Battle and disease posed the greatest threats to Civil War soldiers, but errors by the military justice system also caused casualties. While that damage was done only to reputations, it still resulted in painful wounds.

Community-based organizations that they were, Civil War regiments carried with them the baggage of hometown jealousies and rivalries, and opportunistic soldiers could take advantage of missteps their comrades made during the heat of battle to further their own causes.This abridgment from Dennis W.Brandt’s new book From Home Guards to Heroes:The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community, provides an excellent case study of such an incident by tracking 1st Lieutenant Andrew B. Smith’s problems during the fall 1863 Mine Run campaign. Smith’s regiment was raised from the south-central counties of Pennsylvania in 1861,but it had seen duty in rear and backwater areas until it was transferred to the Army of the Potomac and took part in the post-Gettysburg maneuvering in Virginia.

One of its first scrapes came during the Mine Run campaign in November 1863,Maj.Gen. George G.Meade’s slow and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to turn General Robert E.Lee’s right flank.That effort ended along the campaign’s namesake creek,when massive Confederate earthworks caused the Federals to pack it in for winter quarters. Unfortunately for Lieutenant Smith,a young saddlemaker from York, he would find the accusations of his brother soldiers as daunting as any enemy earthwork,and just as deadly to his military service.

November 20,1863,was a happy day in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry’s camp. The paymaster had arrived. Men whipped off letters, stuffed envelopes with cash desperately needed at home,and put their mail into the care of regimental postmaster Edward Reinecker Herr, a two-year veteran eight months shy of 18. Tom Crowl wrote his family, explaining the need for haste:“We have some very hard times at the preasant a count of fixing up for a battle.There will be a fight hear now in a few days and I expect it will be a very hard one.Lees army is laying on the south side of the Rapredan [Rapidan] River and entrenching them selves to a great extent….It is raining very hard and a good sign for three or four days.I supose we will have to move in a few days and it will be towards the enemy.”

Major General George G. Meade wanted to drive a wedge between the separated flanks of the Confederate Army and defeat each singly before winter forced a hiatus in the fighting.The potential was there for another great battle between Meade’s Army of the Potomac and General Robert E.Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.To motivate his men, Meade had a telegram read announcing Maj. Gen. Ulysses S.Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, Tenn. But continuing rain forced a 48- hour delay in plans.

The Army of the Potomac finally moved on November 26.The III Corps spearheaded the movement, but its engineers made a classic blunder when they forgot to consider the recent heavy rains and arrived at the swollen Rapidan River one pontoon short of reaching the opposite bank.The entire corps had to wait while the engineers raced back to camp to retrieve another boat.That task finally completed, the artillerymen had difficulty getting their cannons up the steep,rain-slicked riverbanks. Once more the III Corps waited until the artillery could find a better crossing point.

After shivering for hours,the 525 men of the 87th crossed the Rapidan on a weaving pontoon bridge and scrambled up the mud-greased embankment.The III Corps plunged into the dense, scrubby woodland known as the Wilderness, an area made famous the year before by the Battle of Chancellorsville and awaiting greater infamy under its own name five months hence. Lieutenant Colonel James A.Stahle commanded the regiment while Colonel John Schall was away battling a case of diarrhea. Andrew Bentz Smith, mustered as a first lieutenant just 10 days before,was at the helm of Company H but struggled to keep moving with a bad leg that had plagued him for a year and had grown worse during imprisonment at Richmond’s Belle Isle. Physical ailments would soon become the least of his problems.The instrument of his demise would not be shells or .58-caliber bullets but the crushing weight of Civil War politics.

Already fading hopes of surprising the enemy disintegrated when a portion of the III Corps realized it had gone three miles down the wrong road.The men had little choice but to return to the ford and settle in for a brutally cold night.No one had a tent, and the brass permitted no fires lest they betray presence and strength.

The two armies stumbled into each other the next morning, November 27. By 3 p.m., battle raged hot as the 87th Pennsylvania’s brigade trudged through low-visibility woodland.The men entered a field and crossed behind the Union line, emerging on the extreme left into the open pastureland of farmer Madison Payne; the engagement was to be known as the Battle of Payne’s Farm. Their exposed position invited incoming fire,so brigade commander Colonel Benjamin Franklin Smith ordered his men to file into position under the cover of some irregularly shaped small hills.The 87th Pennsylvania anchored the brigade’s right flank, which gave Stahle the job of tying his regiment to the left flank of the 138th Pennsylvania.

