Military Courts Martial – my new displacement activity…

Quill penI’ve spent some time over the past week or two reading accounts of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century courts martial for my next book, An Unwilling Alliance.   A surprising number of them came to absolutely nothing and the novelist in me desperately wants to know the full story behind how they came about. Were charges brought maliciously? Commanding officer didn’t like the look on your face? Got off because you were really good at hiding the evidence? Or because you were really good at your job and nobody wants to lose you? So many possibilities, I’m going to have to be forcibly restrained from court martialling half my characters now, it sounds like so much fun…
 
Surgeon James Dalzell of the 32nd in 1800 is my favourite so far, though. He got into it in an Assembly Room (probably drunk or fancied the same girl in my opinion) with his commanding officer Major James Wentworth Mansergh and made use of “unwarrantable and most offensive language” by telling him “the said Major Mansergh that he was a damned rascal and a Scoundrel and no Gentleman and threatening to pull him by the nose and afterwards on the same night repeating the same language raising his hand in a threatening manner and again threatening to pull him, the said Major Mansergh, by the nose.”
 
Surgeon Dalzell seems not to have actually been arrested for this until six months later and on that occasion he really kicked off and informed Major Mansergh in the presence of soldiers of the 32nd in the barrack yard that “his command was a damned rascally one to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Clearly something had ticked Surgeon Dalzell off beyond the telling and if there was a man on that court martial with a straight face by that point, he was a better man than I am.  A brief search has revealed that to threaten to “pull a man’s nose” was considered an insult likely to lead to a duel in the ante-bellum South and when I need another distraction I am going to download that article in full as I want to find out the origin of that one.  Certainly it is clear that Surgeon Dalzell and Major Mansergh were not going to be exchanging Christmas gifts.
But the plot thickens even further.  Enter Captain William Davis who was also court-martialled in 1800.  Captain Davis was also charged with using disrespectful and improper language to Major Mansergh in the barrack yard on the same evening that Surgeon Dalzell hit the proverbial roof.  While no nose pulling appears to have been involved here, Captain Davis followed the major, attempted forcibly to stop him and called him “a damned Rascal and a Scoundrel and at the same time raising his hand in a threatening manner to the prejudice of good Order and Military Discipline.”
Now there is clearly a bit of a theme here, and it looks as though the court was able to spot it.  Surgeon Dalzell, interestingly was acquitted of the charges of nose-threatening and general name-calling.  The court made mention of something that Mansergh said about the surgeon in a conversation with Captain Davis that evening in the barrack yard which had caused Dalzell to lose his temper.  Although he was acquitted, he was instructed to make an apology to Major Mansergh for improper language and conduct.  The wording of the apology is very specific – I’m guessing all Dalzell had to do was read it out and the matter was over.  Clearly the court felt that whatever had happened, Dalzell was provoked.
Captain Davis wasn’t quite so lucky and I wonder if that was because of his rank.  Certainly given that he went for his commanding officer in front of the enlisted men on the parade ground, he was very unlikely to get away with it.  Captain Davis was found guilty and suspended without rank or pay for the term of two years.  Even so, the court expressed some sympathy for Davis, pointing out that his treatment by Mansergh, while it can’t justify his actions, certainly mitigated his sentence.  Presumably without it, he might have been cashiered.
The editor has very kindly provided footnotes of what happened to the principals in the various cases and that’s where it becomes interesting.  Captain Davis sold out the following month, presumably unable or unwilling to live without pay or rank for the next two years.  Surgeon Dalzell must have taken his medicine and made his stilted apology to Major Mansergh because he remained in the army and was appointed Surgeon to the Forces in Ireland in 1804.  Clearly he managed to control his temper better in the future.
Major Mansergh was not the subject of the court martial but that did not stop the court from expressing its opinion that his conduct appeared “highly reprehensible, in not having supported his command with more propriety and energy”.  What else was said off the record, or by Mansergh’s own commanding officers is not recorded, but Major Mansergh sold out the following month and did not return to military service.  Somehow I have a feeling there might have been a celebration in the mess at some point…
The book containing these fascinating stories is A Collection of the Charges, Opinions and Sentences of General Courts Martial as published by authority by Charles James (published in 1820).  It’s frustrating not knowing the stories behind some of these trials but what is interesting to me is a novelist is the outcomes of many of them.
Until I started looking in to military discipline in more detail, I think I had assumed that a court martial was seen as a disgrace and the end of an officer’s career but clearly that is not the case.  In both the army and the navy, officers were court-martialled, acquitted or received minor punishments and went on to do very well.  Captain Bligh of the Bounty survived no less than three courts martial during his career.
Court martial seems to have been a valid way of seeking an enquiry into an incident.  An officer censured for some error would often ask for a court martial to clear his name; a good example of this would be Lt-Colonel Charles Bevan after the fiasco at Almeida in 1811 whose request for a court martial was denied, a fact which contributed to his suicide.
The other fact about a court martial which came as a surprise to me was that the King looked at all trial records and had the right to override either the verdict or the punishment.  I was aware through research into the Peninsular War that the commander-in-chief had the right to commute sentences on men convicted of local offences but it appears that it was not uncommon for the King to completely overturn the decision of the General Court Martial, either in deciding to declare a verdict of not guilty, or simply to announce that he no longer required the services of the officers involved.
In matters of military discipline in the 18th and 19th century there must always have been a lot of leeway depending on individual circumstances.  An officer committing an offence needed to be charged by a senior officer and there must have been many occasions where a good officer got away with an informal reprimand simply because he was good at his job and valued.  Equally there would have been senior officers with a bee in their bonnet about particular issues for example Admiral Gambier was known to be an evangelical Christian and used to fine his officers for bad language.  Commanders confident in their relationships with their officers will have used different methods of management, saving court martial for extreme cases in the same way that a good manager rarely uses the formal disciplinary process.  There are always variations from the strict letter of the law.
And that’s probably a good thing for one of the officers of the 110th infantry…
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