if General Burnett had won no previous reputation in the legal forum, the consummate ability displayed in conducting the defense of Governor Page would stamp him as the peer of the greatest advocate of the age.

The cross-examination of the expert McLaughlin -- conducted so courteously and gentlemanly that the witness was repeatedly falling into the error that the examiner was Clement's counsel, and yet so turning the expert's testimony that it became evidence for the defendants -- is but one instance of the ability of the man." "Keen, polished," remarked another editor, "with perfect confidence in himself, his case, and his client, a few sentences from General Burnett will clear away the cobwebs from a law point in a very few minutes."

Space does not permit us to dwell upon other numerous and important cases which General Burnett has tried.

In politics the general has always been an ardent Republican, doing more or less work on the stump in various States in every national campaign. He has never held civil office, however, having never been an applicant, nor allowed himself to become a candidate for political preferment.

The general is a member of a number of clubs, including the Union, Colonial, Century, and Metropolitan. He is first vice-president of the Ohio Society, and for several years was president of the Land and Water Club.

His wife, a lady of great literary culture and high social position, was formerly Miss Tailer, of one of the old Washington Square families of New York City. She is descended from Governor Tailer, who was governor of Massachusetts during the Colonial period.


Henry L. Burnett
Map to Gen. Burnett Pages
Gen. Burnett's Will
Gen. Burnett's Grave
Gen. Burnett's Promotions
Biography of Gen. Burnett
Gen. Burnett's Military Career

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