After sitting in judgment throughout the month of March, 1779, the court martial of Col. Matthias Ogden reached its verdict. According to custom, Colonel Otho Holland Williams the presiding officer would have forwarded the proceedings to Washington's headquarters for confirmation of any recommended sentence and subsequent publishing of the findings in General Orders.
Col. Ogden, readers of this series will recall, was charged by Captain Isaac Morrison with
"1st. Neglect of duty in general. 2nd. Repeated frauds against the Public and also the officers and soldiers under his command. 3rd. Cowardice. 4th. Gaming."
The court heard evidence from a number of officers of the New Jersey Line who were then serving, or had previously served under Col. Ogden, as well as from both an assistant quartermaster to the Jersey troops and a former Brigadier General of militia. The officers empaneled to hear the case were a full Colonel, three Lt. Colonels, a Major and seven Captains from the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania Lines.
Throughout this series, we have explored the circumstances which prevailed among the officers of the Jersey Line, examined what is known of the careers and characters of those involved with the case, and tried to flesh out from the scanty written record what lay behind the charges as a means to understand the way the trial played out. It is certain that in the process more questions have been raised than answered, particularly concerning the service records and status of some of the officers involved in the case. Nonetheless, it was Colonel Ogden who was on trial and not his accusers, and it is time to consider the verdict.
The results of Ogden's court martial appeared in Washington's General Orders of April, 2nd, 1779. The court martial;
"have declared it their opinion, "That he is not guilty of the 1st. charge, that he is not guilty of the second, and are unanimously of opinion that he is not guilty of the 3rd. charge and have unanimously acquitted him with honor."
These findings strongly vindicate Colonel Ogden as an officer and gentleman of integrity whose honor and personal bravery were found to be above reproach. They are consistent with his record of service, and the marks of favor as a promising young officer which he seems to have enjoyed from those in high command. If his accusor Isaac Morrison and others in Ogden's command felt personally cheated by their Colonel, this was not substantiated at his trial. It may well be that Colonel Ogden was less attentive than he should have been as an administrator of his battalion, and the nature of the trial itself suggests that he did not enjoy the necessary respect of his subordinates to maintain discipline in camp.
Indiscipline, it must be acknowledged, was not restricted to disgruntled underlings in the 1st New Jersey. There was still the fourth charge of "Gaming". On this, the court martial
"are unanimously of opinion that he is guilty of the 4th. charge, being a breach of the Commander in Chief's orders dated the 8th. of January 1778, and have sentenced him to be severely reprimanded in general orders."
Having failed to make the case that Colonel Ogden was a neglectful, dishonest and cowardly officer, Captain Morrison appears to have found his Achilles' Heel with the gaming charge. We can speculate that former Brigadier General of Militia Matthias Williamson's testimony may have had a bearing on this charge, as he was not under the same injunction against gaming as were the officers and men of the Continental Army. The unanimous verdict indicates that the evidence that Colonel Ogden indulged in games of chance, either with cards or dice, was overwhelming.
I am indebted to Larry Schmidt, a fine historian with detailed knowledge of the New Jersey Line who has taken an interest in my occasional pieces on this subject, for calling my attention to an entry from Jacob Piatt's Orderly Book for the 1st NJ (Nov. 20, 1777 to, 1778) that sheds light on the seriousness with which the Commander in Chief viewed the charge of gaming. It records a court martial in which a Lt. Jonathan Rush of the 10th Virginia was accused of "abusing & aggravating Lt. Bradwater to strike him, for Giting (sic) drunk, playing at Cards, and beating Capt. Lavid on the Sabbath day, whilst he the sd. Capt. Lavid was under Arest (sic)." Lt. Rush:
"was found guilty of a breach of the 21 Article 14 section of the Articles of War, and also a breach of Genl. Orders, and sentenced to be Discharged the Service, but as Lt. Rush has formerly bore the Character of a good officer, The Court are pleased to recommend him to the Consideration of his excellency Genl. Washington to have him reinstated to his Rank...The Commander in Chief approves the sentence, but is Concerned he Cannot Reinstate Lt. Rush, in Compliance of the recommendation of the Court founded upon his former good Character as an Officer, his behaviour in several Instances Alledged (sic) was so flagrant and scandalous the Genl. thinks his continuance in the service Would be a disgrace to it, and as one part of the Charge against him was Gamin, That alone would excuse him from all indulgence, a Vice of so pernicious a Nature, that it will not escape the severest punishment with his Approbation."
Washington's standing prohibition on gaming dates from the winter encampment at Valley Forge and was only the latest in a succession of orders that vainly attempted to suppress the vice in his army. The General Orders of January 8th, 1778 state:
"The Commander in Chief is informed that gaming is again creeping into the Army; in a more especial manner among the lower staff in the environs of the camp. He therefore in the most solemn terms declares, that this Vice in either Officer or soldier, shall not when detected, escape exemplary punishment; and to avoid discrimination between play and gaming forbids Cards and Dice under any pretence (sic) whatsoever."
Although the fun loving Colonel Ogden seems to have taken a different view of gaming than the Commander in Chief, this was not a youthful indiscretion that could be indulged even were Washington so inclined (and he certainly was not). Congress may have instituted a national lottery to help finance the war, but Washington's clear policy in his Army left him no room for maneuver, and thus Ogden's "severe reprimand" appeared in General Orders following the release of the court martial proceedings:
"The General approves the sentence of the Court and it gives him pleasure to find that Colonel Ogden of whom he always entertained a high opinion, has been acquitted of the three first charges exhibited against him; He also would have been happy if there had been no circumstances to justify the fourth and last; but he is under the painful necessity of observing, that there are circumstances, and such too as most fully authorize the sentence of the Court. The General is sorry that a Gentleman at the head of a Regiment who both in practice and precept ought to shew the most pointed attention and adherence to all orders, to influence and determine the conduct of those, acting in subordinate stations to him, should be among the first to break them.
The officer who acts thus, countenances a relaxation of discipline and the introduction of disorder, and cannot prevent, much less punish, offences (sic) in others which he himself commits.
All General Orders are in force 'till they are set aside or altered by subsequent ones issuing from proper authority or 'till the occasion ceases which produced them. Colo. Ogdon knows this and he must have known also that the particular
order which was the subject of the Court Martial's consideration of the 4th. charge against him, remained unalter'd and the infraction of it is more censurable, if possible, than that of any other, inasmuch as the order was intended to prevent the most pernicious Vice that can obtain in an Army, the vice of gaming!"
It was a stinging chastisement by the pater familias of a wayward son, but all things considered Ogden got off lightly. He still retained his command and Washington managed to praise him while condemning his poor judgment. Perhaps, like J.E.B. Stuart rebuked by Lee at Gettysburg, the unaccustomed displeasure of his Commander was a goad to corrective behavior. Ogden's future record of service and correspondence with the Commander in Chief does not indicate that he suffered lasting discredit in Washington's eyes. Still, one has to wonder whether it affected him in other ways, particularly in his relations with the officers who testified at his trial. We shall examine the aftermath of the court martial and the subsequent fates of its participants in the concluding post in this series.