Life in the army was very different from anything the recruit had known before. The most marked difference was the total control men with chevrons or gold rank insignia had over the men in the ranks. Officers or non-commissioned officers told them when to get up, what to eat, what to wear, what to do during the day, and when and where to sleep. This was something for which the average, rural American of the 1860’s was completely unprepared.
This control sprang from the unique set of laws, the 101 Articles of War, which governed both armies, and indeed were the same for both armies. In theory, every violation of an Article of War could lead to a formal court-martial, but in fact most violations were drunkenness, insubordination, theft from fellow soldiers and civilians, disrespect to superiors, sitting while on guard, leaving a post without authority, and being absent from camp without a pass. The company’s first sergeant usually kept a list of petty offenders and their names were sure to be mentioned whenever an especially unpleasant task came up. They might have to dig or fill up latrines, bury dead horses, or help company cooks.
If the offence were sufficiently serious the culprit might be tried by a special court-martial. This was convened by a regimental or garrison commander, or commander of similar rank and consisted of three officers. Chaplains, surgeons, assistant surgeons, and paymasters were not allowed to serve on the board. The special court-martial’s jurisdiction was limited to non-capital cases. Officers could not be tried before a special court-martial. If found guilty, the defendant could not be sentenced to lose more than a month’s pay or serve more than a month in prison or at hard labour. Non-commissioned officers could be demoted to the ranks.
In fact, these court-martials often imposed shorter, but harsher sentences than specified in the Articles of War. A man could be bucked and gagged, that is be made to sit with a gag in his mouth, his knees raised and arms outstretched. A thin log would be passed under his knees and over his elbows and his hands and ankles would be tied so that he could not move. He might be kept in that position for six to twelve hours. At the end of that time, the prisoner would usually be carried to his quarters, unable to walk, often sobbing uncontrollably.
A prisoner might be made to wear a cannon-ball, some six to 32 pounds in weight, shackled to one leg by a two to six foot long chain for a similar period. A man could be made to stand on a barrel for hours on end, perhaps wearing a sign indicating his offence, or holding a log on his shoulders, or he could be made to march around the camp wearing a barrel whose top and bottom had been knocked out. An artillery man could be lashed to the spare wheel at the rear of the caisson, the caisson perhaps being driven over rough roads to add to the prisoner’s discomfort. A cavalryman could be made to ’ride’ a wooden horse or parade around the camp carrying his saddle. An infantryman might be made to march around the camp wearing a knapsack full of rocks.
At the beginning of the war flogging was a legal punishment, but it was banned in the US Army in August 1861 and in the Confederate Army in August 1862. Thereafter officers did occasionally have their men flogged, but this usually ended up with the officer facing a court-martial. Branding, however, remained legal throughout the war. Deserters were branded, usually on the forehead, cheek, hand, or hip, with the first letter of their crime. ’D’ for deserter, ’C’ for cowardice, ’T’ for thief, or ’W’ for worthlessness. Not all branding was done with hot irons; indelible ink was often used instead.
In serious cases, including capital offences, any soldier, regardless of rank, would be tried by a general court-martial. This was convened by army or department commanders, and in the US Army after 24 December 1861 by division and detached brigade commanders. The board consisted of from five to thirteen officers, all higher in rank than the accused. The senior officer was the President of the court and he both conducted the court and ruled on questions of law. A judge-advocate was also present to certify that the court was correctly conducted, as well as to summon witnesses and try the case. He was also to serve as the counsel to the defendant until a plea had been entered. The defendant could also seek an outside counsel, although this counsel was not allowed to address the court but was present only as a ’friend of the prisoner’.
Although not strictly legal, both sides resorted to ’drumhead court-martials’ in emergency situations. These were quickly convened by a commanding officer to punish extremely bad behaviour, and just as quickly adjourned, the defendant having been found guilty and punished. At least one Union soldier was hanged as the result of a drumhead court-martial.
Since it had to rule so much territory without civilian governments, as the war progressed the US set up military commissions to try cases involving local civilians and soldiers.
Soldiers convicted of serious crimes were usually imprisoned in a federal jail. Deserters and cowards were often drummed out of the service. Their sentences were read out at the retreat parade or a special parade, their buttons and rank insignia were ripped from their uniforms, their heads usually shaved, and, wearing a sign proclaiming their guilt, they were marched out of the camp surrounded by soldiers carrying their arms reversed. Drummers beat ’The Rogues’ March’, or, in the Confederate Army, ’Yankee Doodle’.
In extreme cases such as murder, mutiny, treason, rape, desertion or sometimes even theft or pillage, the sentence was death. In all, 287 Union soldiers were executed for these crimes, most having been found guilty of desertion.
Most military executions involved firing-squads. In some cases, such as black soldiers being found guilty of raping white women, hanging was used. During the early days of the war, crimes against civilians such as rape or murder were usually punished by hanging, while military crimes were punished by firing-squad. Later, the firing-squad was the usual method of execution, although prisoners were occasionally hanged throughout the war. In both types of execution, all nearby units were made to witness the execution to bring home the seriousness of such crimes.
When a soldier was executed by firing-squad a fairly set ritual was followed. Witnessing units were formed on three sides of a square, facing in. The prisoner, after praying with a clergyman of his choice, was dressed in civilian clothing, usually a white shirt and dark trousers, so as not to disgrace the uniform, and was placed in a wagon with his coffin to go to the place of execution. Led by a corporal, a funeral squad of eight men, marching with arms reversed, accompanied the wagon, with drummers beating a funeral march.
A firing-squad of a dozen men waited at the site. The prisoner, having arrived, was helped off the wagon and in turn often helped carry his own coffin to the grave which had already been dug. He then sat on the coffin while his sentence was read aloud. Another prayer from the clergyman followed and he was then given a chance to say his last words. Some men showed bravado, one even drinking stagnant water from his own grave. Some wept or shook with fear. The condemned man was then blindfolded and his hands were tied behind him. He then knelt either before the grave or on the coffin; the provost marshal gave the command, and the firing-squad fired the volley. It is said that the weapon of one man in the firing-squad was loaded with a blank cartridge, the idea being that each man might take comfort from the thought that he might not have fired the fatal shot. The fact, of course, is that there is very little recoil when firing a blank cartridge.
A surgeon then proclaimed the man dead. If, as often happened, the prisoner survived the volley, the provost marshal advanced and administered the coup de grace.
In virtually all executions, witnesses were horrified by what they saw, and often felt anger at their own officers; they often felt that the condemned man was more victim than transgressor.
Indeed, often they were, for the law was applied on both sides with a very uneven hand. In late 1862 six deserters from the Army of Tennessee got off with some ’fatherly advice’ from their commanding general, while other Confederates were noted as having deserted as many as six times, caught, but simply returned to the ranks without punishment. On the other hand, Private Samuel Mapp, a black soldier from Virginia, was convicted of mutiny, disobedience of orders, and threatening the life of a superior officer for joining a protest against the inequality of pay scales between black and white soldiers. He was shot at City Point, Virginia, on 20 April 1865.
Taken from Civil War Source Book by Philip Katcher.
Article supplied by Pvt. D Jarwick,43rd North Carolina.
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, February 2002