The boys from York scrambled up a 20- foot embankment and latched onto the left of the 138th. Once there, they knew they had problems.“The line of my regiment was formed in the shape of a horseshoe in a very exposed situation,” Stahle reported afterward.The regiment had to form on a finger of land that jutted away, then curled back toward the action. Men on the left had to position themselves with their backs to the enemy and their faces in the line of fire from the regiment’s right. They could not remain there, but to fall back meant realigning on muddy ground 20 feet below the battlefield.They had no choice and formed as best they could.

Lieutenant Smith took his place a few paces in the rear of Company H. Rebel forces surged forward until “opposing lines became wrapt in one dense sheet of musketry,” a 138th veteran recalled.The pressure built, but the 87th could not see the oncoming Confederates unless they streamed down the valley on their left— which the 44th Virginia was doing.

“Fall back!” an officer in the 138th Pennsylvania shouted on the ridge above. The order meant only to re-form a line in the rear and continue fighting, but battle transformed its meaning.The 138th began to break. It eventually got under control but not before running a good distance back into the woods and also leaving bare the right flank of the 87th.

Instinctively,men on the suddenly unprotected right of the 87th Pennsylvania started to inch back. Panic multiplied as a wave of fear swept down the line.The regiment’s good order disintegrated. Then, to a man, the 87th turned and ran into the woods.

Andrew Smith encountered Stahle in the woods somewhere between 100–200 yards behind the line of battle,attempting to rally troops who were showing little interest in fighting. Stahle ordered Smith to assist nearby officers in forming a defensive position. Smith saw no more than a dozen men from any company and none from his own. Shells screamed in, shattering trees and sending men scurrying into the bowels of the Wilderness.Smith started farther into the woods to locate others. Stahle saw him leaving and shouted for him to rally his company.

Smith plunged his sword into its scabbard and shouted back:“My God,Colonel! I have no company any more!”

Smith continued across the brow of a hill and spied 2nd Lts.Charles Henry Stallman and William Henry Lanius with the regimental color bearer. Smith told them they should gather what men they could and move down to the fence line as Stahle had ordered.The three men managed to gather a group of unorganized soldiers and get back on line near another group of 87th stragglers who were fighting near the 40th New York.They saw no sign of Stahle and the rest of the regiment because they had since been ordered to the rear. As many as 80 men of the 87th remained on line until dark, among them Captain Solomon Myers, shooting a rifle like a member of the rank and file.

Night fell,and cries of the wounded replaced the crack of musketry. The residue of 87th men left the battle line to rejoin their regiment. In the darkness on strange ground amid thousands of soldiers, their haphazard search failed.

As they stood in a group talking of what to do next,a soldier passed supporting a wounded comrade. He asked that someone please hold his injured friend while he slaked his thirst.When someone complied,the soldier disappeared into the darkness.Andrew Smith agreed to take the wounded man to the road and point him toward the hospital.The road was farther away than Smith thought. By the time they reached it, the wounded man was in no condition to proceed alone, so Smith took him all the way to the hospital.When Smith returned the other men were gone. He located the provost marshal’s tent and spoke to 87th comrade Theodore Cress Norris posted there,but Norris could not say where the regiment was.

Smith continued to inquire until he ran into more 87th men who were as lost as he was,including a few from Company H with the regimental colors.He ordered his motley band to hunker down near the 138th Pennsylvania and 6th Maryland. When those regiments went to the rear at 4 a.m.,Andrew Smith’s lost squad fell in and found their regiment sometime after daylight.

Two nights later, the boys from York might have been tempted to call their situation “hell”except it was much too cold for the devil. Frigid temperatures robbed men of the ability to speak coherently,and pickets had to change every half hour to avoid frostbite. Men went thirsty because the water froze in their canteens. George Meade had put his army through several maneuvers since the affair at Payne’s Farm, but none had brought on a general conflict.The “grapevine telegraph,” what a later generation of soldiers would call “scuttlebutt,”said that they were going to assault the Confederate line in the morning. Something besides weather concerned them: the sounds of an enemy entrenching,to withstand an assault along Mine Run. There would be a slaughter with the arrival of the sun.They would likely be the sheep.

