By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 1999, 2008, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This review was originally published in The Charger in the Fall of 1999.
It comes as no surprise to anyone who reads about the Civil War that not every regimental colonel was as heroic, wise, or noble as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. For that matter, not even Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain always was, although he came pretty close. When the war broke out in 1861, armies were raised in a hurry on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and commanding officers were appointed with sometimes only the most meager qualifications. Many were political appointees in state-raised units, more skilled at maneuvering in smoke-filled back rooms than on the field of battle. In command of troops, some did well, most did adequately, but many failed.
It’s reading just why they failed that makes Thomas P. Lowry’s Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels so interesting. Lowry has pored over every Union court-martial record in the National Archives (there are over 100,000 of them) and produced this representative sampling of military misadventure, misconduct, and malfeasance at the highest regimental level. He begins with an interesting overview of the military justice system from Roman times to the American Revolution, then up to the outbreak of the Civil War. He then groups his courts-martial studies into five areas — cases involving insubordination, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, failure of leadership, cowardice, and miscellaneous.
Lowry emphasizes the constant tension between the freedom of a citizen in a democracy and the unquestioning obedience (in that pre-Nuremberg and My Lai era) considered necessary for an army officer. “A command is an order,” Lowry writes, “not a suggestion or a basis for discussion. But unquestioning obedience to a command is not a common trait in Americans. The regular-army men had some familiarity with obedience and authority….The volunteer colonel, on the other hand, faced challenges from below, from within, and from above. Below him were roughly 900 enlisted men and junior officers, whose obedience he needed and to whose needs he must attend. Within, he had his own ambivalence about authority, mixed with various wishes for glory and admiration. Above him, he had commanders whose orders might or might not suit him.”
Some interesting patterns emerge as one reads this fine book. New York and Pennsylvania were responsible for a disproportionate number of court-martialed colonels, perhaps because the strong political machines in those states produced more politicized and, presumably, less qualified colonels. In quite a few cases, criminal charges were concocted by ambitious or resentful junior officers seeking to rid themselves of unpopular commanders. Alcohol was a common theme in many courts-martial, with either the accused colonel or the accusing junior officer having overindulged. There were more courts-martial during winter months, when troops tended to be encamped, with more opportunities to get into trouble. Many of the most disputatious colonels, physician members of the Roundtable will not be surprised to learn, were lawyers before donning Union blue. Acquittal rates were over 50% throughout the war, with many an accused colonel being cleared of all charges and ordered to “resume his sword and his duties.”
One who was unexpectedly cleared of charges was Col. David H. Williams of the 82nd Pennsylvania. During the Peninsula Campaign in June 1862, Williams failed to post pickets and, when Confederate troops infiltrated his lines, he allegedly “became so much frightened as to give several orders countermanding each other, and was so confused as to be unfit for duty.” A week later, cowering behind a tree, he ordered his troops to open fire on soldiers they recognized to be comrades of the 61st Pennsylvania. His troops refused to fire. When Williams repeated his order, some of his men yelled, “Come out from behind that tree, you damned coward, and see for yourself!”
Every court-martial verdict was passed up the chain of command, and sometimes even all the way to President Lincoln himself. A general reviewing a court-martial verdict could confirm or reverse the verdict, or remand the case for a new court-martial. Some of the best writing by a general reviewing verdicts was by George B. McClellan when he led the Army of the Potomac. McClellan was, Lowry writes, “a man who relished the admonitory and uplifting possibilities of court-martial reviews. Whether it was the wisest use of his time may be questioned, but he was more than equal to the task of writing a court-martial review that would stand any degree of literary scrutiny.”
Tempers often flared in wartime, however, and the reader will find plenty of less-elevated discourse. There were insults aplenty flung about, with Union officers accusing colleagues of being anything from “a damned knave, a damned fool and an illiterate whelp,” to “a miserable reptile,” to having “a mouthful of tongue.” The reader will find taunts such as “General Logan can kiss my ass,” “You damned Hungarian humbug!” and “I’ll pull your nose on dress parade.” No less a personage than Gen. Henry W. Halleck wrote of one Bavarian-born officer, “I would rather trust my dinner to a hungry dog than give [a general’s star] to a foreign adventurer of this stamp. I have not the least doubt he would take pay on either side and fight on none.”
We all know about the best and brightest of the Civil War; here’s the bottom of the barrel. Here are examples of misconduct ranging from the most contemptible cowardice, to the colonel who liked to have obscene ditties sung to him, to another with a taste for “low and bawdy engravings,” to thieves, brigands, liars, and drunkards with eagles on their shoulders. Not to mention the officer who confessed of a late-night civilian visitor to his tent, “I felt of her bosoms.”
For a very readable and insightful overview of Civil War-era military justice and an entertaining glimpse into wartime folly and criminality, I highly recommend this book.
From the publisher: An engaging roster of curmudgeons, drunkards, and fools From the author of The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, Thomas P. Lowry’s Tarnished Eagles is the first systematic look at Civil War courts-martial, and…it offers the surprising finding that officers, in fact, were in trouble more often than the enlisted men….Lowry lets their court-martial records speak for themselves…while drawing some far- reaching conclusions from their experiences as a whole.
More than 100,000 men in the Union army faced courts-martial during the years of the Civil War. In this new study, the author has chosen 50 Union colonels and lieutenant colonels to highlight the difficulties in placing civilians unfamiliar with the rigors of army life in command. For example, one colonel was so drunk he fell off his horse, another was nicknamed Stumpy because he tended to shout orders from behind a tree stump, and still another was so drunk that he made an indecent exposure of his person in the presence of a lady, after which he rode his horse into a gully and fell headlong from the saddle. The stories of these tragicomic characters, and of many more contained herein, will add significant commentary to the burgeoning study of Civil War misbehavior.
Dr. Thomas P. Lowry is a retired professor of psychiatry. He is the author of The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell, The Attack on Taranto (with John W.G. Wellham), and The Civil War Bawdy Houses of Washington, D.C.
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