The Court-Martial of Captain Henry Krausneck, 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers

On February 1, 1864, a general court martial assembled on Folly Island, South Carolina to hear a case against Captain Henry Krausneck, Co. D, 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Captain Krausneck was charged with two accounts of misbehavior before the e…

By Mary Roll

On February 1, 1864, a general court martial assembled on Folly Island, South Carolina to hear a case against Captain Henry Krausneck, Co. D, 74th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Captain Krausneck was charged with two accounts of misbehavior before the enemy, both stemming from his actions on the field at Gettysburg on July 1st and 2nd, 1863.  View the trial transcript.

The reputation of the Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, of which the 74th Pennyslvania was a part, had suffered greatly in the wake of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, where it had retreated in the face of a surprise attack by Stonewall Jackson’s troops. By the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Eleventh Corps was still very much affected by the stigma of cowardice it had been unable to shake following Chancellorsville. Despite this reputation, the men of the Eleventh Corps came to Gettysburg ready to fight. Corps commander Oliver O. Howard  spent much of July 1 deciding where the strongest Union points would be for the coming battle and placing his men in the appropriate positions, focusing a significant portion of his force on Cemetery Hill, from which the Eleventh Corps would fight for the next two days.  However, the remainder of the Eleventh Corps and their comrades in the First Corps had to engage the Confederates north and west of Gettysburg so that time could be gained to establish that position.  It is here we begin the story of Captain Henry Krausneck.

The details of the charge against Krausneck were as follows: when nearly all of the 74th was pushed forward as skirmishers to engage with the enemy on July 1, Captain Krausneck “did abandon his position as acting Field Officer of the regiment, in the rear of the skirmisher line, and did hide himself behind trees and a brick house … for the sake of protecting himself from the bullets of the enemy, thus setting a bad and cowardly example for the men.” In a separate instance on July 2, while the 74th was once again engaged in combat, Krausneck allegedly “did throw himself down with his face to the ground and did hide himself in the ranks of Company E, of said regiment, close to the stone wall, thus losing all control and command of the regiment, leaving it to its fate, and showing disgraceful conduct and setting a bad example for the men under his command.”

Each specification accuses Krausneck of poor decision making and of perhaps of giving in to some of the lowly temptations which often confronted soldiers on the battlefield. Additionally, there is an implicit assumption here of a sense of deliberation in what Krausneck did, as well as a blatant disregard for duty on his part. Perhaps that is so; we will never truly know. But what of the other side of the coin? Is it possible that those actions which appear on the surface to be pure cowardice could have been momentary or impulsive reactions to genuine fear?  Commonly-held and seemingly clear-cut-notions of cowardice, bravery, courage and weakness could in fact lead to murky and ambiguous conclusions.

Krausneck was brought up on charges by Colonel Adolph von Hartung, who was in command of the 74th Pennsylvania at Gettysburg until his wounding on July 1. Von Hartung also served as a witness for the prosecution. According to his testimony about the events of July 1, the colonel witnessed Krausneck distancing himself from the regiment’s activity, “outside the extreme right [of the regiment’s line] and between sixty or one-hundred paces to the rear, sitting on his horse behind the trees.” A few moments later, after the regiment had been ordered to move, von Hartung remembered that “instead of following the movements of the skirmishing line to the left, [Krausneck] went for the right behind a brick house,” and hid there until much of the enemy shelling subsided. Von Hartung insisted that he in fact sent for Krausneck to go to the rear, even after he saw  him clinging to safety behind the lines. The defense, on Krausneck’s behalf, asked why von Hartung did not discipline Krausneck at the time he witnessed his cowardice, to which von Hartung responded: “At the time I could not rebuke him as I had no time to do it.”

Von Hartung’s treatment of Krausneck raises a few intriguing questions: is it realistic to believe that Krausneck’s perceived cowardice was in fact a legitimate and justified response to the situation he faced? Did von Hartung truly have no time to address what he understood to be misbehavior on the field? Or, is something larger at work here? The case against Krausneck demonstrates that judging the severity of military offences could often be quite subjective.  For example, when von Hartung was asked to reply to a question from the defense regarding how long he had considered actions like the ones taken by Krausneck to be cowardly, he responded, “Since the first of July. The very day this happened.” von Hartung’s answer jeopardizes his entire grounds for issuing charges against Krausneck, because it reveals a fundamental lack of consistency in how military judgments of this kind were made. Was a split-second decision made to turn Krausneck into a scapegoat? Why did von Hartung decide that Krausneck’s actions were cowardly, and what circumstances led to this suspicion? Von Hartung’s testimony does not demonstrate that he carried well-defined personal notions of cowardice with him up to and during the Battle of Gettysburg, but rather implies that his leadership qualities could be affected by irregular circumstances. Because von Hartung was the officer responsible for those charges, the court was forced to hear potentially flawed testimony influenced by von Hartung’s own fluid perceptions that casts Krausneck in a negative light from the outset. In short, because military justice during the Civil War was so ambiguously defined in military documents and within the army itself, the system only invited the subjectivity of opinions and judgments. That subjectivity in turn bled into courtroom proceedings and, ultimately, verdicts.

