Friday, October 8, 2010

On That Civil War Court Martial Thing

I discovered that my great (x3) grandfather, Elbridge Gerry Towle was court martialed  for desertion of duty during the Civil War when I ordered his complied military record from the National Archives last spring.  At the time, I was busy tracking down the paternity of his son Gerry Towle, so I just filed away that nugget of information and put "Order EG Towle's Court Martial Record from NARA" on my genealogical to-do list.  The truth is, the longer it has sat on my list, the less inclined I've been to order it.

It isn't like I don't enjoy a good black sheep story on the family tree.  I do.  Very much.  I have a number of grandparents with interesting, if not perfectly wholesome stories to tell.  There's my grandfather Ebenezer Church who couldn't accompany his famous brother Benjamin on the raid that resulted in the death of King Philip because he was in jail on fornication charges.  There are the grandmothers accused of witchcraft.  There's the grandfather who just up and left Pennsylvania one day to begin his life anew in Maine without bothering to mention the decision to his Pennsylvania family.  There's the grandfather that avenged his father's death in a saloon in Freeport, Maine...and got away with it scot-free.  All are good yarns but this one...this one is different.

Maybe it's because I know how his story ends, tragically, within less than a year of his court martial.  Maybe it's because I can piece together information I've gathered on his family and easily conclude how his death affected the course of their lives.  My grandmother Rose was 6 years old when she lost her father.   The family lost the 100 acre farm.  There were multiple moves, a remarriage, and 4 children that appear eager to leave their childhoods behind with early marriages and move-aways.  Maybe it's because the government that court martialed him doesn't seem to know what they did with him after his death on board a hospital ship.  They can tell me all about his transgression, yes.  They can tell me that he's dead.  But they can't tell me where they laid him to rest after he gave his life for his country.  There is no medical record.  There is no grave. There is no small piece of granite anywhere memorializing the life of my grandfather.  And this bothers me to no end.

From what I gathered from his service record, his company had been given an 8 week furlough and were to return to Concord, NH to meet up again .  EG Towle did this.  He returned to Concord when his furlough was up and began the journey south with the rest of his company.  He got as far as New York City when he went missing, "on or about July 20th, 1863."   Did something happen in New York?  Did he get word of some dire emergency back home?  Did he simply spend the preceding days traveling, ruminating on deserting?  Or was this an impulsive decision?   Whatever the reason, it must have been a good one because instead of executing him  (the usual punishment), or dishonorably discharging him (the exceedingly kind punishment, in most cases with a Presidential pardon), they simply stripped him of his rank (Sergeant) and sent him back to serve with his company.  He was sent to Hilton Head, South Carolina and eventually onto The Siege at Petersburg; The Battle of the Crater, then to a hospital ship and 10 days later, a grave.  He was 34 years old.

But the fact remains: whatever good reason he had for deserting most likely isn't going to be a happy, pleasant one.  This is why I've avoided ordering the record.  I've watched this family take a beating for months now and while I've throughly enjoyed meeting the present day's been some painful research.

Today, I was tooling around the National Archives website and on a lark, put the name Elbridge Towle in the ARC search field.  Why yes, there is a paper record of a court martial concerning Elbridge G Towle in Concord, NH from the Nov 1863 files.   It's call number is LL-1833.  Would you like to order this?  $25, please.

I ordered it.  Yes, I'm ready to know.

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