American Civil War for Kids - Army Discipline and Punishments Illustration

American Civil War for Kids - Army Discipline and Punishments

Minor Crimes: During the Civil War, punishment was often cruel and unusual for even minor crimes. Regiment commanders had the authority to decide a punishment. They could make up whatever they wanted. Since most officers believed the best way to keep discipline was to humiliate offenders in front of other soldiers, most of their punishments were designed to do that. In one regiment, six men who were caught stealing a rowboat were punished by having four men carry the boat through camp, while the two other offenders sat in the boat and pretended to row furiously. In other regiments, men were branded with a D for deserter or a C for coward if they had run away in battle. One soldier was bound and gagged, and then on order from the commander, the men filed by him and spit in his face. Some men were whipped. Some men were hung by their thumbs and forced to stand on tiptoe or have their thumb joints pulled apart. There was no consistency. Punishment was strictly at the whim of the mood and temper of the commander of the regiment.

Major Crimes, Executions: Commanders could decide a trial was needed as the punishment for the crime would be death. A trial of sorts was held. If found guilty of murder or another major crime, an empty coffin was placed on a cart, and the accused would be told to sit on the coffin. The cart was pulled through the camp by a pair of horses until the cart reached a firing squad. The firing squad was composed of 12 men. One gun was loaded with a blank so that no man knew if his was the shot that killed the condemned man. The entire regiment might be ordered to march slowly past the dead offender as a reminder of what could happen to them if they broke the law.

Courts-Martial: A court-martial could be called for any major crime but was usually used for cases of treason and spies. If found guilty, the condemned was hanged. During the Civil War, a confession could be beaten or threatened out of a prisoner, and that confession was admissible in court. The jury or panel was composed only of officers. There were several types of court-martial; General, Regimental, Garrison, and Drumhead. In a Drumhead court-martial, a commander could convene a hearing in the field with little or no regard to the law; sentence was carried out immediately. But for other cases, after hearing the evidence, a panel of 3-13 officers would discuss the case. Two-thirds (2/3) of the officers had to agree on a verdict. If a defendant challenged a decision in all but Drumhead military courts, evidence might be reconsidered. As a last resort, the defendant could apply to the president - either Lincoln or Davis - for a pardon.

Civil War Military Trials


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