July 27, 1863 was not a good day for Seraphim Meyer. The Eleventh Corps of the Army of the Potomac, of which Meyer’s 107th Ohio Volunteer Infantry was a part, was that day encamped around the village of New Baltimore, Virginia. Active campaigning having subsided, time allowed for a General Court Martial to convene.
Meyer, then approaching his fifth decade and suffering from a bout of illness, appeared before the officers detailed for the court and was arraigned on the charge of “misbehavior in the presence of the enemy”… an offense serious enough to warrant his removal from command, brand him with a mark of shame not easily removed in 19th century America, and theoretically warrant punishment of an even greater severity.
There is nothing particularly unusual about this case. Meyer’s arraignment was one of hundreds of such that occurred during the American Civil War. What is perhaps unique is that the accusations brought against him stemmed from the battle of Gettysburg, a fight not often associated with cowardice on the part of Union officers. Additionally, there is the fact that the 48 year old Colonel was the only federal officer saddled with such a charge as a result of that engagement.
The case, which took the better part of the following two weeks to decide, essentially pitted two men, and two versions of the same event, against one another. On the one side was Col. Meyer, who alleged that no misbehavior or cowardly action ever occurred on the field of battle at Gettysburg. On the contrary, Meyer maintained that he had behaved with the utmost coolness and gallantry, a fact attested to not only by himself but by a number of his subordinate officers as well.
On the other side of the issue was Brigadier General Adelbert Ames, Col. Meyer’s direct superior. Ames was a professional soldier, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and a man widely admired for his abilities as a leader. On July 1st, 1863 Ames led his brigade, numbering a little over 1,300 men, into combat in the fields directly north of Gettysburg. They were soon advanced upon by Confederate infantry and after a brief but ferocious firefight, forced back into what devolved into a chaotic route. The brigade spent the remainder of the battle occupying a position on Cemetery Hill south of town, and Ames himself was elevated to division command replacing the captured and severely wounded Francis Barlow.
The chaos and confusion of the fighting at Gettysburg was not sufficient enough to distract Gen. Ames from certain failings he had witnessed on the part of Col. Meyer on July 1st. During the fighting north of town Ames noticed that Meyer had the habit of ducking and dodging in a cowardly and agitated manner whenever he heard the sound of a bullet whistle past. On another occasion Ames noted that the Colonel would crouch behind the neck of his horse, seemingly using the animal as a shield to guard him from projectiles coming down range.
In his testimony Ames also alleged that Col. Meyer bungled nearly every order given him, taking far longer to execute the desired movements than any of the other three regiments under his command. This was due in part to the extremely panicked and frantic manner in which Meyer vocalized his orders. Capt. J.M. Brown, one of Ames staff officers, testified that Meyer’s method of relaying commands “…seemed to me more like screaming – the words could not be distinguished.”
When disaster descended on the 11th Corps regiments north of town, and the surviving Union soldiers were forced to retreat towards the safety of Cemetery Hill, Col. Meyer was no-where to be found. At one point Ames and his staff officers witnessed the colors of the 107th Ohio in the hands of the adjutant of the regiment near the Alms House, along with a small contingent of men. Meanwhile, Col. Meyer was sighted near the train station on Carlisle Street, roughly ½ mile away and removed from the most immediate danger.
A host of witnesses for the defense were paraded before the court, most attempting to chip away at the version of events related by Ames and his cronies. For instance, the surgeon of the 107th Ohio stated that Col. Meyer had a severe chest ailment. The crouching on the neck of the horse witnessed by Ames was not an act of cowardice the surgeon explained; rather it alleviated the discomfort caused by his illness. Another man in the 107th testified that the screaming and peculiar manner in which Col. Meyer gave orders had nothing to do with fear or panic, but actually stemmed from Meyer’s own eccentricities. It was simply his way of issuing commands. While it may be comical the soldier admitted, it was not a sign of cowardice.
Meyer and his friends were most adamant in their denial that he had abandoned his command. He was with his men during the entirety of the retreat and precisely followed and executed the orders given to him by Gen. Ames.
In the end, the court agreed with Meyer’s version of events. On August 2nd, 1863 Col. Seraphim Meyer was acquitted. He was duly released from arrest and resumed “his sword and his duties.” Though exonerated, his time with the United States Army was short lived. Wracked by illness he took leave one week after the conclusion of the trial. In November of that year an examining board investigated Meyer. They found him wanting in knowledge of tactics and administrative duties and a result found him unfit to occupy the rank of colonel and to command a regiment, giving a degree of credibility to the testimony of Adelbert Ames. In February of 1864 Meyer resigned his command and returned to civilian life.
When studying the Civil War it is far easier, and far more gratifying, to focus on stories of courage and gallantry than it is to examine moments of cowardice and fear. That being said, nearly every visitor to Gettysburg wonders, if only subconsciously, how they would have reacted had they taken part in the battle? Would the carnage and fear of battle overwhelm the senses or would some hidden and untapped source of strength reveal itself? While everyone would like to think themselves cut from the same bolt as Henry Burgwyn, Rufus Dawes, and Alonzo Cushing, chances are there are more than a few who would play the role of Seraphim Meyer.
The Meyer case also reminds us of the challenge of studying history. Historians having to piece together the events of July 1-3, 1863 often have multiple and entirely contrary perspectives on any one issue or event. Whose version of events on July 1st, 1863 was the more accurate? Was Ames motivated by some form of prejudice against the German born Meyer or was he simply trying to remove from the field an officer whose lack of skill and fortitude would only cost young men their lives? Was Meyer truly afflicted by a chest ailment that made riding difficult? Was his high pitched and panicked tone really just an eccentricity, or was it born in the fear of battle.
The staff of Gettysburg National Military Park invites you to come to the battlefield and explore the story of Seraphim Meyer in a new interpretive program called “Courage on Trial.” Every Saturday throughout the summer you’ll have the chance to retry the case of Col. Meyer, as we recreate his court-martial. Hear the evidence and question the witnesses yourself, before deciding the fate of this Union officer who fought on the fields of Gettysburg. We hope to see you there, every Saturday at 1:00 PM at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center.
Christopher Gwinn, Gettysburg National Military Park