NJ family’s mission: A Medal of Honor for its Civil War hero
After researching his family history for the past 20 years, Frank White is finally close to having his third great grandfather, David Dunnels White, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for capturing Major General George Washington Custis Lee during the Civil War.
Frank White, 61 of Clinton Township, believes David Dunnels White, a private in the Union 37th Massachusetts Regiment at the time, captured Lee, the son of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, during the battle at Sailor’s Creek in Virginia.
However, in 1894, Harris Hawthorne of the 121st New York Regiment was awarded the Medal of Honor for the capture of Washington Custis Lee.
“I thought, ‘What’s this all about? How can we have such disparaging stories?’ So over the next 20 years, I began to do research in the national archives just to reconcile where in history this lies,” Frank White said.
Now, a team of congressmen in Washington, DC are supporting the White family's effort to award David Dunnels White with the Medal of Honor. The team includes New Jersey Rep. Lance Leonard (R-7th).
The debate over whether Hawthorn or White captured Lee dates back more than 100 years.
In 1897, Frank White says, the Massachusetts regiment protested the Medal of Honor being given to Hawthorne, but the secretary of war at the time dismissed the case, saying the act of capturing Lee was not worthy of recognition at all. In 1916, that decision was overturned, but the question of who deserved the Medal of Honor still remained.
And the more Frank White dug, the more he became convinced that his ancestor captured Washington Custis Lee.
“The White story talked about Custis Lee surrendering his sword. They took his haversack and there were a lot of personal affects in his haversack like his diary, a smoking pipe and a tobacco pouch,” Frank White said. “Harris Hawthorne on the other hand … said (Lee) did not have so much as a jack knife on him.”
In 2011, the White family sent a submission package to the army requesting that David Dunnels White be awarded the Medal of Honor. On July 8, 2014, the family submitted a formal application to the U.S. Army's human resource command asking for a reconsideration of the award, but received disapproval from the acting secretary in March 2016.
This June, Frank White will present all evidence of the case to top Army officials in a two-hour meeting at the Pentagon.
“The White Family asked for my assistance and I was happy to meet with them regarding their strong case," Lance said in an announcement from his office. "The capture of Custis Lee was a turning point in the Civil War and proved a psychological blow to Robert E. Lee. I have reviewed the materials presented by the White Family and I am convinced that it has merit. Introducing this legislation will raise awareness about the issue and help advance a formal review of this award."
"I'm hoping and feel fairly confident that if the Army really takes the time to understand the evidence in the case and how compelling it is, that they will award a Medal of Honor to David Dunnels White," Frank White said.