Prologue Magazine

Campaigns and Courts-Martial

Fall 1995, Vol. 27, No. 3 } "Honorable Reports"

By Michael P. Musick


Desperate charges and countercharges by serried ranks of soldiers were a frequent feature of Civil War combat.  Those same engagements were liable to engender additional charges and countercharges with pen and ink after the smoke had cleared, with decisions rendered in a formal court of military justice.  From the private who discovered a pressing need to attend to matters in the rear to the corps commander who failed to press an attack, those whose behavior on the battlefield was called into question could find themselves hauled before a solemn tribunal to explain their actions.  The transcripts of the proceedings of courts-martial and courts of inquiry can be an important source of documentation on military operations.

Finding proceedings for a specific engagement can be challenging but is far from impossible.  Some courts are well known, such as those that tried Gen. Fitz John Porter for supposed derelictions at Second Bull Run and that for Gen. G. K. Warren for Five Forks.  General Porter's constitutes an entire book (Series I, Vol. XII, part 2, Supplement, serial 17) in the Official Records, and the OR includes those of other officers as well.1  Some were also separately published.  Almost all surviving examples are Federal, and most remain in manuscript in Record Group 153, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army), entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, 1809-1894.  As might be expected, there is no index to this entry by name of battle or campaign.

The only index to the thousands of case files is alphabetical, by the name of the person being tried, and does not provide the charges or subjects covered. It is reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1105, Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts-Martial, 1809-1890.  Of course, the majority of cases do not involve combat but deal with lapses of discipline under other circumstances.  In addition to the name of the accused, the index also shows his rank, regiment, company, the president of the court, the judge advocate, and when and where the court convened.  Six different indexes on M1105 cover 1861-1865 (II through OO). Names listed only by the first letter of the last name in one place are indexed again in a fully alphabetical listing, an overlap that confuses many.  Moreover, because years overlap, a complete search often requires an examination of all six indexes.  By knowing units involved in an action, and its date, educated guesses can be made to identify pertinent files.  When a file number is found (e.g., MM 1256), the original, unmicrofilmed proceedings can then be requested.

Another tool for matching files with particular battles is to scan the general orders or general court-martial orders of the commands concerned.  In addition to War Department orders, those for organizations like the Army of the Potomac or the Army of the Cumberland should be considered.  The general orders will give the charges, specifications, and findings in a case.  War Department General Orders No. 56, dated March 9, 1863, is illustrative.  In that issuance, the charge of "Misbehavior before the enemy" against Maj.. Delozier Davidson, Fourth U.S. Infantry, is given.  The specification is "In this; that [the major] being in immediate command of his regiment on the 27th of June 1862, did, about the commencement of the battle of Gaines' Mill, absent himself, without authority, from his command, and did not rejoin it until the 13th of August, 1862, at camp near Harrison's Landing, Virginia."  We can then check Major Davidson's name on Ml105, and having gotten the case file number (KK 700), read the testimony on Gaines' Mill.

The illuminating character of many of the first-person accounts in the case files is illustrated by that of Surgeon Wilbur Phelps Morgan, of the Ninth Maryland Infantry, in a court of inquiry that examined the capture of most of his regiment at Charles Town, West Virginia, on October 18, 1863.  Only the opinion of the court was printed in the Official Records, while the extensive testimony, of which this is a part, is omitted:

Surgeon Morgan, 9th Md. Vol. Inf., was duly sworn.2

 Q. by the Judge Advocate:

 Surgeon Morgan, will you please state to the Court any facts within your knowledge relative to the capture of Charlestown, Va., on the 18th of last Oct., beginning your narration with a statement as to the location of the pickets on the evening of the 17th and morning of the 18th of October?

 A: For three weeks previous to the 18th of Oct.  I was confined to my bed the greater part of the time by remittent fever.  But from riding around with Col. Simpson, before taking sick, I saw there were eight inf. reserve picket posts at an average distance of from one half to three quarters of a mile from the court house.  The cavalry pickets were changed while I was sick, I do not know for certain with regard to them.  From 5 to 6 men were sent to each cavalry post on the evening of the 17th.  I saw them start myself.

