While indexing general orders for several military departments in the 1870s I was struck by several orders calling for the detainment of active duty regular officers absent without leave (AWOL). The orders essentially served as all point bulletins notifying all military and civil authorities throughout the country to detain the officers so that offenders could justify their absence. For example, the Adjutant General issued orders to apprehend 2nd Lieutenant John Aspinwall, 7th Cavalry, in May 1874 and Captain William McClellan Netterville, 21st Infantry in March 1876. Military authorities failed to catch up to those two officers. They were eventually dropped from the Army list. However, the case of 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, reported AWOL in 1875, is an intriguing story.
The Civil War catapulted thousands of men into senior leadership roles. One such person was Josiah Sheetz. In the spring of 1861, Sheetz resided in Pekin, the county seat of Tazewell County, Illinois. Responding to the call to arms, Sheetz helped organize Company F, 8th Illinois Infantry, mustering in as a 2nd Lieutenant. The 8th Illinois served in the Western Theater, mostly along the Mississippi River. He participated in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson. By December 1864, Sheetz rose to the rank of colonel, commanding the same regiment he joined in 1861. In March 1865, he received the honorary rank of brevet brigadier general of volunteers.
From Brigadier General to Private
Sheetz resigned his commission in February 1866. However, he was back in the army less than three months later. His return to service was less prestigious than when he first left. He enlisted as a private in the 1st U.S. Infantry. No doubt, Sheetz’s Civil War experience allowed him to advance through the noncommissioned ranks. He soon served as 1st Sergeant, his previous service no doubt factored into the promotions. Within a year of joining the regular army, Sheetz attained a commission as 1st lieutenant in the 30th Infantry; he transferred to the 4th Infantry in March 1869.
Doomed by Standard Military Service
As a regular army officer, Sheetz’s military service record is unremarkable. His responsibilities included roles as adjutant and post treasurer (i.e. financially responsible for money used to fund post schools and funds used to purchase supplies for companies). His downfall began innocently enough. However, facts later proved that improprieties began months earlier and quickly spiraled out of control. In April 1875, Sheetz served with his company at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory. About the middle of the month he was ordered to escort a soldier to the government insane home in Washington, DC. His route took him to Fort Laramie. On his way Sheetz also escorted 11 enlisted, including two defendants and nine witnesses, to Fort Laramie to appear before a general court martial. His Fort Laramie mission would prove ironic.
Absent Without Leave
While in Washington, the Adjutant General approved Sheetz’s request to delay his return to Fort Fetterman by 20 days. Sheetz then proceeded to his father’s home in Illinois, via Chicago. By July neither the Adjutant General nor his post commander had heard from Sheetz. With no information on his whereabouts, the Adjutant General listed Sheetz as AWOL and issued the instructions to military commands across the country to, if encountered, detain him. The various military commands in turn reissued the instructions.
The Military Division of Atlantic, for instance, issued the following circular on July 29th. “Should 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, 4th Infantry, appear at any post or station in this Division, the commanding officer will retain him and report the fact to these Headquarters.” In the meantime, Sheetz became aware of the problems he was facing and made a feeble attempt to justify his absence, claiming to be ill and bedbound. Nevertheless, the government, now aware of Sheetz’s location, ordered the rogue officer back to his station at Fort Fetterman. A lengthy general court martial case was also being prepared.
General Court Martial
On October 18, 1875, the general court martial of 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz began in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory. A panel of nine officers heard the case. Captain William H. Bisbee prosecuted the case as judge advocate. The case included 6 charges and 26 specifications. In addition to being absent without leave, the facts of the government case included the following.
First, Sheetz claimed and knowingly received two salary payments for the month of April 1875 and three payments for May 1875 thereby defrauding the government of $450.00 (about $10,340 today). Second, Sheetz failed to properly account for the post fund, under his accountability, in the amount of $502.54 (about $11,548 today). Third, the lieutenant failed to properly compensate soldiers serving as post baker, assistant post baker, and schoolteacher. Similarly, Sheetz failed to pay the appropriate money, from the post fund, to units that served at Fort Fetterman.
Under the charge of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” the government claimed that Sheetz received cash for his fraudulent pay vouchers from numerous banks and businesses at Fort Fetterman, Cheyenne, and Chicago. Additionally, the government claimed that Sheetz failed to pay bills, incurred by him while serving as post treasurer, as well as failing to deposit money, given to him by one of his soldiers.
Sheetz pleaded not guilty to five of the six charges. He plead guilty to the charge which included specifications for being AWOL, not accounting for the post fund, failing to pay enlisted personnel from the post fund, and failing to pay for school supplies. Sheetz represented himself and put up a feeble defense. The most damning part of the prosecution’s case was the fact that Sheetz signed the three fraudulent pay vouchers. At the end of the eighth day of trial the court panel briefly adjourned and rendered their findings. They found the 1st lieutenant guilty of all charges and sentenced him to be cashiered, confined in prison for two years, and publish the crimes, place of confinement, and punishment in newspapers in Freeport, Illinois (where Sheetz’s father lived) and Laramie City, Wyoming Territory.
An Abrupt End to A Military Career
In view of Sheetz’s admirable Civil War record, the Secretary of War remitted the punishment to dismissal from the Army only. Throughout Sheetz’s military service record documents, the curt word “cashiered” appears, an inglorious end to his army career. Sheetz died on January 8, 1883. What prompted the former brevet brigadier general to defraud the government and go AWOL? Did the isolation of serving on the western frontier cause him distress? Was he living a colonel’s lifestyle on a 1st lieutenant’s salary? We may never know why this regular officer went rogue, but Old Army Records will continue to index documents in an attempt to answer those types of questions.
Unpublished Sources (Old Army Records collection)
Department of Dakota, General Orders, General Court Martial Records, and Circulars
Department of Texas, General Orders, General Court Martial Records, and Circulars
Division of the Atlantic, General Orders, General Court Martial Records, and Circulars
Josiah A. Sheetz, Consolidated Military Officer’s File (military service record)
Josiah A. Sheetz, General Court Martial Record
Historical register and dictionary of the United States Army: From its organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Heitman, 1903)