The case against Pennsylvania Reservist Private Francis Dill seems pretty straightforward at first glance. The court, consisting of Pennsylvania Reserves colonels, convened on August 4, 1863 to hear the testimony of four of Pvt. Dill’s comrades. Captain James Ballentine and Sergeant James McVicker were called as witnesses for the prosecution, and Sergeant John Hunter and Pvt. Alexander Caldwell spoke on behalf of Dill. Reading the transcript of the case, two things become apparent. First, Pvt. Dill’s supposed offense, “misbehavior before the enemy” for absenting himself on July 2, 1863 and not reappearing until July 4, seems egregious. Second, his excuse for going AWOL (having sore feet for want of shoes) was not taken seriously by the court. Furthermore, Pvt. Dill’s witnesses, Sgt. Hunter and Pvt. Caldwell, did little to save Dill from a “guilty” verdict. When Dill pointedly asked Sgt. Hunter during examination “Have I not always done my duty as a soldier?” Hunter’s response was both feeble and noncommittal. In essence, Sgt. Hunter said he believed that Pvt. Dill had always done his duty but was not certain because he had transferred from another company in the 9th Regiment in April 1863. Clearly, Pvt. Dill did not confer with his witnesses or coordinate any effective defense on his behalf.
For whatever reason, the officers of his brigade charged with deciding his fate did not factor in any of the number of mitigating circumstances that would explain Dill’s leaving the unit as it was heading into battle. Dill’s regiment, part of the famed Pennsylvania Reserves, was in almost every action in which the Army of the Potomac took part. In many instances, the Reserves were placed in the thickest of the fighting and usually sustained heavy losses. Specifically, at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, the Reserves actually broke the Confederate front defended by General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Though they held the distinction of making the furthest penetration of any Union command, the Reserves effort was unsupported and they were compelled to retire. When prosecution witness Captain Ballentine was testifying, Judge Advocate Graham asked him if Dill was “a soldier of good standing and repute.” Ballentine answered, “He is not in my opinion, though I know nothing against his character as a soldier except on the march of Burnsides Army.” This movement, ridiculed by the men and later called the “Mud March,” was a time when virtually everyone from General Burnside to the common soldier had lost faith in the campaign. That Dill and some others straggled is not at all surprising, nor should it have colored the court’s opinion of him. The fact remains that Dill was present for most of the battles when the Reserves served the Union cause boldly and honorably.
Ultimately, none of this mattered to the court. While these jurors were all from Dill’s Brigade, and could perhaps empathize with his lack of shoes and his sore feet, these did not, in their opinion, excuse his departure from his regiment. Perhaps wanting clear the Reserves of all inferior soldiers, the court-martial sentenced Dill to two years of hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. His final destination was Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas of the Florida Keys. Today, the Florida Keys are a tourist attraction. In 1863, however, the Dry Tortugas was a isolated and desolate location where diseases such as malaria claimed many lives. That Dill survived his two year stay at this place is quite extraordinary. Furthermore, it is clear that Dill did not see himself as a coward as a note dated October 18, 1901 from the office of a prominent Pittsburgh attorney was attached to the court-martial transcript. The note asks for a copy of the transcript from the United States War Department to assist Francis Dill in clearing the charges against him.
This document raises several questions about how justice was administered in the Civil War, and why the accused were often treated harshly. Reading this case, one might get the impression that Private Francis Dill was guilty in the minds of the judges even before the first witness was called.
Below is a link to the entire text of the court-martial case transcribed from the proceeding of August 4, 1863. You might read this document and come to an entirely different conclusion about Private Dill.