Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Military Justice at Camp Pierpont: The Court-Martial of Colonel Taggart

During the fall of 1861, Col. John H. Taggart, head of the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves, faced the serious charge of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman."  Taggart's court-martial got underway at Camp Pierpont on December 4, 1861.  Brig. Gen. E.O.C. Ord, who was Taggart's brigade commander, served as president of the military tribunal.  Taggart, confident that he had acted within the bounds of the law, pleaded "not guilty."  Meanwhile, the men of the 12th Pennsylvania waited anxiously for news about the fate of their commander.

Born in Georgetown, Maryland in 1821, Taggart moved with his widowed mother and sister to Philadelphia when he was eight.  The future colonel started his career in the newspaper business, first as a typesetter, and later as a reporter.  In 1860, Taggart bought a share of the Sunday Mercury.  When the Civil War erupted, he received a captain's commission and raised a militia company in Philadelphia known as the "Wayne Guards," which was accepted for service with the Pennsylvania Reserves.  Taggart took his men to an assembly point at Camp Curtin in Harrisburg in June.  While at camp, Taggart tried to discharge an enlisted man who was suffering from apparent seizures.  The disgruntled soldier lunged at Taggart with a knife, but the captain scared him away with a revolver.  The solider was later captured and sent home from the company.  The Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph added a dramatic flourish, describing the episode as a "Desperate Attempt to Assassinate an Officer."

Regimental flag of the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves (courtesy of ourancestry.com)

While at Camp Curtin, Taggart was elected as the colonel of the 12th Pennsylvania.  Following the Union defeat at First Bull Run, the 12th was dispatched to Tenallytown, D.C., where the regiment joined the rest of the Pennsylvania Reserves under Brig. Gen. George A. McCall in August.  The trip and subsequent stay in Tenallytown led to Taggart's encounter with military justice a few months later.

The charge against Taggart consisted of four specifications.  The first specification alleged that on August 11, Taggart "did shamefully beat, choke, and kick one Miner Moyer, a private in Company B. . . in a car on the Washington Branch of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad." (Army of the Potomac, General Orders No. 55.)  The second specification likewise accused the colonel of "brutally" beating and threatening Private George Davis of Company C  on the same day "at a water station" on the Washington Branch.  (General Orders No. 55.)  According to the third specification, Taggart on August 30 used "blasphemous and threatening language towards one George M. LeBar, teamster of Company B" at Camp Tenally.  (General Orders No. 55.)  Finally, a fourth specification alleged that at Camp Tenally on September 27, Taggart "obtain[ed] money from the company officers of his regiment by false promises, and by agreeing to conditions with which he afterwards refused to comply."  (General Orders No. 55.)

Later in December, the court-martial found Taggart "not guilty" on all specifications and "honorably" acquitted him.  (General Orders, No. 55.)  The evidence had demonstrated that the charges were unfounded and that Taggart's actions were entirely justified under the circumstances.  In one instance, soldiers were discharging their weapons on the railroad cars while traveling from Baltimore to Washington, and "it was necessary to use violent measures to reduce them to obedience of orders."  (Sypher 127.)  As to another allegation, the tribunal deduced that "some five or six of the men left the ranks to enter an orchard, and when asked to return to their companies, refused to do so, and force was employed to maintain subordination."  (Sypher 127.)  The court-martial considered all of the accusations to be "frivolous and vexatious."  (General Orders No. 55.) 

Col. John H. Taggart after the war (courtesy of Historic LaMott, PA)
Federal commander George B. McClellan reviewed the record and weighed in on the affair.  As Little Mac's adjutant wrote on December 14:
The commanding general is surprised that the charge and specifications against Colonel Taggart were ever brought to trial, resting as they do upon evidence which is so complete a vindication of his conduct. It appears that the men whom, in the enforcement of good order and military discipline, he was obliged to punish, were contumacious and insubordinate—were, some of them, engaged in pillaging and pilfering, in which they persisted after admonition, and others were guilty of firing their guns in the cars to the terror of the passengers, contrary to positive orders. In order to reduce them to obedience it was necessary to act with promptitude and energy. They resisted his authority, and if much severer punishment had been necessary to restore order, it would have been fully justified.  (General Orders No. 55.)
McClellan confirmed the results of the court-martial.  Taggart was to "resume his sword and his duties."  (General Orders, No. 55.)

Word of Taggart's acquittal spread through Camp Pierpont.  According to the December 19 , 1861 edition of the Philadelphia Press, "[t]he men under his command, on being apprised of the fact, made the welkin ring with their plaudits, the sounds reverberating through the hills and valleys of the 'sacred soil' of Virginia." Moyer, Davis, and LeBar likely refrained from the celebration.

Not long after the verdict, Taggart led his men to victory at the Battle of Dranesville.  He continued with the 12th Pennsylvania throughout the Peninsula Campaign and resigned in July 1862.  After a stint as a war correspondent with the Philadelphia Inquirer, he was appointed as the chief preceptor of the "Free Military School for Applicants for the Command of Colored Troops" in Philadelphia.  The school successfully trained whites to serve as officers in the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.).  In 1865, Taggart was appointed as the Collector of Internal Revenue for the First District of Pennsylvania.  After the war, he became a correspondent in Washington for several newspapers and went on to own the Philadelphia Sunday Morning Times (later Taggart's Times).  Taggart died in 1892.

Martin D. Hardin, History of the Twelfth Regiment Pennsylvania Reserve Volunteer Corps (1891); Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pa.), June 24, 1861; Philadelphia Press, Dec. 19, 1861; J.R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserves (1865); U.S. Army of the Potomac, Index of General Orders 1861 (1862).

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