On the morning of November 30, 1863, Stahle followed orders to place his regiment on the first assault line. He sent Company K 300 yards forward as skirmishers. Federal artillery began shelling the Confederate works at 8 a.m.while the infantry waited for the battle order.The order came,was countermanded, reissued and canceled once more. Nerves were pushed toward the breaking point.

Most military campaigns have at least one signature event, and this was it for the one known as Mine Run.Union officers studied the Southern defensive line laid naked by daylight. Enemy soldiers had constructed strong works, thick abatis, and had formed lines of fire ready to tear apart the Federal flanks.They stood atop the breastworks motioning the Yankees to bring it on. Meade realized frontal attacks would be suicidal,and the Army of the Potomac returned to winter quarters at Brandy Station having accomplished nothing.Meade was certain—unjustifiably so—that he would become the latest in a long line of generals to lose command of the Army of the Potomac for directing another colossal waste of time and life.

When the 87th went into position on the morning of November 30, Andrew Smith was not in the ranks and had been absent for two days. He reported in to Colonel Stahle on December 2:“When I left the ranks it was with the intention of rejoining it in a few minutes but…did not succeed in doing so,being too unwell.And after I was able to proceed I commenced my search for the Reg’t and did not succeed in finding it until next day about 8 o’clock p.m.when I reported myself to the Lt.Col.”

Cowardice may have caused Smith to leave.Then again,he may have been telling the truth. Getting lost in the Wilderness among tens of thousands of soldiers was easy to do. Regardless, Stahle did not accept the excuse and arrested Smith,who tendered his resignation the next day. Stahle passed it to brigade headquarters.

It was not a good time to be asking favors of brigade commander Benjamin Smith.The Army of the Potomac was feeling heat for the aborted campaign, and Colonel Smith’s performance on November 27 had been especially embarrassing. It had been his portion of the line that broke.Rumor said that only the timely arrival of the VI Corps salvaged the situation. The rumor was untrue,but perception was reality even before the advent of mass media.Benjamin Smith had good excuses prepared:“I had no time to reconnoiter the ground over which I was passing….Most of the brigade was thrown in the tangled timber….The enemy was moving in heavy columns.”But the brigade’s low casualty rate did not support any contention of being pressed by the enemy.

When the charges against Andrew Smith and his resignation came to hand on the evening of December 3, Benjamin Smith had found a scapegoat.The 87th had formed the right of his brigade,and it had broken.No one claimed Andrew Smith was responsible,but he was convenient.Colonel Smith refused Lieutenant Smith’s resignation on the technical grounds that it had not included proper documentation from the Ordnance Department. He added a terse order: Smith was to be “dishonorably discharged [from] the service of the United States for cowardice.”

Andrew Smith’s court-martial convened on January 14, 1864, at the camp of the 3rd Division, III Army Corps, in Brandy Station, Va., Colonel William S.Truex presiding.The court offered one charge—“misbehavior before the enemy”— and two specifications: Smith’s so-called desertion on November 27 and his two-day disappearance from November 30 through the evening of December 2. Smith pleaded not guilty to the first specification and to the charge. Possibly revealing information was lost to history when he pleaded guilty to the second specification, guaranteeing there would be no testimony on where he was during those two lost days.

Arresting officer Stahle took the stand first. He agreed with Smith on what had happened November 27, but interpretations differed. Stahle’s testimony was potentially damning to himself.When he said that he had “met the lieutenant coming to the rear,”that could have meant either he was not with his men in battle or he ran faster than Smith to get to the rear.No one asked the question,although technically it did not matter.The specification against Smith was not that he had left the first line but his alleged refusal to rally men on a second defensive line. Stahle named Robert A. Daniel, Alexander Strickler, John Fahs and Anthony M. Martin as the diligent few officers who had remained.He did not volunteer the whereabouts of the regiment’s other officers or why he had not arrested them.The court asked if any other officer had been missing that day, and Stahle had to say yes.

Stahle said that he did nothing punitive to anyone else because he “knew the quality of the men and that they had been doing their duty wherever they were.”The only coward that day was Andrew Smith.

Captain Solomon Myers was sitting on the court-martial. Since he had been just as lost as Smith on November 27 and on the field with him after the regiment broke, Myers should have testified for the defense.What today would be a conflict of interest was not then an issue,nor was the situation unique.In at least two other cases, Myers testified for the prosecution on the same court-martial on which he was empowered to render a verdict.

