The Curious Court-Martial of Capt. Lyman D. Rouell

A post by ,
Kansas City Public Library

The Featured Document Blog places the past in your grasp by introducing a compelling item from our digital collection.

Sign up for our newsletter, This Month in the Civil War on the Western Border »


As the prospect of winter descended on the Western Border, the commander of the District of the Border, Brigadier General Thomas Ewing Jr., authorized a general court-martial of Captain Lyman D. Rouell, commander of the 2nd Colorado Volunteers, Company F, in Kansas City, Missouri. The five charges against Rouell consisted of "Drunkenness on duty," "Conduct to the prejudice of good Order and military discipline," "Conduct unbecoming an Officer and a Gentleman," "Neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline," and "Disobedience of Orders." The specifications included four specific instances of intoxication, misappropriation of contraband stock (wherein Rouell allegedly ordered men under his command to dress as civilians, drive captured livestock from Missouri into Kansas, and use or sell it for personal gain), issuing false statements about the whereabouts of the livestock, selling three steers for $120 and keeping the funds for himself, and disobeying orders to turn over one contraband horse to the Quarter Master. Rouell pled "not guilty" to all charges.

The prosecution, or judge advocate, produced numerous witnesses who testified that Captain Rouell was drunk while on duty. On June 30, Rouell allegedly spent several hours drinking at a number of saloons, neglecting to administer an Oath of Loyalty to a citizen who was waiting back at headquarters. On July 7, Rouell, allegedly in an intoxicated state, purportedly abused civilians at Council Grove, Kansas, when he cursed at a civilian and, "remarked to members of his company that they could hang him if they wanted to." On the same night, other witnesses testified that he drew his pistol on someone in an establishment known as "142," and used "vulgar language" in front of his own wife. The language is detailed in the document. Another witness told of him staggering onto a stage at a theater with a saber, and of him needing to lean on door jambs to "keep himself straight." Yet another claimed that on one occasion, Rouell "was about as drunk as men generally get," while another witness stated that Rouell lost consciousness in an ambulance wagon. Another witness recounted an incident when Rouell’s tent blew down during a storm and fell on him. The witness claimed that Rouell was so intoxicated that he didn’t stir, even when he tried to rouse him.

Portrait of General Thomas Ewing. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In Rouell’s own defense, he produced a few witnesses who testified that they did not know whether he was drunk on these occasions. One of the defense’s witnesses even countered that Rouell was alert and sober when the tent fell on him, in direct contrast to the testimony from the prosecution’s witnesses. Testimony against Rouell on the various contraband charges seemed less overwhelming, with details apparently murky. Several witnesses for the prosecution gave accounts that straightforwardly pinned the orders and responsibility on Rouell. But even some of the prosecution witnesses stated that there was discussion about the likelihood of hostile bushwhackers being in the region, and if they were to drive valuable livestock on behalf of the government, they should wear civilian clothes because it would be safer. According to this viewpoint, the men dressed as civilians for safety, not to hide their misappropriation of contraband livestock.

As amusing as the details about Captain Rouell’s drunkenness may be to some modern readers, the timing of the court-martial in November and December of 1863 underscored the seriousness of military discipline in a critical time of war. Rouell’s alleged drunkenness occurred in the midst of a period of crisis for the Union in Kansas and Missouri. In August, the bushwhacker William Clarke Quantrill raided Lawrence, Kansas, killed between 160 and 190 men and boys, and burned some 185 buildings. In response, General Ewing issued the punitive and now-infamous General Order No. 11. On October 6, Quantrill led 400 men against Fort Blair, near Baxter Springs, Kansas, embarrassing Major General James G. Blunt and killing 100 of his men. Between September and October, Confederate Colonel Joseph "Jo" Shelby led a "Great Raid" from Arkansas deep into Missouri. With federal forces still on high alert in November and December, the nature of the court-martial must have weighed heavily on those involved.

The most tantalizing aspect of this court-martial is that we know nothing of the results. The last portions of the document have been lost, unfortunately, and there is no clear indication of whether the court-martial would have ended in favor of or against Captain Rouell on any of the five charges. Nonetheless, the document provides something of a courtroom drama, a sense of mystery about what really happened in Company F in the summer and fall months of 1863, and several insights into military affairs on the Missouri-Kansas border in the midst of the Civil War.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allows breaking the content into pages by manually inserting <!--pagebreak--> placeholder or automatic page break by character or word limit, it depends on your settings below. Note: this will work only for CCK fields except for comment entity CCK fields.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <div> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <!-- --> <h1> <h2> <iframe>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.