The Grim Crime Abraham Lincoln Pardoned Joe Biden's Ancestor For

Sometimes the most unlikely set of connections proves strangely true. Maybe we're talking full-on butterfly effect, where one tiny change in an otherwise predictable system creates massive ripples. Maybe we're talking some weird and highly improbable coincidence, like a guy at a random bar in Amsterdam being the cousin of the lady who delivered you at birth. Maybe it's a chain of events, like a loose shoelace causing you to miss a green light that would've resulted in a car accident. And sometimes, a Civil War-era presidential pardon grants us a 21st-century president. 

To be fair, the same outcome might have happened even if President Joe Biden's great-great-grandfather hadn't received a presidential pardon from good 'ole Honest Abe, i.e. Abraham Lincoln. As it stands, Moses J. Robinette — ancestor to the United State's current commander-in-chief — spent one month in a military prison at Fort Jefferson, Key West, Florida instead of two years. 

Historian David J. Gerleman reported in The Washington Post that Robinette lashed out at another man, John J. Alexander, after hearing Robinette talking smack about him in a Union Army mess tent in 1864. Robinette brandished a pocket knife when confronted, slashed up Alexander, and was sentenced to two years of hard labor in a Florida prison. Lincoln wound up pardoning Robinette after three Army officers sent letters to the president saying that Robinette had no choice but to defend himself against a much bigger man.  

A Civil War-era knife fight

As the tale goes, Moses J. Robinette operated a hotel in Virginia — now West Virginia — when the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861. The hotel was destroyed, Robinette's wife Jane died, and Robinette fled with his children to Maryland. There, he wound up working for the Union Army not as an enlisted soldier, but as a civilian taking care of ammunition and pack animals. Gerleman says his duties with pack animals extended to "veterinary surgeon" despite not having any medical training. 

The night the two men came to blows, Robinette, 42 at the time, pulled a knife and cut Alexander several times before their fight got broken up. The charges against Robinette claimed that he'd been drunk and had caused "a dangerous quarrel," per The Washington Post. Robinette, meanwhile, claimed that he'd acted in self-defense and that Alexander, "possibly might have injured me seriously had I not resorted to the means I did." Ultimately, Robinette was convicted in a military court on all charges except attempted murder.

Later on, three army officers spoke up to defend Robinette, claiming that he'd acted "under the impulse of the excitement of the moment" to protect himself from a person "superior in strength and size" per Gerleman. A West Virginia senator received their petition and passed it along to Lincoln's secretary, who gave it to Lincoln, who issued a pardon for Robinette on September 1, 1864. This wasn't highly unusual. Lincoln issued more than 300 pardons during his presidency, including for war crimes, civil crimes, and even attempted bestiality, per The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

A story waiting to be told

The story about Joe Biden and Abraham Lincoln crossing paths across time comes to us via David J. Gerleman, adjunct professor at George Mason University who specializes in 19th-century history and the U.S. Civil War. Gerleman said he paid a visit to the U.S. National Archives, did a bit of digging, and found a "slender sheaf of 22 well-preserved pages of his [Moses J. Robinette's] trial transcript, unobtrusively squeezed among many hundreds of other routine court-martial cases." In summation, Gerleman wrote that the tale of Joe Biden's great-great-grandfather illustrates an "unexpected intersection in the histories of two American presidents, Lincoln and Biden — a story that has waited 160 years to be told." Those curious to learn more can read these original, handwritten transcript documents, although be forewarned: The cursive is pretty intense and practically illegible.  

While some might invoke the hand of fate to explain events, Robinette's story at least represents a curious confluence of circumstances connecting two men to the same seat. It's possible that Robinette might have died while serving his sentence, but he'd already had children by then, so there's no way to say if fulfilling his full sentence would have changed anything. As the Larimer Country Genealogical Society records, Robinette lived almost another 40 years after his pardon and died in 1903. The "Robinette" family name then got passed on through multiple generations after that. Joe Biden's parents gave it to him as a middle name.