Sunday, December 27, 2009

Streamlining the Military Courts

The military service file of a soldier in the Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry includes a document that details the proceedings of a trial. It is fairly common to find records of this kind for individuals who have broken the rules and are brought before a formal courts martial. However, this case is different, because the soldier appeared before a less formal Field Officers Court.

This is the first time I've come across this reference, and it required me to make a side journey off the main research trial to learn more about this type of organization.

I emailed my friend Michael Schaffner, who has a keen interest in clerical and other bureaucratic functions of the volunteer armies during the war and has portrayed a clerk as a living historian. He replied quickly, and, in a follow-up discussion in person the next day, explained how the Field Officers Court came into existence by an 1862 Act of Congress. The goal was to relieve stress on the general courts martial by allowing minor infractions to be tried on the regimental level. The field officers presiding over each trial were led by the lieutenant colonel or major.

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was a fan of the innovation. He wrote in his Memoirs (Vol. 2, p. 397):
In camp, and especially in the presence of an active enemy, it is much easier to maintain discipline than in barracks in time of peace. Crime and breaches of discipline are much less frequent, and the necessity for courts-martial far less. The captain can usually inflict all the punishment necessary, and the colonel should always. The field-officers' court is the best form for war, viz., one of the field-officers — the lieutenant-colonel or major — can examine the case and report his verdict, and the colonel should execute it. Of course, there are statutory offenses which demand a general court-martial, and these must be ordered by the division or corps commander; but the presence of one of our regular civilian judge-advocates in an army in the field would be a first-class nuisance, for technical courts always work mischief. Too many courts-martial in any command are evidence of poor discipline and inefficient officers.
The Field Officers Court was not adopted by all regiments. The Eighth U.S. Colored Infantry did, and in the case of the soldier mentioned above, he plead guilty to being absent without leave and received a ten dollar fine: A small infraction handled appropriately and quickly be his peers, without bogging down the larger organization in extra paperwork and taking time from an already overburdened court system and the officers detailed to it.

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