Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Surrendering at Gettysburg: The Vindication of Major Thomas B. Rodgers, Part 1.

This is a two-part series that discusses the court-martial of a Union officer, Major Thomas B. Rodgers, who surrendered to Confederate forces at the Battle Gettysburg. In 1865, after he was paroled and exchanged, the U.S. Army brought charges against him, accusing him of surrendering too easily. Interesting, no? More than 5,000 Union soldiers surrendered at Gettysburg. Apparently, Rodgers was the only one to be brought up on charges for “allowing himself” to be taken prisoner. Since the beginnings of U.S. military history, the army had always allowed its soldiers the option of surrendering to the enemy. No one expected a soldier to throw his life away when the enemy had him surrounded. Many believed a soldier better served his country—not by dying fruitlessly—but by becoming a burden to the enemy, who had to show him the usual “rights of prisoners,” taking care of him until properly exchanged. Indeed, even the war’s first battle—Fort Sumter—involved the surrender of the entire Union garrison. While a few incidents during the war depicted  the moment of surrender as a cowardly act—such as the surrender of the Harpers Ferry Garrison in 1862—generally, Americans held to a less-judgy assumption. When done on a battlefield, surrendering was a rational act. Rarely did Americans call it cowardly. If the enemy was close enough to threaten a soldier with their bayonets, there was no dishonor in giving in.

Major Rodgers’s court-martial shattered that illusion. Although it came late in the war, it made clear that surrendering wasn’t as simple as being “out” in a game of tag. A surrendering soldier had to make the enemy work for it. To get himself vindicated, Rodgers had to prove his surrender had not been done indolently. He had to show he had fought hard, and then, when confronted by the enemy, he had to prove he had no other choice than to throw in the towel. He didn’t just “let” the enemy take him prisoner, he argued. The Confederates had to work hard to capture him. In essence, Rodgers’s court-martial charted out the boundaries of courage and cowardice, two of the slipperiest—yet most important—concepts that explain the struggles and the eventual success of the Army of the Potomac.

But we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about Gettysburg.

On the afternoon of July 2, 1863, 28-year-old Major Thomas Blackburn Rodgers found himself in a bit of a pickle. Rodgers’s regiment, the 140th Pennsylvania, was in full retreat. Confederate forces had broken his brigade’s line near the Rose Wheatfield and it was every man for himself. Already, the 140th Pennsylvania had lost more than fifty killed and more than 150 wounded. Pushed by the pursuing Confederates, Rodgers scampered north through a belt of woods, closing in on Plum Run. As bullets whizzed past his ears, he took shelter behind a large boulder. He crouched down to get a look at the smoke-covered field. Within a few seconds, eight enlisted men joined him at the boulder. At the same moment, Colonel Richard Byrnes of the Irish brigade came running past, warning Rodgers that if he stayed any longer, he’d be captured. Rodgers pondered his next move, but within seconds, his fate was decided for him. As he later wrote, “three Confederate battle flags flashed by us, and we were in the hands of the enemy.”

A Confederate sergeant accosted Major Rodgers, demanding his sword, which he refused to give up, saying he would relinquish his sword only to another officer. After a protracted argument, the Confederate sergeant allowed Rodgers to carry his sword to the rear. Near the Samuel Pitzer Farm, a mounted officer—a member of James Longstreet’s staff, apparently—arrived, asking the sergeant why a Union prisoner had been allowed to keep his sword. The sergeant explained how Rodgers insisted on proper etiquette, refusing to surrender to anyone but an officer. Nodding in agreement, the unnamed staff officer replied, “Very well, I am an officer and he can give it to me.” Later that evening, Rodgers saw the staff officer exhibit his sword to General Longstreet, saying that he had captured it from a “Yankee officer.” Rodgers remarked, “Of course, I remained discreetly silent.”

Rodgers’s disagreeable experience was only beginning. Along with 5,000 other Union prisoners of war, Rodgers marched south over 200 miles with the defeated remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia. In mid-July, he arrived in Richmond where Confederate authorities confined him to Libby Prison, an awful rat-infested tobacco warehouse along the James River. After nine months of hellish incarceration, the Confederates finally paroled him. He returned to the North in the spring of 1864, staying several weeks at Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland. While quartered there, Rodgers received word that the governor of Pennsylvania had seen fit to promote him to the rank of lieutenant colonel. (The promotion was signed on April 5, 1864, a few days prior to his release.) The promotion mattered little to him; having been mistreated by his captors, Rodgers’s health was broken and he was eager to leave the service.

However, ugly news reached him not long after he transferred to a new post in Washington, D.C. While in prison, members of his regiment had preferred charges against him, accusing him of cowardice at Gettysburg. Specifically, they accused Rodgers of: 1) “Misbehavior in the presence of the enemy,” 2) “Allowing himself to be taken prisoner by the enemy,” and 3) “Neglect of duty.” The charges stemmed from the fact that several retreating soldiers—including Colonel Byrnes of the Irish Brigade—had seen Rodgers hunker down behind a boulder at Gettysburg. Specifically, the charges argued that “the said Thomas B. Rodgers  . . . did shelter himself behind a large rock and did remain there until captured by the enemy,” and while there “ . . . did not assist in encouraging the men by words and acting to do good service against the enemy.”

This news caught Rodgers off guard and it changed his mind about asking for a medical discharge. He decided to stay in the army, if for no other reason than to contest the charges and vindicate his character. As Rodgers explained:

I was broken down by disease induced by the hardship of my captivity. I was unfit for service & was likely to be for an indefinite period. At that time I would have resigned & fully intended to do—but when I heard of these charges, involving as they did, all I held dearest in life, I determined that I would never leave the service until I had met & disposed of them. As an honorable man, I could do not otherwise. When I first entered the service in April 1861 as a 1st Sgt. In the 10th Pa. Reserves, I came with a good reputation & an honorable name, & when I leave the service, I want to leave it honorably.

Rodgers wanted to fight this in court. A year later, he finally had his day. He remained under arrest until March 1865 when his division—1st Division, 2nd Corps—finally held his court-martial under direction of Special Orders  Number 11.

Did he vindicate himself? Check the next installment for the answer.

This is Thomas Blackburn Rodgers, shown here as a lieutenant in the 10th Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry.

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