This is a guest post by Pamela Barnes Craig, Instruction/Reference Librarian and co-author of Being Well-Informed: Congress.gov Training.
As the Library of Congress opens the exhibit The Civil War in America with 200+ unique treasures, there remain many more valuable Civil War collections available for researching and viewing. The Law Library of Congress has several of these collections: House of Representatives and Senate bills, congressional debates in the Congressional Globe, state laws, laws of the Confederate States of America, and an array of other items. Military Trials (or General Court Martial Orders) is one of these collections. Several volumes of military courts martial, 1862 – 1872, spanning the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, were recently digitized and made available for viewing. The names of the accused, the crime(s), findings, and the sentences are provided. In some cases, the presiding officer’s signature can be seen.
These trials provide us with a view of military life and the culture of the period. Life was very different for the soldier during the Civil War period. Most were foot soldiers – those who did not own horses. The U. S. Army supplied basic necessities, like boots, blankets, rations, etc., but certainly not horses. A man had to have a certain amount of wealth to own a horse and have the means to maintain it if he brought it to the Army with him. Since the foot soldier’s life was not easy, desertions were not unusual. Many of the courts martial are about desertion, drunken and disorderly conduct, and “disobedience of orders.” However, charges and findings for spying, treason, and embezzling the U. S. Government can be found among these more common crimes. Interestingly, there are also trials of citizens for spying or aiding and abetting rebels.
The sentences for desertion range from having a ball & chain attached to one’s leg and hard labor to imprisonment. Seeing the sentence “24 lbs. ball & chain” brings new meaning to the modern inference to wives being like a “ball and chain” or even to those of us who listened to Janis Joplin wail about love in her popular song Ball and Chain. One example from a court martial from the 1863 edition of the Military Trials: Middle Department:
To be confined at hard labor, with a 24 pound ball and chain attached to his leg, upon such works as the commanding General may direct, from the date of the approval of this sentence, to the first day of January, (1868,) eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, and to forfeit to the United States all pay and allowances now due, or that may become due to him.
Imagine wearing a ball and chain attached to your leg for five years while you worked!
The sentence for spying or treason was death, usually hanging. While it is not the best example of culture of that period, it does provide a view of the times. Death by hanging was the norm.
And the Court do therefore by the concurrence of two-thirds of the members, sentence him, [Name of accused] to be hanged by the neck until dead, at such, time and place as the Commanding General of the Middle Department may appoint.
These trials can be found via a link on the catalog records on the Library of Congress Online catalog. The military trials encompass several departments:
Military Trials: Middle Department, 1862 – 1866
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the South, 1862 – 1868
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the Cumberland, 1866 – 1870
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the Missouri, 1861 – 1863, 1866 – 1867, 1868, 1869 – 1870, 1871 – 1872
General Court Martial Orders: Department of the Gulf, 1862 -1867
General Court Martial Orders: Department of Texas 1861, 1865 – 1866, 1870 -1872
The military trials are viewable in PDF and Page turner versions. The name indexes have been included and tabbed in the PDF view, and in some of the volumes a subject index is available.
These military trials and general court martial orders, along with the other sources in the Law Library’s collections, provide insight into the military life and times of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. We hope you will spend some time perusing the trials, or researching family members who served during the Civil War.
Are there no records for the Department of the Cumberland prior to 1866? Have they been lost or are they simply not available digitally yet?
I seek Military Commissions and Court Martial trials from the Western Department, a precursor to the Department of the Missouri, based at St. Louis. Are the General orders online?
We were unable to find such a source. This article from the winter 1998 issue of Prologue Magazine, a publication of the National Archives and Records Administration, may provide guidance in locating individual cases.
I’m looking for the case about Boston Corbett disobeying orders in 1865 after shooting John Wilkes Booth in Maryland. Would this be the right place to look?
Thank you for your inquiry. Please submit your question to us through Ask A Librarian
The Court martial summaries can be located in 2 different areas, at the National Archives.
1. RG 153, Entry 2 has the volumes of courtsmartial and general orders
2. RG 393, Part 1, under each of the Divisions, also has the volumes of general orders, and Courtsmartial summaries.
The Boston Corbet Courtsmartial case, of June 1865 is located at the National Archives, in RG 153, Entry 15, Case No. OO-1128