The war correspondence of General George Washington includes an extraordinary letter, written on February 22, 1779 to one of my ancestors: Col. Matthias Ogden of the 1st New Jersey Battalion (Continental). It was not particularly unusual for the Commander in Chief to correspond with one of his regimental commanders, but in this instance the message conveyed was highly unusual indeed:
"I herewith send you a copy of the charges exhibited against you by Captain Morrison. You will be pleased to notify, when you are prepared for a defense, that the evidences may be summoned, and a court ordered."
I must confess that when I came across this unsavory bit of family history, I was as astonished as I presume the commander of the New Jersey Brigade, Gen. William Maxwell, must have been when he received notification of the charges against Col. Ogden in a letter from Washington written on February 20th:
"Captn. Isaac Morrison has lodged some charges of a very high nature, against Colo. Ogden with Copy of which he has engaged to furnish Colo. Ogden. I think myself under the necessity of having the matter enquired into, and therefore wish you to desire Colo. Ogden to prepare his defence. When he is ready I shall expect to be informed by you, that a Court may be ordered for the purpose."
Courts martial were an almost daily fact of life in the Continental army. Col. Matthias Ogden himself presided over one in May, 1776 when he was a newly minted Lt. Colonel, and later gave testimony at the trial of Maj General Lee in 1778 after Monmouth.
Prior to uncovering references to his own court martial in the writings of George Washington, I had thought I knew the significant details of my ancestor's revolutionary war record. Given that he retained his command (as well as, it appears, the confidence of the Commander in Chief), was brevetted Brigadier General at the close of the war, and personally delivered the news to Congress on October 31, 1783 of the signing of the Treat of Paris ending hostilities, I was fairly confident that whatever the "charges of a very high nature" against Col. Ogden may have been, the trial did not ruin his reputation nor wreck his career.
Indeed, the nature of the charges against Col. Matthias Ogden and results of his court martial are also found in the writings of George Washington. I have not, as yet, found evidence on-line that a transcript of the actual proceedings survives, but there are enough clues to prompt a reconstruction of the inquiry.It is not my purpose to vindicate or condemn my ancestor, nor to discredit or validate those who testified against him. I will present what evidence I have found and offer an hypothesis to help explain what may have happened, and more significantly, why events turned out as they did.
In subsequent posts in this series, we shall examine the evidence at hand. We shall meet Captain Morrison, who brought charges against his Colonel, and explore the backgrounds and subsequent careers of those men he named to give evidence. We shall learn the "very high nature" of the charges themselves and the composition of the court martial which sat in judgment.
We shall also endeavor to place the trial in the context of its time and place, and consider whether social and perhaps even religious divisions within the 1st New Jersey battalion, in addition to those of rank, may have prompted Captain Morrison to bring his charges - and perhaps influenced the aftermath of the trial where some of the witnesses for the prosecution were concerned.