Honor, Military Reputations and the Truth in the Sutton Case

Major Henry Leonard

Major Henry Leonard

The influence of a gaping and curious public can have no effect on the conduct of the Judge Advocate in this matter. . . . The hallowed grave of a dead son is no more sacred than the grave of a military reputation and there are a great many military reputations at stake in this hearing.—Major Henry (Harry) Leonard 

A 33-year-old hero who had lost his left arm in the Boxer Rebellion, Major Leonard proved to be a formidable judge advocate and an ideal one to handle Rosa Sutton in what was supposed to be an unbiased investigation into the facts surrounding Sutton’s death. As it turned out, Rosa needed to be handled—she was strong minded, a devout Catholic, and just as determined as he was to defend values that were (and are) sacred to a large number of Americans.

The “curious public” egged on by the press was one reason for the 1909 Inquiry. How much impact did public opinion really have on Leonard’s actions in the summer of 1909? His comments reveal his concern about his own reputation, and also his awareness that his duty was to be impartial. Was that possible? As a Marine Corps officer, his actions were also driven by his loyalty to his fellow marines. So Leonard hoped the accused marine’s attorney could attack Rosa Sutton’s credibility. Arthur Birney would go after her mental stability, and, aware that many spectators were empathetic to the military, he proclaimed: “We know what an officer’s honor is to him. It cannot be stained without the same kind of injury which is done to a woman’s honor when it is stained….”

The case became a battle between protagonists who fought hard for sacred reputations and for their own versions of the truth. This timeless conflict has often governed the exigencies of military justice; it plays out in this case in a way that makes the subject fascinating and telling. In 2007, when A Soul on Trial was first published, journalists were following other families whose sons died in the military under questionable circumstances. Their mothers faced evasive answers in the face of devastating tragedy. (One high profile example was the case of Patrick Tillman.) Today, with the proliferation of misinformation online and by high profile public officials, searching for truth is even more complicated.

America’s service academies—then as now—are always scrutinized more than other institutions of higher education in this country. Because so many citizens had a stake in what happened in the Sutton case, the government’s representatives fought for the hearts and minds of Americans inside this military courtroom. The Marines’ code of conduct was just as important to them as Rosa Sutton’s spiritual mission–to ensure Jimmie would have a place in Heaven– was to her. So, to a large extent, it was almost inevitable that the nation’s newspapers shaped the public dialogue and the lawyers’ closing arguments both in the makeshift courtroom in Mahan Hall and outside of it.

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