A Necessary Evil

Over the last two seasons, we have seen the presence of the Provost Guard formed in the Union Battalion. Its formation was initially to guard the camp whilst the boys were out drilling or in battle. Although it started out as just something for me to do, I decided that although I'm a cripple, I could contribute something to ACWS in return for years of enjoyment this hobby has given me. I began researching the Provost Guard whilst in SoSkAn, but got little support or recognition from them. NOT that I have ever expected a reward, just recognition at least that the job is worthwhile and serves a practical purpose.

Due to the fact that the Battalion needed some security, I decided to get the history right. So here is some information that I hope is interesting:-

Firstly, as a re-enactor, research and factuality is foremost and fortunately the life span from beginning to end was very short, and most written and photographic evidence is easily obtainable. It is very precise and leaves nothing to presume and is well documented. I thought I'd write this in a way that was not just copied form a book, but tried to give a common sense view of events that in (my opinion) changed the face of soldiering during the early part of 1862 onwards.

As a soldier in a former life, it is helpful to pass on various misunderstandings about Military discipline that most observers only see from the outside.

For most people the word discipline conjures up a regime of army bullying. A Sergeant Major shouting and balling at squaddies that jump and tremble at his very presence, or some form of Draconian punishment for some trivial transgression - discipline is none of those.

Discipline is the method of being able "to advance through adversity", that is what Military discipline really is, and takes time to achieve.

Heads Will Roll

By the end of 1861 and the first quarter of 1862, the war was escalating at a rapid and bloody speed.

Union forces were taking a pounding in all areas, and the rumours of a possible defeat were looming to the disbelief of Washington and the Top Military brass. Embarrassing defeats, against an enemy believed to be dirt farmers, uneducated back woodsmen, with antiquated weapons and no structured leadership, were not only holding their own but trampling over regular soldiers (and plenty of them), with the best weapons, food, shelter, equipment, uniforms and good supply routes, so why were the Union forces being hammered?As in most conflicts, someone must be to blame. Whilst looking for a Governmental solution, the Military reluctantly came clean to the real reason - desertion, or to be accurate "the lack of response to desertion".

Desertion is very bad for morale and can cripple an army very quickly. Something had to be done, and done at a rapid rate.

At that time individual Commanders were responsible for discipline in their respective units. Although written conduct of Military personnel was in place, it would be rarely used. Every man was needed and punishment would have been sharp and carried out quickly, as to retain as many fighting men as possible.

As the number of deserters increased and so did the lack of response, something or someone was needed to deal with it.

Now look at the problem an Infantry Unit would have in dealing with this. You have marched twenty five miles, drawn into an engagement, lost a third of your men dead and wounded, twenty men have deserted and you are expected to re-form, deal with casualties, send back at least a Company of what's left, maybe ten or fifteen miles, detain absconders if you can find them and march back another fifteen miles to your unit with these men under guard. Then you have to secure them, feed them and carry out your normal duties. Eat, sleep, clean weapons and then prepare to march off the following day to who knows where? Can you imagine the physical restraints that would have been on a foot soldier, and this was not the only problem.

Some Unit Commanders were very reluctant to impose harsh punishment on those brought back. In one such incident three soldiers were marched into the C.O.'s tent and were told to sit for nearly three hours while being given some "strong Fatherly advice" then returned to the lines. One fellow shoved his C.O. a letter from home. Reading of the hardships his young wife and child were facing, he ordered the cook to make him "some broth" whilst he tried to assure the young man that the war would be over very soon and as soon as possible he would be discharged, hardly a deterrent to a growing problem.

It was deemed by Congress to give the Military "sweeping new powers" and General Ambrose Burnside was given carte blanche to deal with it. Now whatever your opinions about him, he was brilliant in delegating, and fortunately he delegated the task of sorting out desertion to a real soldier, General Andrew Bell Birney. He was renowned for getting things done and set about his awful task with merciless speed and results. Birney knew that the responsibility and individual response must be taken away from Unit Commanders, therefore removing compassion, but more importantly the use of manpower involved. A totally independent force was needed that was specially designed and equipped for the task. With the inclusion of General Andrew Porter as Provost Marshal on 21 February 1862, the Provost Guard was created and would very quickly become the answer to dealing with desertion. Word of its creation would spread like wildfire down to the individual soldier, of its harshness and ruthless method of dealing with anyone unfortunately caught up in their path. This is exactly what Birney wanted, whilst he toasted the birth of his baby. The thought of desertion must have seemed the final act of someone knowing that if caught, they would face the ultimate consequences.

Instant effect

Like every new father, Burnside wanted Washington to see the newborn. It was deemed that 250 men captured, would be charged and dealt with in the presence of various Congressmen. The press were invited also. Out of 250, only 5 were executed, 2 for rape and 3 for killing Union troops whilst evading capture, the remaining number were given various sentences. This showcase was as much a P. R. Show as the majority of deserters would never reach a trial. In August 1863, it became a Federal offence to desert, with most of those caught being executed on the spot, which at the same time reduced the act of bounty jumping dramatically.

By now the Provosts were feared and hated. Formed from four Infantry units, 38th, 40th New York VIR, 3rd & 4th Maine VIR. These units were well tested Vet's. They were given the choice to either disband and lose their colours, or merge to become the first Provost Brigade. As they were a Federal force they could go anywhere to complete a task. Birney was a great advocate of individual unit recognition. As battles took place he would need to know where the Provosts were. By doing so, he knew all other units would be in front of them. They would advance behind units, shooting anyone facing the "wrong way"? Birney devised a method of recognition for Provost regiments. Each soldier would wear a red circular patch on his hat, so to be seen from a distance, and in response to their effectiveness, produced the Birney badge as seen being worn by Provosts in the Union lines.

Provosts were required to be horse soldiers, although still infantry. They were Cavalry orientated as far as equipment was concerned, and in most cases armed to the teeth with as many as four pistols, shotguns, carbines, swords etc., and as much ammunition as was required for the task in hand. They were self sufficient, answering to no-one below Divisional Command. They were to become hated by all within the Union forces. They were insubordinate and would breeze into any unit and take supplies when and where they went, often spat at and jeered by their own forces. It was not safe for them to billet near regular units and would be kept out of sight in conflict areas. Although not wanted, they were much needed, not only for deserters. They were responsible for movement of spies in and out of Union lines, securing routes for civilian refugees, the protection of Military key points, guarding of Division H.Q. Personnel, and the draft. They had a hard time, taking on Confederate Cavalry, Infantry, Southern Civilian Sympathisers, Reb deserters and their own deserters (not popular people). In my opinion, they were probably the most corrupt soldiers in the Army. Provost officers were expected to report the readiness of units, back to their H.Q. I wonder what 'sweeteners' were given by Unit Commanders to influence a good report? They were quickly known as a force unto themselves However, to dismiss beliefs, they were not Military Policemen. They were Infantry soldiers, having no training in Police matters at all!On completion of the war, they would have no longer an effective use, and were disbanded in 1865, replaced later by the concept that all Units would take it in turn to do Provost duty for a six month period.

As a point of interest, the Confederacy formed a Provost Brigade in 1865, not to do the same job as Union Provosts. Their task was to try to gather, arm and equip stragglers, or those heading South for a final defence of Virginia. Although ineffective, it was more of a token gesture to rally together what was left of the Army.

In the US Army today, you will see M.P.'s. These are Military Police (regulars). You may also see US soldiers wearing P.M. Armbands. These are National Guard (T.A.), Having a Policing duty under the command of the Military Provost Marshal Dept. During conflict or exercises.

Bob George, Provost Marshal's Dept

The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, December 2000