Smith apparently had no legal counsel other than that offered by the judge advocate. Even had he procured an attorney, however,neither counsel nor the defendant could have asked questions during the trial. Procedure dictated that defendants write down questions and give them to the judge advocate to verbalize. Improvisatory response to testimony was difficult even for an experienced attorney. Nothing better evidences the absence of counsel than Smith’s amateurish first question in cross-examination of Stahle:“Are you certain that you saw me put my sword in the scabbard and retire?” Stahle said he was certain he had.

The prosecution next called 1st Lt. Theodore Cress Norris, who had been serving with the provost marshal on November 27, and from whom Smith had sought assistance in locating the regiment. His testimony did no damage, proving only that Smith truly had been lost and eager to get back to where he belonged.

Sergeant Major Franklin Geise then testified.Stahle had sworn under oath that Smith had been “more than usually excited” under fire.When asked to verify Smith’s demeanor,Geise probably opened eyes when he testified,“[Smith] was not in the least excited.” Stahle had stated that when he had first seen Smith he was in the company of “twenty or thirty men.”To the same question, Geise replied,“At the time Lieutenant Colonel Stahle ordered Lieutenant Smith to rally the men I did not see a single man of the company.”

Stahle had testified that some of his officers had formed a defensive line in the rear and that Smith had refused to take part.When asked if there had been a defensive line formed,Geise said,“There was not.” On cross-examination, Smith asked Geise when the company and regiment re-formed.He replied,“The regiment did not reform until the next morning when Stahle had to say yes.

Stahle said that he did nothing punitive to anyone else because he “knew the quality of the men and that they had been doing their duty wherever they were.”The only coward that day was Andrew Smith.

Captain Solomon Myers was sitting on the court-martial. Since he had been just as lost as Smith on November 27 and on the field with him after the regiment broke, Myers should have testified for the defense.What today would be a conflict of interest was not then an issue,nor was the situation unique.In at least two other cases, Myers testified for the prosecution on the same court-martial on which he was empowered to render a verdict.

Smith apparently had no legal counsel other than that offered by the judge advocate. Even had he procured an attorney, however,neither counsel nor the defendant could have asked questions during the trial. Procedure dictated that defendants write down questions and give them to the judge advocate to verbalize. Improvisatory response to testimony was difficult even for an experienced attorney. Nothing better evidences the absence of counsel than Smith’s amateurish first question in cross-examination of Stahle:“Are you certain that you saw me put my sword in the scabbard and retire?” Stahle said he was certain he had.

The prosecution next called 1st Lt. Theodore Cress Norris, who had been serving with the provost marshal on November 27, and from whom Smith had sought assistance in locating the regiment. His testimony did no damage, proving only that Smith truly had been lost and eager to get back to where he belonged.

Sergeant Major Franklin Geise then testified.Stahle had sworn under oath that Smith had been “more than usually excited” under fire.When asked to verify Smith’s demeanor,Geise probably opened eyes when he testified,“[Smith] was not in the least excited.” Stahle had stated that when he had first seen Smith he was in the company of “twenty or thirty men.”To the same question, Geise replied,“At the time Lieutenant Colonel Stahle ordered Lieutenant Smith to rally the men I did not see a single man of the company.”

Stahle had testified that some of his officers had formed a defensive line in the rear and that Smith had refused to take part.When asked if there had been a defensive line formed,Geise said,“There was not.” On cross-examination, Smith asked Geise when the company and regiment re-formed.He replied,“The regiment did not reform until the next morning when Lieutenant Smith and other men who had straggled joined us.”

Geise continued challenging Stahle’s testimony.Stahle had said the regiment had broken because it had been re-forming to the rear at the time the Confederates advanced.Geise’s testimony and Smith’s subsequent statement to the court agreed that the regiment had held its position a short time before the 138th Pennsylvania collapsed. Geise made it clear that after the break on November 27,the regiment had been in chaos,scattered and without leadership. Geise had just contradicted almost all of Stahle’s testimony.

Smith opened his defense with Private George S.Anderson,who testified that he had been with Smith in line of battle after the regiment bolted. Before that,Anderson had seen Smith talking with William Henry Lanius, Charles Stallman and the color bearer, bolstering Smith’s claim that he had attempted to rally men back on line.Anderson was also among the group Smith had led back to the regiment in the morning and testified that the lieutenant had done all in his power to organize those lost and to find the regiment.

