Disgraced! or how to lose your shoulder straps

 During the Civil War, a commissioned officer could be stripped of his commission for particularly heinous offenses such as cowardice in the face of the enemy, inciting mutiny, committing rape, and defrauding the government or his men among many other crimes. Today’s blog post looks at a couple of instances of lower echelon commissioned officers who were stripped of their rank in a very public fashion.

Forms of public humiliation as depicted above were common forms of Army punishment for enlisted men, among them the soldier being bucked on the lower right, the soldier tied to a tree, another carrying a log, while a fourth stands atop a barrel. Commissioned officers, supposedly held to a higher standard of conduct, were usually given less public forms of punishment. 

          The first case involves Second Lieutenant George M. Burnett of Co. F of the 145th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. This 100-day regiment mustered into service June 9, 1864 and was sent to Schofield Barracks at St. Louis, Missouri where it performed a multitude of rear area duties.  Burnett was all of 21 years old when he was commissioned second lieutenant and it was his inexperience that led to his trouble. “While officer of the guard, he left his post in company with several men of his company and entered the premises of a German gardener named Bradermus for the purpose of robbing his orchard. While there, one of the men shot and killed Bradermus with a musket,” it was reported. Burnett, a resident of Marion, Williamson Co., Illinois, “is said by his comrades to be an excellent young man, of a gentle disposition, and not at all disposed to shirk from the performance of his duty. His desertion of his post and raid upon the apple orchard was a thoughtless country boy’s frolic and it is said that he ordered the soldiers not to fire upon the German.”

          Regardless, it was determined that Burnett was an accessory to murder and he was ordered stripped of his rank. “He was marched out by a corporal’s guard at dress parade and the orders read condemned him to be dishonorably dismissed from the service, to forfeit his pay, and to have all military insignia stripped from his in the presence of the regiment after which he was to be conducted to Myrtle Street prison and held in confinement as accessory to the crime of murder. After the orders were read, one of privates drew forth an old “hawk-bill” penknife, severed the cord on the lieutenant’s hat, nipped his shoulder straps in the bud, and winged the golden eagles that had perched upon his coat. The young man bore his disgrace in silence, but he must have felt his degradation deeply.” The Illinois State Adjutant’s office shows, however, that Lieutenant Burnett was honorably discharged with the regiment on September 23, 1864, so one is led to suspect that he was cleared of the charges and restored to rank.

          No such luck for a German officer of the 54th New York Infantry. It was Tuesday May 27, 1862 at Mooresfield, Virginia; the 54th New York was part of Colonel Henry Bohlen’s Third Brigade of General Louis Blenker’s division attached to General John C. Fremont’s Mountain Department. The Blenkers already were rapidly gaining an unsavory reputation for depredations upon the citizens of Virginia, and the 54th New York was no exception. But what landed Captain Charles Wahle of Co. I in hot water was not mistreatment of the civilians, it was mutiny!

This soldier is spending the afternoon "riding the rail" while carrying an ungainly wooden sword. Public humiliation was one way the army tried to get the highly independent-minded volunteer soldiers under control; one wonders how successful it really was if post-war reminiscences are to be believed.

          “At West Point, Virginia, Co. I of the 54th New York Vols was color company and the colonel (Eugene A. Kozlay) wished to assign the colors to another company. At dress parade, Captain Wahle refused to parade his company and even stacked arms and told the men to refuse to take them,” it was reported. “He was arrested, tried  by court martial for mutiny, convicted, and would have been shot had not General McClellan commuted his sentence," it was reported.

          “The ceremony took place in a large field. The regiments were formed into columns of divisions each column close to the next so that it made an unbroken front. They were then formed into a hollow square, the commanders of regiments, brigades, and divisions and staff were in the center. The prisoner was brought in under a heavy guard and handcuffed. They marched him to the center of the square. The prisoner stepped two paces to the front of the guard; the officer commanding the guard then came forward and told the prisoner to take off his hat. He then read in a loud voice the charges specified and sentence of the court martial which was ‘That his sword be broken before his face, that he be publicly disgraced before the division, and served one year in the District of Columbia jail, and it shall be disgraceful for any soldier of the Army of the Potomac to associate with him hereafter.’ After this was read, a sergeant came forward and cut all the buttons from his coat, then took his sword and broke it in half saying as he did so, ‘I hereby declare it disgraceful for all men of the Potomac to associate with this man hereafter,’ and then threw the pieces on the ground. The prisoner was marched off under the same guard,” it was reported. Wahle’s separation from the army was apparently more permanent than Burnett’s, but the New York state adjutant general’s records show that he was not dismissed until March 14, 1863.

Colonel Kozlay reported all sorts of problems with the officers of the 54th New York. “What a trouble I have with the officers. I have to see to everything myself. Such a neglect I never saw in my life; if I am not after them at all hours, nothing is done,” he reported in May 1862. If Wahle’s example is any indicator of morale, life with the 54th New York in 1862 was filled with drama. In the aftermath of the Battle of Cross Keys, Kozlay reported that Colonel Bohlen charged General Blenker with incompetency, and Blenker charged Bohlen with cowardice. After one of his soldiers was shot by a soldier in the 58th New York due to carelessness, Kozlay complained that  “No wonder, there is no head or tail in this army. I, for my part, don’t trust any of them, not even my own officers are far as veracity goes,” he wrote.  Colonel Kozlay later discovered that several of his officers had filed false musters and when he brought the matter to the attention of the War Department, nothing was done. Matters became so bad that Colonel Kozlay ended up resigning his commission in early 1863, refusing to any longer associate with such a “dishonest lot of men.”



“A Warning to Young Officers,” Belvidere Standard (Illinois), August 9, 1864, pg. 1

“Disgracing an Officer in the Presence of the Army,” Belvidere Standard (Illinois), July 1, 1862, pg. 1 (originally reported in the Philadelphia North American)

Service Diary of Colonel Eugene A. Kozlay, https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/54thInf/54thInfKozlayJournal1.htm


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