It is often the case in research that important clues about a system are found in unremarkable places. Below is an edited version of a court martial proceedings for a Regimental Court Martial. On the face of things this all seems pretty mundane. It is a relatively straightforward case, in which a sergeant is tried for behaving disrespectfully towards an officer.
There are however, a number of things here which shed light onto how the military-legal process worked during the Napoleonic era. Firstly, this is a copy of the proceedings of a regimental court martial, which in itself is rare. I found it tucked away inside the proceedings of a General Court Martial, as it formed a piece of evidence for a different trial.
More crucially though this highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Before I go into that though, have a read of the proceedings:
Proceedings of a Regimental Court Martial held by order of Lieutenant Colonel Murray, Commanding Officer, 100th Regiment, Montreal, 3rd March 1808.
President: Captain Thomas. Members: Lieutenant Fawcett, Lieutenant Armstrong, Lieutenant Murray, Ensign Dawson.
The court being duly sworn proceeded to the trial of Charles Judge, […] for making the Adjutant an impertinent reply when speaking to him for neglect of duty on the evening 29th February 1808.
1st Evidence: Lieutenant and Adjutant Fawcett being duly sworn informs the court, that [… he] remarked a dirty pouch and belt near to a room occupied by the 6th Company, on enquiry he found it belonged to the 6th Company, and that the owner of it was in hospital, the evidence then sent for a Non-Commissioned Officer of the company, but none of them were in the barracks, the evidence then gave the pouch and belt to a Private of the company and desired him to tell one of the sergeants of the company to have it cleaned and put into stores. [3 days later he found the belt uncleaned in the same place, and raised the matter when the sergeants were gathered in the orderly room]. The prisoner answered as orderly for the 6th Company, when the evidence laid the pouch and belt before the prisoner and asked him whether he was not ashamed, to have a pouch and belt of his company in so dirty a state. The prisoner’s reply then was that it was not his duty to look after it, the evidence then told him it was. The prisoners reply was the same as before, and in an impertinent manner […], for he looked at the evidence contemptuously […], the evidence in consequence of this thought it his duty to report the same to the Commanding Officer [… who then ordered Judge’s arrest].
2nd Evidence: Sergeant Hutchinson, being duly sworn informs the court that on the evening of February 29th, the sergeants were assembled in the orderly room for the purpose of receiving Regimental Orders and the prisoner was present as orderly for the 6th Company [then confirms Fawcett’s account].
Defence: The prisoner being put on his defence declares that he came to take orders for the 6th Company on the 29th February and after receiving them, the Adjutant called him to the place where he was sitting and told the prisoner he wanted to show him his neglect of duty, the Adjutant then showed the prisoner the pouch and belt, and asked him the reason why it was not cleaned, the prisoner made answer and said that the pouch and belt did not belong to his squad nor his room, and that therefore, he did not consider it his duty to see it cleaned as he thought they were in store, and calls on Sergeant March [of the] 6th Company [to give evidence].
1st Evidence: Sergeant March having been duly sworn and shown the pouch and belt says that the man it belongs to is in Sergeant Kerr’s squad, that Lieutenant Hanley divided the company […] into different squads, with orders that each Non-Commissioned Officer was to be answerable for the appearance of the men and their appointments […]
2nd Evidence: Lieutenant Hanley being called on by the prisoner and duly sworn, corroborates the latter part of the foregoing evidence […]
3rd Evidence: Sergeant Cunningham being called and duly sworn […] he did not think when he heard the prisoner […] was impertinent, he adds, that he heard the prisoner tell the Adjutant he was not orderly Sergeant at the time he first took notice of the pouch and belt.
Opinion and Sentence: The court having duly considered the evidence for and against the prisoner and what he has offered in his defence, are of the opinion that the prisoner is not guilty of the crime laid to his charge, and do therefore acquit him.
The fact that the sergeant was found not guilty shows that the system worked. A sergeant, accused of a crime by an officer could be cleared on the basis of evidence, even when the court was comprised of acquaintances of the officer making the accusation.
You will also notice that I’ve underlined a name in the ‘Members of the Court’ section: Lieutenant Fawcett. You will also find Fawcett’s name underlined a second time, as the first person giving evidence for the prosecution. In short, the person who had made the allegation against the sergeant, was also one of the judges on his trial.
This makes the sergeant being found ‘Not Guilty’ all the more remarkable, and shows the effectiveness of the military court system, which was based on evidence rather than prejudice. There was clear scope for the officers to be influenced by personal affiliations with Fawcett, who, after all, would have lost face considering that the ruling implied that he was in the wrong. Clearly then, there was scope for anyone to defend themselves effectively, if they had sufficient knowledge of the rules and regulations that governed their responsibilities.
A single case like this does not prove things on its own, but this example shows how a single, simple looking document can offer a number of clues to a complex problem. Its all about reading between the lines, and keeping an eye on the little details.
If you’ve got any questions about this, or any other blog post, leave a thread in the forum, and I’ll get back to you.