Blogs > Cliopatria > Hot Mess (Part 1 of 2)

Aug 28, 2011

Hot Mess (Part 1 of 2)

In February of 1804, a court of inquiry met in Boston to consider the complaint of a group of field officers in the Massachusetts militia against their commander, Brig. Gen. John Winslow. The complaint was a great damp pile of butthurt, charging Winslow with behavior unbecoming a gentleman and spooling out a list of fourteen specifications that Tina Fey could have worked into Mean Girls pretty effortlessly, if she'd only known about them in time. Article 11 was that, at a brigade dinner, Winslow had identified one particular captain as the best officer in the line, "to the great injury of the feelings of the Gentmn present." The complainants demanded that Winslow be brought before a court martial. Predictably, the court of inquiry appointed to look into the matter yawned itself half to death, and then went to lunch. Curtain falls.

In March, though, Winslow struck back: he filed a complaint against his accusers, charging them with the ungentlemanly defamation of a superior officer; their "groundless and false" complaint, he argued, "has been highly injurious to the harmony and discipline of the Brigade." Let it not be said that nineteenth-century gentlemen didn't have lots of time on their hands.

The record of proceedings from the court martial of Lieut. Col. Robert Gardner and Majors Benjamin Harris, Asa Hatch, and Amasa Stetson contains not a single word of testimony that speaks to the charges against the four officers. Instead, the judge advocate in the case left behind dozens of pages of closely recorded dudgeon and recrimination. (The judge advocate being both the recorder of the proceedings and a participant, he gave himself most of the best lines.)

Speaking for his fellow defendants during Saturday proceedings, Gardner demanded the removal of the judge advocate from the case, since "it was the opinion of many of their friends out of doors" that Capt. Charles Davis had "evinced great partiality" in the same role during the recent court of inquiry that had shrugged off their own complaint. Davis acknowledged that he had looked over Winslow's complaint and offered his opinion about it before Winslow sent it to the governor, but so what? The judge advocate tells us in the record that he "felt far above insinuations of the kind, the gentleman made."

In the courts martial of the time, defendants spoke to the court only through an intermediary, producing written questions and statements that the judge advocate read to the court and bound into the record. Two hundred years later, you can tell how Colonel X was feeling on Tuesday morning by how many times the pen ripped the page of the questions he propounded for the witness, laced in with crumbling twine between two pages in perfect clerical handwriting. But Gardner refused the premise, repeatedly leaping up to harangue the court and refusing to hand written statements to Davis. Again, the record reads like a high school dramedy: Give him the paper and sit down! No, I won't! Give him the paper and sit down! No, I won't! Give him the paper and sit down! No, I won't! GIVE HIM THE PAPER AND SIT DOWN! (Heavy sigh; chair scrapes.)

But finally, the real break would be the moment when Gardner and the majors, finally called to plead to the charges, demanded the right to be represented by a lawyer. The question presented by this demand was hotly argued well into the twentieth century, but the courts martial of the time had a standard answer: any gentleman could sit next to the gentlemen defendants and discreetly advise them, but the court "would not admit and recognize counsel to act openly." Military officers were expected to manage their own cause, yadda yadda manly republican firmness. Gardner warned the court that he and his fellow defendants were considering whether to object to the entire trial. The record is droll: "It was observed the defendants might do as they pleased."

Exhausted by a day of bickering, the court adjourned until Monday morning. Since the courtroom they were using on Saturday would be occupied by the U.S. District Court on Monday, the court martial decided to meet in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Remember that solution the next time your faculty meeting is bumped from the department conference room.

On Monday, surely noticing the setting, Gardner went right back to it. Interrupting Davis as he tried to call the first witness, Gardner demanded the removal of a member of the court, a fellow lieutenant colonel, on the grounds that the other man had already discussed the case with him privately before the trial and told him he had committed a serious military offense. The court, bless their hearts, didn't see the point. They directed the judge advocate to keep going, and suggested that Gardner stop interrupting for no good reason. You can more or less see where all this is headed.

Finally, Gardner and the other defendants "requested liberty to retire a short time." The court, and what a shame it is that eye-rolling and heavy sighs weren't noted in trial records, suggested that they hurry it up, already. The defendants marched back onto the House floor a short time later with a handwritten statement that they finally handed to the judge advocate without first putting on a show. Informing the court that they had urgently sent word to the governor that his intervention was needed to resolve the unfolding travesty of their court martial, Gardner and the majors conceded that they had not received a reply. There was, they knew, only one path left to them: "We are constrained to protest against the proceedings of the court, and to decline taking any further part in the trial."

Cue eruption. The president of the court martial, a major general, informed the four defendants that they had made a grossly improper statement that was wrong in every premise: "It is easy to demonstrate were it proper to go into an argument with you, that the ground you have taken is untenable, but I forbear." He was equally stern, and equally vague, about the consequences. "Gentlemen," he warned, "you will consider the consequences of the rash step you are about to take, it is a step, which you cannot retrace. I must admonish you against it, and do now declare to you, that if you withdraw from the court, you do it at your utmost peril." (The entire nineteenth century: too many fucking commas.)

With that, the court ordered the judge advocate to read aloud the section of the militia law that made militia officers amenable to courts martial. "The defendants then left the court while the judge advocate was reading the 35th section of the militia Law." The court adjourned without another recorded word of discussion, as if the record itself was momentarily struck dumb. One suspects that they didn't decide to adjourn using hand gestures.

The next morning, the court resumed its trial, and I'm sad to say that I'll surely never discover what conversations went on that evening: what places, what parties, what words, what tone and gestures. Each member of the court was called in turn, and each answered. Then the defendants, "tho' solemnly called," did not. Having heard no testimony to the charges, but bearing a written statement from the defendants protesting against the fact that they were being tried over the contents of a complaint that they acknowledged having written, the court unanimously convicted all four officers of "unofficerlike conduct," sentencing them to be stripped of their ranks. The majors were barred from returning to military service for ten years; Gardner was barred from recovering the status of a military officer for life.

Hurricane permitting, more tomorrow.

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