In addition to the wide array and scope of underlying opinions that officers issuing charges brought to courts martial, the vast and varying array of circumstances and conditions in which men brought up on charges found themselves on the field of battle gave members of Civil War military courts license in their rulings. For this reason, it could be difficult to set any kind of precedent in the handling of a specific type of defendant. Two seemingly comparable cases of desertion, misbehavior before the enemy, or absence without leave would not necessarily be treated the same way. Many punishments for Civil War soldiers were handed down in accordance with military regulations and the Articles of War, which outlined various offenses. However, perceptions of what constituted accordance with those guidelines were flexible. In other words, the inherent vagueness of the Articles of War (upon which military regulations and the preferring of charges by officers for misbehavior and other offenses were based) meant that the individual verdicts handed down would be left to the discretion of the individual military courts, with just a skeleton of direction to guide those rulings. In the case of the Krausneck trial, the evidence offered by various witnesses was the only basis the court had for handing down its verdict. And just as von Hartung had no lesson on how to determine cowardice in exceptional situations like Krausneck’s, there was no real guidebook for the courts to use that would help navigate problematic issues similar to von Hartung’s murky testimony. The Articles of War merely stated what offenses were. The Articles left much to the discretion of the officers, and did not give any consideration to how courts should come to the conclusion that an accused soldier’s actions were actually punishable offenses. Consequently, courts martial looking to the Articles of War and verdicts in prior similar cases in order to administer the appropriate punishment did not always find consistency.

This lack of uniformity offers a new dimension to the situational ambiguity and subjectivity with which individual courts repeatedly contended: from where does the notion of ‘appropriate’ punishment come? By not addressing why offenses were offenses, did the Articles make the determination and punishment of cowardice more complicated and potentially capricious? There was not always a true, universal definition of cowardice, partly because the Articles of War did not list specifics. Thus, officers preferring charges and military courts hearing those charges made many judgments based on broad, open, subjective, and, sometimes, abstract evidence.

There was plenty of room for individual soldiers to manipulate the risks of being charged with misbehavior before the enemy, but there was also ample opportunity for officers drawing up charges to single out men based on a number of factors, including ethnicity.   Also, as Civil War regiments were often raised from within localities, common ancestry and prior acquaintance could affect the preferring of charges as well. There could be both negative and positive aspects to each of these. When looking to the Articles of War for guidance, military courts during the Civil War perhaps should have found black and white standards for sentencing soldiers brought before them on charges. In reality, however, interpretation, context, and circumstantial influence on men’s actions more often than not fell somewhere in the indecipherable and indefinable area outside of the scope of the Articles of War. The sheer impossibility of one document’s ability to account for all sorts of methods and motivations might have in fact only enabled what it was designed to prevent.

The court determined that Krausneck was guilty of the charge against him, and that as such he was to be dishonorably discharged from the service of the United States. Rather than fall to what would surely be a shameful fate, Krausneck chose to resign on his own accord. Consequently, the stain of dishonorable dismissal was partially revoked. Krausneck’s guilt or innocence in this matter is of little consequence when compared to what this case shows us about the important and often complicated role of circumstantial subjectivity and inconsistent situations in Civil War-era military justice and courts-martial. The battlefield landscape lent itself well to a wide variety of behaviors exhibited by men under immense amounts of pressure. These behavioral variations in turn allowed for officers’ perceptions of the justifiability of men’s actions to fluctuate inconsistently. Finally, this inconsistency found its way into military courtrooms, where the ambiguity of military justice often got the final word in verdicts.

For further reading, see:

Costa, Dora L., and Matthew E. Kahn. Heroes & Cowards: The Social Face of War. Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2008.

Foote, Lorien. The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Gallagher, Gary W, ed. The First Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1992.

Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the America Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987.

Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg-The First Day. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Santose, Rachel A. “‘A Motley Assembly of Dissatisfied Growlers’: Military Justice and the Effects of Irregular Circumstances.” Senior Capstone thesis, Gettysburg College, 2011.


Leave a Reply