In my last post, I narrated the tale of Major Thomas Blackburn Rodgers, a Union officer captured at Gettysburg. After his release from prison, Union authorities arrested him, accusing him of “allowing himself” to be captured by the enemy. For a year, Rodgers (who had been promoted to lieutenant colonel in the meantime) readied his defense. He collected witnesses who could attest to his character. He had to prove he acted bravely and that when we surrendered, he had not gone quietly. The very boundaries of courage and cowardice were at stake.
So what happened? How did Rodgers come to face these charges? (Unfortunately, for the historian’s sake, Rodgers was the only person to explain how the charges came into being. His account seems fairly plausible, but of course, I must acknowledge that he spoke from a position of personal bias. Perhaps, then, his explanation is either incorrect or exaggerated. But this is all I have, so I’ll have to accept it at face value.) As Rodgers explained it, another officer in the 140th Pennsylvania wanted Rodgers to resign so he could take the lieutenant colonelcy in his place. The best way to get Rodgers to leave the service was to threaten him with a court-martial on charges of cowardice.
Rodgers’s theory made sense. The charges were filed on April 15, 1864, just ten days after his promotion to lieutenant colonel, which was probably the first day when the men in the 140th Pennsylvania learned of it. As Rodgers explained, “While I was yet a prisoner of war in the hands of the enemy, an effort was made to promote a junior Captain of the Reg’t over me to Lt. Col. To effect this object, a letter was used, insinuating that I had behaved in a cowardly manner at the Battle of Gettysburg.”
So who orchestrated these charges? They were signed by the regiment’s commander, Captain John Fulton McCullough, who forwarded them to the judge advocate for consideration. Unfortunately, McCullough never left behind any material to explain why he wanted to prosecute Rodgers. As it happened, McCullough was later killed at the Battle of Totopotomy Creek; however, Rodgers did not believe that McCullough was the true author of the charges. Rodgers wrote, “He [McCullough] was urged by others, one of whom was higher in rank than he, but at the time absent from the Reg’t.” Who were these others? Rodgers never said, but I can make an educated guess. Most likely, the head of the conspiracy was Captain (later bvt. Brig. Gen.) Henry Harrison Bingham, a member Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s staff. An ambitious man (and a member from another political party), Bingham was eager to take Rodgers’s place. Having heard about Rodgers’s scuttling behind a rock at Gettysburg from a Democratic friend, Colonel Byrnes (who himself was later killed in action at Cold Harbor), Bingham told McCullough to prefer charges against him.
Even though McCullough (the initiator of the charges) and Byrnes (the key witness) were no longer alive, the court martial convened on March 2, 1865, at the headquarters of the 1st Division, 2nd Corps. Eight officers constituted the court, with Brig. Gen. Henry J. Madill acting as president. Captain James H. Hamlin served as the prosecuting judge advocate. Rodgers elected to defend himself. He pleaded “Not Guilty” to all three charges. The court testimony went on for two days. The prosecution called four witnesses. The defense called six.
After reading the court transcript, it becomes clear that the prosecution had the weaker case. Hamlin’s witnesses could establish that Rodgers crouched behind a rock, but nothing more. Consider this line of questioning put to Corporal James S. Rankin:
Hamlin: Was the accused there behind the rock when you stopped?
Rankin: Yes, sir.
Hamlin: How long after you stopped was it before he was captured?
Rankin: Not more than two minutes.
Hamlin: Was the accused sitting down?
Rankin: Yes, sir.
Similar questions were put to the prosecution’s other witnesses. However, none of them could describe Rodgers’s behavior in a negative way. When Rodgers had a chance to redirect, all of the prosecution’s witnesses defended their former commander. Below, see how Rodgers got praise from Corporal Rankin:
Rodgers: Were you captured at the same time and place with me?
Rankin: Yes, sir.
Rodgers: What was my general reputation as an officer in the 140th Pa. Vols. previous to the preferment of these charges?
Rankin: It was good.
Rodgers: What has it been since?
Rankin: It has been good since.
When Rodgers presented his own witnesses, they claimed that Rodgers had done well throughout the battle. They saw him at various points, encouraging the men. When Rodgers asked Corporal William Griggs if he had seen him during the battle, Griggs replied:
Sir, you were right in the rear of the regiment. You had your sword drawn, and was [sic] telling the boys to go ahead and to keep cool and fire low: that we were driving them like hell! The regiment was firing at the time. You went up as far as we went. It was about five minutes before the regiment fell back.
