MY FIRST COURT MARTIAL.
BY “ HARRY R. ,” OF WALL STREET.
Mr. “ Spirit.”—Somebody left for me a notice, the other day, to appear at some place, to be then and there tried, for non-appearance at the corner of some street, for the purpose, as I have since learned, of amusing a few boys and “ niggers,” by going through certain evolutions, and marching through sundry streets, to the , no doubt, edification of kitchen maids, the aforesaid boys, “ niggers,” and the officers commanding in some company of the New York State Militia ! I suppose it means that I am to be tried by a Court Martial, but I shan’t go—I’ll see ‘em ––––– first !”
I once entered a Court Martial where the thing was done, I suppose, correctly, for it was done under the direction of officers belonging to Uncle Sam’s regular army, and as it was a rather brief affair, and perfectly new to me, I will give it to you, as you may not have heard anything precisely similar. The occurrence was at one of those extreme Western outposts, where the gallant officers of our infant army are occasionally sent to do penance, for the Lord only knows what sin, by drinking corn whiskey, when they can get it, boxing, running foot races, and divers other equally interesting and agreeable acts, to kill time, do what they will, is rather a hard matter.
I made my advent at this place in the spring, rather an unfortunate time, for they had had a long winter, and eatables were beginning to be scarce, and the drinkables had disappeared some three or four weeks before my arrival, whether in consequence of the insufficiency of the stock laid in the fall previous, or because they had an uncommonly thirsty winter, I don’t know, as I did not trouble myself to enquire.
As I intended to make Fort –––––– a sort of head quarters while examining the Falls in that vicinity, and exploring the country adjoining, I had obtained from a friend in St. Louis a letter to Lieut. R, who was in the main a very clever fellow, but so uncommonly thirsty when I first had him pointed out to me, that he could not be persuaded to leave the bar-room of the boat to see me, although I had sent a special messenger to him, and finally had to go to him myself and present my credentials, and was obliged to take two or three drinks before I could prevail upon him to read the letter and give me the benefit of his advice, as to securing quarters for my accommodation while in the village. Upon reading his letter, and my very modestly preferring my request about getting some place to quarter myself, he says—“ Quarters be –––– ! It’s all right ! I’ll send down a fellow to hand up your traps to the garrison, and you shall make one of our mess. It’s all fixed, so don’t say a word—what’ll you drink ?”
I drank, but what I don’t know, and although I have frequently drank on board these Mississippi steam-boats liquor under a variety of names, yet, I have never been able to say from the taste what the article was, but have shrewdly suspected that whiskey, “ real corn” was the principal ingredient. After giving the bar-room of the boat a benefit, we adjourned to the quarters of the mess, and a “ fellow” was sent down for my traps, and I was regularly introduced to the officers comprising the mess, who, although they welcomed me and appeared glad to see me, were very intent upon looking up demijohns, kegs, jugs, bottles, &c., which were transmitted to the boat empty and came back full.
Previous to leaving St. Louis my friend there had told me that the liquor was bad in that part of the country, and that a little good stuff would be found useful in that climate, and I had given him an order to procure for me as much as he thought I might want, of the very best. He had, fortunately, or rather unfortunately, supposed me capable of hiding a tolerable large quantity, or that I should have a large circle of friends of the thirsty kind, and as he had the management of my liquor business, he had put it on board for me, and it was stowed in the hold with other freight. I had not seen it, had not “ settled” for it, and had no idea of the quantity, until an orderly came to Lieut. R. for him to detail a horse and cart, to bring up my luggage, as in his opinion the whole command would be insufficient without the horse and cart.
The detail was made, and with an hour’s hard work brought up such a number of boxes and other packages, of such an outward resemblance, as to cause not a few of the worthy officers composing our mess to say that I was a devilish clever fellow, and to very perceptably changes their manner towards me from officer-like politeness to affectionate cordiality ; perhaps none among them all felt so much astonishment as myself, for I felt it in my pocket, and never in my life have been more sensibly relieved than when the Orderly reported the “ baggage all up.” I am usually a very quiet person—don’t talk much—and upon this occasion said nothing ; but was forced to think, from the specimens I had seen of the thirstiness of our mess, that if any of those boxes ever travelled with me again they would be minus the contents ; but there is no use in making a fuss when you can’t help yourself, and so I put a good face upon the matter, and that very day at dinner, served at five P. M. in order to make a night of it, the contents of at least two of my boxes went the way of all liquor.
I don’t know what time we went to bed, but when I woke in the morning I had my boots on, and there was a devil of a brushing of clothes, which led me to infer that the rest of our mess had turned in standing. Somehow there didn’t happen to be any parade that morning, and nobody shaved or dressed until dinner time, and although we had made numerous and divers arrangements the night previous for spending the day, after parade was over, very pleasantly, yet no one seemed to recollect it, or if they did, took very good care not to say a word about it, and altogether we were a tolerable miserable set of fellows. The second day we had dinner ditto—went to bed ditto—next morning boots on—no parade—and felt miserable. The third day ditto, entire, only a little worse ; but on the fourth day there was a parade at 12 o’clock, and as that was rather a curiosity to me, I crawled out to see it. Whether the men had benefited by the examples of their officers, or had a natural taste of their own, I can’t say, but, although they were not all absolutely drunk, looked as though they had passed almost as bad a night as we of our mess. Two or three of Lieut. R.’s company were uproarious, and one in particular was very belligerent, so much so as to render it necessary for him to be confined, and kicked up such a fuss generally, as to lay himself liable to a trial by court martial.
