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Busted as an officer

Reader Karen Matheson writes: “I am looking at the Compiled Service Records for a CSA officer (2nd Lt). On several cards, it mentions that he was “cashiered” followed by a date. It appears that after being cashiered, they immediately conscripted him back into service. What does this mean? What did he do?”

General Orders No. 24, CSA

Oh, good question. Now that we’re officially recognizing the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and we’re well into the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, this is a great time to recognize that there were laws of war — treaties, statutes and orders regulating both the conduct of members of the military in the context of their military duties and in their actions when engaging the enemy. We’ll deal with the rules of engagement down the road; today let’s talk about the codes of conduct.

Punishments for individual soldiers and sailors for violating the codes that governed their conduct covered a wide range — all the way from assigning extra duties to flogging to death. And one of those punishments — applicable to officers only — was to be “cashiered”: to be deprived of both rank and office.1 Men in lower ranks could also be demoted, but the word cashiered means more than just demotion — these officers lost their status as officers, and became virtual pariahs in the military establishment.

And, particularly in the Confederacy, where the conscription laws made almost every male subject to being drafted, being cashiered meant they were eligible to be drafted into service as an ordinary soldier. In fact, an order of the Confederate War Department specifically provided that “Officers of the Army who are … cashiered by courts-martial, … will, when present with their commands, be at once enrolled by their respective brigade commanders.”2

And that’s what happened here: this officer was stripped of his rank, stripped of his commission as an officer, and conscripted — drafted — into the ranks of the ordinary soldiers, most likely as a private to start with.

As far back as 1775, the Second Continental Congress established 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army.3 These governed the conduct of the troops themselves. They included provisions such as:

     • Art. XI. No officer or soldier shall use any reproachful or provoking speeches or gestures to another, nor shall presume to send a challenge to any person to fight a duel: ….4

     • Art. XXII. Any person belonging to the Continental army, who, by discharging of fire-arms, beating of drums, or by any other means whatsoever, shall occasion false alarms, in camp or quarters, shall suffer such punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.5

     • Art. XXIII. Any officer or soldier, who shall, without urgent necessity, or without leave of his superior officer, quit his platoon or division, shall be punished according to the nature of his offence, by the sentence of a regimental court-martial.6

Of particular interest for Karen’s case, Article XX provided that any commissioned officer “found drunk on his guard, party, or other duty, under arms, shall be cashiered for it…”7

In the Constitution of 1789, Congress was given a number of powers to regulate the military, among them the power “To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces; … (and) To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States…”8 It exercised those powers in 1806 to adopt Articles for the Government of the Armies of the United States.9

That code identified a number of offenses for which an officer could be cashiered, among them:

     • Using contemptuous or disrespectful words against the President of the United States, against the Vice President thereof, against the Congress of the United States, or against the chief magistrate or legislature of any of the United States.10

     • Signing a false certificate about the absence or pay of an officer or soldier.11

     • Making a false muster roll report.12

     • Making a false report about the state of the troops under his command of the arms, ammunition, clothing or stores of the unit.13

     • Failing to report a deserter.14

     • Issuing or accepting a challenge to a duel.15

     • Failing to keep good order and redress abuses or disorders.16

     • Failing to turn over a criminal to the proper civilian authorities.17

     • Embezzling or misapplying government funds.18

     • Being drunk on duty.19

Those were the rules in effect throughout the War of 1812, and they were still the rules of military conduct, by statute, through the Civil War. And because most of the Confederate officers had been officers in the United States Army before the war, the articles of war adopted for the Confederacy were remarkably similar, usually only replacing the words “United States” with the words “Confederate States” where they appeared.20

It appears that just being absent without leave wasn’t enough to get an officer cashiered; it had to be combined with some other offense like the catch-all conduct unbecoming an officer. An example of that can be found in the records of 1st Lieut. James A. Waller, Co. “F,” 38th Regt. Va. Infantry, who pleaded guilty to both offenses, was cashiered and then conscripted into the ranks.21 By contrast, Lieut. J. G. Younger, Co. “F,” 53d Va. Regiment, pleaded guilty only to being absent without official leave and was only reprimanded, not cashiered.22

Exactly what offense Karen’s officer committed isn’t shown in his compiled service record; she’d need to find a record of the court-martial in the official records of the Confederacy for that information. A request to the National Archives for his military records must specifically include a request for all court-martial records, and they’re likely to be in Record Group 109, War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Records of the Adjutant and Inspector General’s Department.

Good luck — and let us know what you find out.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 177, “cashier.”
  2. General Orders, No. 24, 5 March 1963, Confederate War Department, in War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1900), Series IV, Vol. II, 419; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 18 Jun 2012).
  3. Rules and Regulations, adopted 30 June 1775, Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1905), 2: 111-122; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 18 Jun 2012).
  4. Ibid., 2: 114.
  5. Ibid., 2: 115.
  6. Ibid., 2: 115-116.
  7. Ibid., 2: 115.
  8. U.S. Constitution, Article I, § 8.
  9. An Act for establishing Rules and Articles for the Government of the Armies of the United States, 10 Apr 1806, 2 Stat. 359.
  10. Ibid., Article 5.
  11. Ibid., Article 14.
  12. Ibid., Article 15.
  13. Ibid., Article 18.
  14. Ibid., Article 22.
  15. Ibid., Article 25.
  16. Ibid., Article 32.
  17. Ibid., Article 35.
  18. Ibid., Article 39.
  19. Ibid., Article 45.
  20. See Articles of War, for the government of the Army of the Confederate States (Montgomery : Barrett Wimbish, 1861); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 18 Jun 2012).
  21. See General Orders, No. 12. Petersburg, March 7th, 1864, Before a General Court Martial, Convened at Kinston, North Carolina; electronic edition, “The Southern Homefront, The North Carolina Experience,” Documenting the American South ( : accessed 18 Jun 2012), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  22. Ibid.
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