The military service record of 19th century U.S. soldiers frequently included brushes with army justice. Enlisted men convicted of serious offenses faced imprisonment and their case proceedings often included the statement “the Leavenworth Military Prison, Kansas, is designated as the place of his confinement.” Alcatraz Island held soldiers serving in the Division of the Pacific. However, between 1875 and 1895, Leavenworth became the official prison for most military convicts.
Leavenworth Military Prison Inmate Reception
Upon entering the prison, the convicted soldiers received a unique number and relinquished all personal property. The prison adjutant took responsibility for money. Presumably, a safe held the money. The remaining property, clothing, jewelry, personal grooming items, etc., were kept in a storehouse. Upon completion of their sentence, the inmate received their property. Entries for about 4,000 convicts are in the register kept by the adjutant at the Leavenworth Military Prison between March 1877 and December 1888.
The prison adjutant, detached from an active military unit, acknowledged each entry with his signature. The prisoners also signed the entry, or left his mark. The register, therefore, is a good indicator of the literacy of the inmates.
Personal Items From Money To a “Citizen Hat”
Most prisoners had few, if any, personal possessions. However, for those who turned over items the list was diverse. For example, Private Patrick J. Rourke, member of the 22nd Infantry band, deserted from Fort Wayne, Michigan in May 1877. He surrendered at Fort Porter, New York. There he stood trial by general court martial. Upon being received at Leavenworth on October 5th Rourke (Prisoner #457) brought with him 80¢ and a memo book.
On January 16, 1882, Charles Taphner, Company F, 1st Infantry deserted from Fort Davis, Texas. He was apprehended two days later. The private was found guilty in a subsequent general court martial and received a harsh sentence, which included a three-year prison term (later reduced to two years). Taphner (Prisoner #442) arrived with three other prisoners at Leavenworth on May 29, 1880 with a gold ring and silver watch.
Other examples of personal property of inmates include:
- John Rust (Prisoner #170) turned over 2¢ and a corn husker.
- William McClain (Prisoner #209) turned over 60¢ and a Grand Army of the Republic Badge.
- James Guy (Prisoner #282) turned over $14.75 and a “citizen hat”.
- William Campbell (Prisoner #305) turned over $8.00 and a “Photo Diary”.
- Edward Barton (Prisoner #509) turned over $3.50, a banjo, and a package of books.
- John J. Miles (Prisoner #514) turned over 5¢ and an Indian pipe.
From Little Bighorn to Leavenworth Prison
Several veteran 7th Cavalrymen and survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn served time at Leavenworth Military Prison. On May 19, 1878, enlisted men Frank Howard (Prisoner #174) and Joshua S. Nicholas (Prisoner #343) turned over personal items at the prison. Both men fought at the Little Bighorn. Howard, formerly of Company F, turned over $1.25, while Nicholas, who served in Company H, had a watch and chain and $34.60. In a previous article, I discussed Private Thomas Seayers (aka Sayers) from Company A. Seayers worked at the Fort Abraham Lincoln bakery before and after the Custer Battle. Seayers deserted in June 1878 and surrendered three months later. In February 1879, he arrived at Leavenworth Military Prison, was assigned ID # 255 and turned over $2.03 and a watch.
As Private Seayers demonstrates, the military service record of 19th century soldiers was complex. More importantly, the U.S. Army bureaucracy documented the service history. Old Army Records is systematically identifying, digitizing, and indexing those documents. What details do your U.S. military ancestors have? Contact us to uncover their complete military service record.
Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Department of the Platte, General Orders (1877)
Department of Texas, General Orders (1882)
Division of the Atlantic, General Orders (1877)
Prisoner Book, Department of Texas (1872-1886)
Register of Prisoners Received, Leavenworth Military Prison
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)
Index of General Court-Martial Orders, Adjutant General’s Office, 1880 (GPO 1881)