Old Army Courts Martial: Overview

“The court, after mature consideration, finds the accused guilty.”  No soldier wished to hear those words.  However, courts martial were a frequent occurrence in the Old Army.  Enlisted men and officers alike often encountered army justice.  By the end of the 19th century roughly one-third of U.S army personnel were involved in a court martial.  Infractions ranged from the serious (rape, murder, desertion, etc.) to minor (missing roll call, sleeping out of quarters, etc.).  The severity of the infraction and make-up of the garrison determined the type court martial imposed on a soldier.

Composition of the Court

Military trials were similar to their civilian counterpart.  A typical court martial included the arraignment, witness testimony, deliberations, and sentencing.  However, key differences between military and civilian courts included the composition of the court.  A typical court martial consisted of the defendant, judge advocate, and court panel.

An 1895 courts martial manual states that the role of judge advocate is to “prosecute in the name of the United States, but when the prisoner has made his plea, he shall so far consider himself counsel for the prisoner as to object to any leading question to the many of the witnesses, and to any question to the prisoner, the answer to which might tend to criminate himself.”  Essentially the judge advocate served as the prosecutor, but also had the responsibility that the defendant received a fair trial.  He did not factor into determining a verdict or, in the case of a guilty finding, the punishment.

The court panel consisted of 1-13 officers.  The highest ranking officer of the court served as president.  The court president served “as the organ of the court, to keep order and conduct its business.  He speaks and acts for the court in each case where the rule has been prescribed by law, regulation, or its own resolution.”

The severity of the infraction and make-up of the unit determined the type of court martial imposed on a soldier: general, garrison, regimental, field officer, and summary.  Below are brief overviews of each type of court.

Group of 13 officers serving as a court martial panel in the Army of the Cumberland, circa 1865. Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes (National Archives).
General Court Martial

General, regimental, and garrison courts martial are among the oldest U.S. Army tribunals.  All three appear in all published regulations from 1814 on.  Initially, general courts martial covered a wide-range of crimes.  However, by the 1890s these panels tried mostly capital crimes (i.e. crimes punishable by death).

The panel of a general court martial included 5-13 commissioned officers plus a judge advocate.  Fewer than five court members were allowed if no more were available.  These courts tried officers, enlisted men, cadets, and civilian government contractors.  Punishments inflected by these courts ranged from a written censure to death by firing squad.

Inferior Courts

The other four main types of 19th century U.S. Army courts tried non-capital crimes and are known collectively as inferior courts.  All four courts had limited punishment jurisdiction: no more than one month of hard labor, forfeiture of no more than one month of pay, and/or reduction of a non-commissioned officer to the ranks. The limitations just referenced pertained to those punishments only.  Additional penalties, including flogging, carrying a weight, hair shaving, etc. were also imposed, especially during the first half of the 19th century.

Regimental and Garrison Court Martial

Regimental and garrison courts each consisted of three officers.  In both instances, the junior-most officer served as court recorder.  A Civil War-era military justice manual described the roles and responsibilities of a recorder.  “His duties as to preparation, conducting the  prosecution, and  keeping the record, are similar to those of the judge advocate.  But, unlike the judge advocate, he is a member of the court, and merely conducts the case with the aid and concurrence of the other members.  Regimental [and garrison] courts are good schools in which young officers may, while acting as recorders, learn the duties of judge advocates.”

Field Officer Court

The exigency of the Civil War and draw on available manpower, especially the officer corps, prompted Congress to establish the field officer court martial in 1862.  A single field officer, serving with the same regiment as the defendant, tried cases normally punishable by a regimental or garrison court martial.  In 1874, the Judge Advocate General determined that field officer courts were only legal during times of declared war.

Summary Court

On October 1, 1890, Congress passed an act adding summary courts to the military judicial system.  Summary courts streamlined due process for soldiers charged with minor infractions.  Rather than languishing in the guard house for weeks or months enlisted men appeared in court within 24 hours of their arrest, Monday-Saturday.  Like the field officer court, one commissioned officer, second in rank at the post or station or of the command of the accused, comprised the summary court.

Courts Martial Database

Old Army Records will shortly launch a searchable database on this website.  Our first dataset will include courts martial.  Since most U.S. soldiers served during the later half of the 19th century, the dataset is heavily weighted towards that time period.  However, we have general, garrison, regimental, and summary court proceedings from 1807-1900.  Please check back for detailed information and specific examples of each type of courts martial.  In the meantime, feel free to contact us with questions or research suggestions.


Field Manual for Courts-Martial (1864)
The Judge Advocate and Recorder’s Guide (1877)
Manual for Courts-Martial (1895)
Military Laws, and Rules and Regulations for the Army of the United States (1814)
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)
Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861 (1863)




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