Corporal George Rose delivered similar testimony:
You had your sword drawn, and said, “Keep cool, boys, and fire low.” You had first come along the line and was [sic] standing in the rear of our company. The company was firing at the time.
Further, Rodgers made it clear that when he crouched behind a rock, it had not been for long. He argued that the prosecution had erroneously concluded that he had been hiding behind the rock for the better part of an hour. When calling his witnesses, Captain Hamlin stumbled upon a problem, learning too late that Rodgers had ducked down twice during two unrelated incidents. During the opening of the fight, the 140th Pennsylvania had captured three Confederate prisoners. Rodgers had stopped to write down their names before sending them to the rear. To do this, he crouched beside a rock so he could write their names legibly. Captain John Auld Burns remembered seeing Rodgers “sitting on his knee with some two or three rebel prisoners. He was writing as if in a memorandum book.” Rodgers seized upon this testimony, making it clear that he had not been hiding the entire time, but he had simply sat down at the beginning of the engagement so he could write in his memoranda book. After sending the prisoners to the rear with a sergeant, he rejoined the fight. When he was seen again, surrendering, he had taken cover behind a different rock. In their inexpert assemblage of witnesses, the prosecution had conflated the two incidents.
Finally, Rodgers made it clear he had not surrendered from some idly fancy. He surrendered to Confederate forces only after he knew he could not escape and only after he quarreled with his captors. One of Rodgers’s witnesses, Private Hugh Shaw, described the scene this way:
Shaw: You were kneeling down on your knees when a rebel Serg’t. came up and ordered you to throw down your saber. You replied, you would not surrender your saber to a private. The Serg’t. said he would run you through with his bayonet if you did not surrender. You replied, you did not care a damn! But you would not give your sword to any man but an officer. The Serg’t. placed a guard over you and marched you to the rear, when you gave your sword to an officer on horse-back. There are the particulars of your capture as far as I can remember.
Rodgers: Did you see any person pass further to the rear than us when we were captured?
Shaw: No, sir.
Rodgers: Did you arrive at the place where we were captured at the same time as I did?
Shaw: Yes, sir.
Rodgers: How long had we been there before the rebels captured us?
Shaw: About fifteen seconds.
Rodgers: What were the chances of escape when we arrived at the ledge of rocks where we were captured?
Shaw: From anything that I could see, we were entirely cut off; the enemy was in our front and on our flank. —I mean, —they were between us and the rear.
In his final argument, Rodgers asserted, “The evidence of those who were captured with me is to the effect that escape was impossible.” Firm in his tone, Rodgers could not understand how anyone could imagine that he’d surrendered to the enemy in a fit of cowardice. Every witness had made it clear that he had surrendered at the end of the fight. How could anyone go through the hellish combat of Gettysburg, gaining glory along the way, only to throw it all away in the last few seconds of the engagement? It made no sense; so argued Rodgers: “It is not possible that I, after going through the whole of that battle, the hottest in which my Regt was ever engaged (& it has been in many) with credit to myself, would afterwards in a cowardly or disgraceful manner allow myself to be captured by the enemy.”
After two days of testimony, the court gathered at 10 A.M., March 4, to hear the verdict. The court found Rodgers “not guilty” on all charges.
I prefer to believe that justice was served here. Rodgers’s honor was vindicated and he promptly resigned from the service, which was what he wanted all along. But now, he could leave without the shameful accusation of cowardice hanging over his head.
However, it seems to me that some form of injustice occurred anyway. When Rodgers surrendered, he sacrificed his freedom and his health, not unlike some 5,000 other Union prisoners, some of whom died in captivity. From 1861 to 1865, Union soldiers surrendered all the time, but none of them were prosecuted for it. Unluckily for Rodgers, someone decided to challenge him. I cannot see how anyone could believe the insinuation that he surrendered too quickly. His regiment had fought for hours in one of the most hellish areas of the battlefield. How could anyone single out his surrender as being an exemplar of what not to do? In my opinion, the charges ought to have been dropped long before his case went to court-martial.
For whatever reason, in this instance, the Army of the Potomac felt the need to officiate over the unclear distinction of courage and cowardice. Rodgers was nearly the victim of that impulse.
After the war, Rodgers returned to Mercer County, Pennsylvania. In the autumn, he married a woman named Marion E. Long, eventually raising four sons with her. The family moved to Missouri where Rodgers got into politics. He died on October 18, 1908, at age 73.