Absent Without Leave Army Officer: Lt. Josiah Sheetz

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.

Brevet Brigadier General Josiah A. Sheetz, ca. 1865. Courtmatialed for being absent without leave.oldarmyrecords.com
Josiah A. Sheetz as a Brevet Brigadier General, ca. 1865.  Photo courtesy of MOLLUS-MASS Civil War Photo Collection RG667s, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle, PA.
Meteoric Rise

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.

Sentence and Review section of GCMO for 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, 4th Infantry for being absent without leave.
The published findings of the general court martial of Josiah A. Sheetz covered 12 pages. The sentence simply read, “1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, 4th Infantry, ceases to be an officer of the Army from the date of this order.”


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

Government Documents
Historical register and dictionary of the United States Army: From its organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Heitman, 1903)

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)