Courts-martial were a constant occurrence during the Civil War. Officers were frequently called away from their units to sit in judgment on various cases. During the late summer of 1863, Major Ellis spent some weeks in Washington on court-martial duty, and Captain Samuel Fiske had also sat on several cases, some of them involving minute, frivolous matters. Fiske (a.k.a. Dunn Browne) wrote to his Springfield Republican readers, “if you infer from these remarks that there is any great resemblance between a court of justice and a court-martial you will have a very erroneous notion.”
Indeed, in August 1863, while Fiske was still serving in Colonel Carroll’s Brigade (as he was at Gettysburg), an officer (not Carroll) filed a charge against Fiske. Suddenly a defendant, Captain Fiske reported on this new experience.
After remaining in arrest some days, and after appearing with my witnesses at times and places appointed to find the trial postponed, at last one rainy evening, when I had about concluded the whole thing an “ignis-fatuus” (a delusion) destined to elude forever my eager grasp, I caught it sure enough in the judge advocate’s little tent. Five tired officers had been gotten together and the case came on, while my witnesses, in rubber overcoats, stood outside in the rain till they were wanted. The charge and its specification, “neglect of duty in not preventing the straggling of such division of the army on such a march of five days,” was duly read, and the accused entered his plea of “not guilty.”
Then the single witness for the United States (who was the one who preferred the charges) gives in his evidence that he did not see the defendant using any efforts to prevent straggling during the whole march of five days, although he had himself issued him the most stringent orders to that effect, and the case for the prosecution closed.
Then the witnesses for the defendant, two of whom, however, had ingloriously “skedaddled” back to their quarters out of the rain, testified that the probable reason why the prosecutor had not seen efforts on the part of the accused to keep the men in their places, was that he was himself not there to see, none of them having seen him along the column in more than one instance during the five days; also, that the straggling of the command was comparatively small, and caused by the excessive and needlessly rapid marching, the exhausted soldiers falling out in spite of their efforts to keep up. Then a few words from the defendant, interrupted by the yawnings of the court, and the case was closed, the trial over.
But when a few more days had rolled away, a big document came down from headquarters, informing your humble correspondent that the honorable court had found nothing against him, unless it were an acquittal, and so ordered his release from arrest. So endeth this episode of his career.