Smith next called Lanius,who by then had been promoted to first lieutenant. Lanius verified that he had seen Smith in line of battle and that Solomon Myers also had been there. Smith’s next questions were obviously intended to establish that not only had he returned to line of battle, but he had ordered Lanius and Stallman to come with him. Lanius’ testimony likely came as much a surprise as Geise’s but in the opposite direction.Smith asked,“How near was I to you, and did I say anything to you?”Lanius said,“I remember of being within five or six feet of him but remember of no words passing between us.”

“Do you recollect whether the colors were near us at that place?”

“I do not.”

“Have you any recollection of Lieutenant Stallman being there?”

“I have no recollection of his being there at that time.”

Smith could only sit and listen to the judge advocate read the written questions and hear Lanius claim loss of memory.Differing interpretations of events or time variances could explain the dichotomy,but so could perjury. If Smith was lying, he was a fool to call a popular officer to the stand knowing he would present contradictory evidence. Lanius was from one of York’s “better” families and had been lauded for bravery in previous fights. Smith’s other witnesses were all privates.

Lanius’testimony should have generated questions for the court to investigate. Either Smith told Lanius and Stallman to rally or he did not; either Stallman was with Lanius at the time and place Smith stated or he was not. Charles Stallman and the color bearer could have answered the questions, but neither was called.The Army had sent Stallman 200 miles away to Carlisle on recruiting duty. Smith should have requested Stallman’s return or called the color bearer to the stand, but that would have required legal acumen a 22-year-old saddlemaker clearly did not possess.The court, faced with a long list of cases to adjudicate,went to no lengths to find the truth.

Lanius eventually contradicted his testimony, but waited 35 years to do it. During George Prowell’s research for the regimental history, Lanius related what happened to him just after the regiment broke at Payne’s Farm.He clearly remembered how he had been standing on the brow of the hill talking with Stallman exactly as Smith had described it.

The incident had remained fresh in Lanius’ memory because while there he had a brush with death, rendered even more vivid by a macabre joke.A shell fragment severed the strap to Lanius’haversack, and when it dropped to the ground, a nearby officer wisecracked how the Rebels had just cut off his base of supplies.If Lanius recalled this after 35 years,he certainly had it in his memory just weeks afterward.

Andrew Smith was not the only 87th man who endured a court-martial for events that occurred during the Mine Run campaign.The others were rank and file tried for absence without leave, all claiming that they had been unable to keep up, and all returning on their own. Separate courts-martials found each man guilty,but none received a severe sentence. Ironically, while waiting for his own trial, Smith had to serve as prosecution witness in the cases of two men against whom he had pressed legitimate desertion charges prior to Mine Run. Even in the court transcripts’cold reflection of events,his testimony seems terse to the point of rudeness.Andrew Smith knew what was going to happen to him and had stopped caring.

Despite Solomon Myers and shaky evidence, the court found Andrew Bentz Smith guilty on all charges and specifications.Military law required only a majority to convict, the ballot kept secret and the written record of deliberation destroyed.We will likely never know how Myers voted or if he made an effort to salvage Smith’s reputation. Myers made only brief mention of the verdict in his diary. Duty forbade him from revealing details,and he did not, even to himself.The court ordered Smith “to be cashiered” but mercifully did not make his plight into a public spectacle.His discharge occurred on February 13,1864.

Smith was one of six 87th Pennsylvania officers dishonorably dismissed from the service before June 1864 but the only one who endured a court-martial.In three other cases, fellow officers successfully assisted disgraced comrades in obtaining honorable discharges.No record emerged describing assistance for Smith.

Andrew Bentz Smith returned to York County and the saddle business he had left behind in 1861, married and fathered three children.The leg that troubled him in the army deteriorated steadily, undermining his health so severely that he had to cease working and move his family into his parents’ home. In June 1875, a doctor amputated the diseased leg in hopes of saving his life, but it was too late. Smith died two weeks later at the age of 34,a casualty of the Civil War as surely as if he had been shot dead in battle.

 

Excerpted from From Home Guards to Heroes:The 87th Pennsylvania and Its Civil War Community, by Dennis W. Brandt, published by the University of Missouri Press.

Originally published in the May 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.