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Court martialI first realized the possible value of court martial records when I read Dr. Mark W. Johnson’s excellent book, That Body of Brave Men. Intrigued by what he had to say about the value of the records, I did a bit of investigating.

As I perused the War Department’s General Orders for 1863 and 1864, it struck me that relatively few cavalrymen were court martialed, and even fewer regular cavalrymen. I was able to make copies of a few records on a couple of visits to the National Archives, and friend Bob O’Neill was kind enough to copy another dozen or more. Much to my delight, there is a wealth of information in these files. Nothing book worthy in and of itself, but countless smaller details that bring the larger history to life.

As a case study, let’s take a look at the court martial of Second Lieutenant Peter Rinner of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry in January 1864. Rinner was a veteran whose enlisted service started in the Mexican War, and a first sergeant in the regiment when he was commissioned the year before. I will save the other details of his service for a future post. The charge was drunk on guard. The specification was “while on Provost Guard with his squadron did become so drunk as to be unable to perform his duty as an officer. This at or near the town of Culpeper, Va. On or about the 24th day of December 1863.”

To set the stage a bit, during the winter encampment of 1863-1864 the regular cavalry regiments and possibly others rotated on provost guard duty in the town of Culpeper, Virginia. Without going into the details of the testimony, here is a sampling some of the information I discovered from just this one record.

  • A squadron strong, the guard rotated shifts daily. The squadron was responsible for guard posts in town and pickets in vicinity of the town.
  • The headquarters for the squadron on provost guard was a room in the Virginia Hotel. The officers on guard, typically a captain and two lieutenants, slept together in this room.
  • It was not customary for there to be a formal mounting of the guard when the relief happened within the regiment. Guard posts included the hotel, the Orange & Alexandria railroad depot, and “the church.” This was probably St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, built in 1821. Specific identification of guards’ names, ranks and companies validated unit roster.
  • Battery G, 2nd U.S. Artillery was located in Culpeper, and its commander, Lt. William N. Dennison, also had a room at the Virginia Hotel. One of the units of the Horse Artillery Brigade, relations between the officers of the battery and the 2nd U.S. Cavalry were cordial enough that there was a party in Dennison’s room on December 23rd which seven officers attended.
  • It was permissible for an officer of the guard to visit a party, drink and play cards as long as his duties were fulfilled and he did not become incapacitated. In this case his squadron commander was present at the time and it was not considered an offense.
  • Company morning report books were required to be signed by commanders every morning, even when the officer was on guard.
  • The regimental adjutant placed officers in arrest, not the company or squadron commander.
  • Division headquarters appointed general courts martial. Brigade headquarters selected the board members selected from the regiments of the accused’s brigade. Both volunteer and regular officers could sit on the court martial of a regular officer. Court martial duty superseded all other duties, including unit movements. The proceedings of the previous day were read to the accused and the court first thing in the morning after the court convened.
  • The 1st New York Dragoons had already joined the Reserve Brigade before the Christmas of 1863.
  • Justice was swift. The court reached its verdict on January 11th. Only two days later, the proceedings were approved by the division commander and sent to Major General Sedgwick, in temporary command of the Army of the Potomac.
  • The Army of the Potomac was cracking down on professionalism during the winter encampment. By February 18th, army headquarters had already published four general court martial orders since January 1st. Each order encompassed the results of multiple courts. This fourth order included four courts ruling on ten officers for various forms of misconduct. All ten were cashiered.

Not every court martial record contains valuable information, but this is definitely a largely underutilized source of primary source material. Another tool available to bring pieces of history to light.

Source: NARA, Record Group 153: Office of the Judge Advocate General. Folder LL1362: Court-Martial of Second Lieutenant Peter Rinner, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, January 1864.