The court martial was set down in the books for the next day, and the order was made detailing Capt. H., Lieut. R., and Lieut. W. to convene at 10 A. M. the following morning. That day we dined at 3 o’clock, which was intended to be a very quiet affair, so that all the officers composing the court could be clear minded by the next morning.
But somehow or other, it was rather an oversight in having our dinner at 3 instead of 5, for we got through too early and went to playing “ Brag” and drinking brandy and water, and instead of going to bed sometime during the night, did not get to bed until daylight, and then turned in standing altogether as we were, and were soon as dead to all earthly cares as is usual
upon such occasions. After an uncommonly short snoose, we heard a devil of a row at the door, and Lieut. R. sing out—
“ Hallow ! what in h—ll do you want, and who are you ?”
“ Orderly for the Court Martial at 10 o’clock to-day, sir. Half past 9 now, sir !”
“ O yes ! Court Martial. Yes, yes ! D—n the Court Martial ! but I suppose I must get up, or I may be in the fellow’s place if I don’t ! Cursed hard a fellow can’t have an hour’s sleep now-a-days, but he must be roused up for something. Well, well, I suppose I must get up. Weugh ! what a deuce of a head ache. Hallo ! Orderly, go to my man and tell him to bring me a stiff brandy toddy quick, do you hear ?”
“ Yes, sir !”
“ Hallo ! up—up. Court Martial, half past nine,” sings out Lieut. R. as he catches me by the leg, another by the arm, and gives them no gentle jerk. And so as we could have no more peace on the floor, we turned up, darted ourselves down, and those who preferred it took a strong cup of coffee, while others took some of the same dog that bit them the night before, lit our cigars and wended our way to the court room, which by the way was used for a church when any body came along to preach, a Ball room, Court house, Office, and I don’t know what beside.
I must confess that my curiosity in this instance was stronger than my desire for sleep, although my nap was hardly begun, for with the ominous preparations I had allowed my imagination to “ picter” it as something in solemnity equal to a funeral, and in legality so perfect that a Coke or a Blackstone could not question it, so formal and all that, order and detail made, President and Recorder appointed, but I was young then. The court arrived at the office, the Recorder took his pen and commenced the proceedings, while the President and Lieut. R. were holding a very exciting argument as to the best and most effectual method of “ tapering off,” and became so warm as to cause them to forget their present business entirely, until called upon by the Recorder for their verdict, when Lieut. R. says, “ O, yes ! I know—the old thing, drunkenness—‘tis getting to be too common among the men, and is a low vulgar habit, and must be made an example of ; fine the fellow six dollars and a month,” which was agreed to unanimously, and they were about closing the Court, when they happened to think that they had not seen the man, or the charges against him, and to have it all perfectly correct they concluded to send for the man, and read the charges to him as matter of form, and the Recorder sung out, “ Orderly tell the Sergeant of the Guard to send in the prisoner !” and the prisoner (an Irishman) forthwith made his appearance tolerably sober.
“ Private O’Roucke,” (says the Recorder with a cigar in his mouth,) “ you are being charged with being drunk, disobedience of orders, and ––––– Orderly where are the charges against this man,” (they were handed to him and he commenced reading,)—“
Charge 1st Drunkenness, disobedience of orders, unsoldierlike conduct, &c. Charge 2d. Assaulting Corporal Nokes while in the discharge of his duty. Charge 3d. Profane swearing while under guard. Charge 4th. Using disrespectful language while being handcuffed. What do you plead to these charges, guilty or not guilty ?”
“ In troth, yer honor, I’d tasted a wee drop, and by the same token, it got in my head a bit, but Captain dear, didn’t the boat come, and wasn’t they all drunk, and didn’t my own two eyes see ‘em all as drunk as pipers, bedad––––“
“ Silence, sir,” says the Recorder, “ answer my question, do you plead guilty or not guilty ?”
“ Is it the drunk, ye mane ? If it’s that ye mane, I was drunk, sure, and maybe I did hit Corporal Nokes a wipe and swear a bit, and the rest on’t, O be japers, I see it all now, guilty yer honor, but I won’t do so agin.”
“ Private O’Roucke, have you any witnesses to call for the defence ?” says the Recorder.
“ Divil a witness yer honor.”
The recorder then turns to the court (who had been all the time so excited with their previous argument about “ tapering off” as not to have heard a word of the matter,) and said “ the prisoner pleads guilty and has no witnesses, I suppose we can take his plea ?”
“ O yes,” says the President ; and Lieut. R. says to the President “ six dollars and a month,” and the President says “ yes,” and the Recorder says “ yes,” and then turns to the prisoner and says, “ Private O’Roucke you are fined six dollars and a month’s labor for being drunk, and the next time you get drunk go to bed—so clear out. The court is closed, and let’s go to breakfast for I am half famished.”
And to breakfast we went. The papers were all right, and although the affair was not quite so formal as is usual upon such occasions, yet I doubt very much if taking into consideration the exigency of the occasion, it could have been done more effectual, or just, for the Officers belonging to the—th––––––– were a set of noble fellows, and I left with them my empty boxes and bottles with many a heartfelt sigh.
And, Mr. Spirit, that was my first appearance at a Court Martial in any capacity, and I believe it will be the last.
Source: New York Spirit of the Times 15.51 (14 February 1846): 597-98. (University of Virginia Alderman Library).
Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.
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