 On the morning of the 18th when the alarm was given, I received my first notice of the approach of the enemy from my colored man, who said "they were coming in reality this time."  I got up and went over to the court house.  I saw the 1st Sgt. of Co. C,3 which company was on picket the night of the 17th, and he said they had been driven in by a considerable number of the enemy, and that a large force of them had passed around the town on the south side.  When I arrived at the court house the men were forming.  We remained there for some time after the enemy opened with artillery from the rear of the court house.  The last shell I noticed fired at the court house burst and struck the Adjutant.  I picked him up, and carried him into one of the side chambers of the court house.  When I cam out to took for an ambulance to get him off, the Regt had gone out of the court house yard into the street, and was going towards Harper's Ferry.

 My driver told me that the ambulance horses were wounded or killed.  I turned to go to the court house, when one of the men told me "Doctor, the Adjutant has just died, you need not go back."4  I then caught and mounted my horse about 10 yrds. from the court house.  I was riding near the head of the column, calling to the men to form those companies.  The regiment continued in this way to within 100 yrds. of Briscoe's woods.

 At that place a very heavy fire was opened by a large force of the enemy stationed in these woods.  I noticed at this time a number of guns dropped and thrown to the ground by our men, the men saying we had better surrender at once. My horse was struck at this juncture, and dashed down around two wagons towards the head of the column, turned to the left and went across an open field. There was a private in the advance on the Quartermaster's 5 horse, and my horse followed his.  At this time, as I neared the fence, I saw the rest of the field and staff officers on my left.  We were abreast at that time.  We crossed through two gaps in the fence into the road, and made our escape to Duffield.

Appendix A

Appendix B

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Source: Paul E. Barr and Michael P. Musick, eds., "They Are Coming! Testimony at the Court of Inquiry on Imboden's Capture of Charles Town," Magazine of the Jefferson County [WV) Historical Society, 54 (December 1988): 15-53.

1. The proceedings of General Porter's court-martial were published earlier in Proceedings and Report of the Board of Army Officers Convened by Special Orders No. 78, Headquarters of the Army, the Adjutant General's Office, Washington, April, 1878, in the Case of Fitz-Jobn Porter, together with the Proceedings in the Original Trial and Papers Related Thereto. In Three Parts, 46th Cong., 1st sess., 1879, S. Ex. Doc. 37 (4 vols, [Vol. 4 consists of maps]).

2. Wilbur Phelps Morgan (born Feb. 25, 1841, in Jefferson Co., VA) entered the University of Maryland to study medicine in the fall of 1860.  "Though Southern by birth, education, and sympathies, [he] could not accept disunion, and therefore entered the Federal Army in 1862" (The Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Maryland and the District of Columbia ([1879]).  After recovering from typhoid fever, he was mustered out Feb. 24, 1864.  Dr. Morgan lived after the war in Baltimore, where he became an eminent physician, renowned for his study and experimentation with pigeons. He died Dec. 20, 1922.

3. The first sergeant of Company C was Edwin H. Newcomer.

4.The adjutant of the Ninth Maryland was Lt. Charles Howard Richardson (born in Baltimore), who had enlisted as first sergeant of Co. A on June 18, 1863, at age twenty-three.  He became adjutant June 22.  A surgeon described his wound thus: "A large fragment [of shell] engaged the posterior & lateral aspect of the right thigh, upper 3d, lacerating the soft parts frightfully, apparently half severing the limb from the body, & crushing the bone from a point near the great trochanter for several inches down the shaft.  The nervous shock was frightful, requiring treatment close at hand.  He was kept at Charlestown some 12 weeks, during which time the limb was sustained in a posterior splint.  The discharge is represented to have been immense, accompanied with sloughing of the parts.  During his confinement at Charlestown, several consultations were held with a view to amputation, but his general condition was deemed too feeble to justify it.  The extremity of the lower fragment protruded through the wound, giving rise to inconvenience & suffering.  It being difficult to maintain it in situ, about 2 1/2 inches were sawn off, the section embracing the entire diameter of the bone."  To the astonishment of everyone Lieutenant Richardson survived his ordeal, becoming a clerk in Baltimore and marrying.  He died at his home in that city No,. 23, 1889, of tuberculosis, aged forty-eight years, eleven months, and twenty-eight days, with burial in Green Mount Cemetery.

5. The regimental quartermaster was 1st Lt. John Turner, who was made a prisoner of war at Charles Town.


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