(In)Famous Courts-Martial

A little more than a month ago, the Washington Post (here) and the New York Times (here) broke the story that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice prosecutors recommended that General (ret.) David Petraeus (Wikipedia) face criminal charges for allegedly providing classified information to his biographer, Paula Broadwell (Wikipedia), while he served as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Because he receives retirement pay, General Petraeus could be subject to court-martial or federal prosecution.[1] After a difficult couple of weeks and weekends of work at my day job, and in honor of my first snow day of the season tomorrow, I thought I’d let my mind wander over some notable courts-martial I’ve come across in my reading and research.

George A. Custer

The Army court-martialed Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer for being Absent Without Leave (AWOL), accused of abandoning his post to visit his wife, and for the death of a group of deserters (Custer was accused of ordering his soldiers to fire on the fleeing soldiers). The AWOL charges were likely politics and a misunderstanding, which bled over into the other charges, but that is beyond the scope here. Custer was convicted and his sentence was to be suspended from duty for one year. He did not serve his whole sentence, however. The Army recalled him for an important campaign, the first battle of which was the Battle of Little Big Horn…

For interested readers, there is an interesting book on this court-martial [here]. I found it to be an interesting insight into the procedure of 19th century courts-martial.

William “Billy” Mitchell

Considered the father of the United States Air Force, Colonel Mitchell faced a court-martial for insubordination after he refused to tone down his advocacy for a separate air service. He annoyed both his Army superiors and the entire Navy, often demonstrating how bombers could assert American power faster and more potently than the Navy and claiming that bombers could easily sink battleships. The court-martial convicted Colonel Mitchell, who resigned rather than serving a suspension of service.

I read a particularly good book on Colonel Mitchell’s court-martial [here], and highly recommend it.

Henry “Hap” Arnold

The only Air Force officer to hold the rank of five-star general, and the only individual to hold that rank in two separate services, Arnold was a strong supporter of Colonel Mitchell and testified in his court-martial on the Colonel’s behalf. After Colonel Mitchell’s conviction, Arnold continued to advocate his views of airpower and a separate service. As a result, his superior, Major General Mason Patrick gave him the choice of resigning his commission or face a general court-martial. Arnold chose the latter. Instead, Major General Patrick reassigned him and reprimanded him. Arnold chose to fight back, and became one of the greatest general officers in United States military history.

Readers can learn more about General Arnold by reading this book [here].

Staff Sgt. John Stebbins

Staff Sgt. Stebbins served in the Army during the Battle of Mogadishu, the battle memorialized in the movie Black Hawk Down (movie available here, book here). He was shot numerous times and, on at least three occasions, believed to be dead. For all intents and purposes, he was a war hero. For his actions in Somalia, Stebbins received a Silver Star. But if you watch the movie, you will find no mention of Staff Sgt. Stebbins. He is played by Ewen McGregor. But that character is named Grimes. This is because the Army refuses to acknowledge Staff Sgt. Stebbins. This is because Staff Sgt. Stebbins is serving a thirty year sentence for the rape and molestation of his toddler daughter. When producers approached the Army about the movie, the Army agreed to cooperate so long as no mention of Stebbins would be made.

Jackie Robinson

Everybody knows “42,” the sports and civil rights legend. But here is what people may not know. Jackie Robinson quit UCLA during his senior year in order to financially assist his mother and family. After taking a variety of sports related jobs, Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. He worked his way up the ranks and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. Serving during the Jim Crow era, Robinson was a vocal advocate for civil rights. On one occasion, he got into a shouting match with a white major over the limited access black soldiers had to the installation’s Post Exchange (an on-base military department store, of sorts). On another, he refused to play football for the post when told he could not also play on the installation’s all-white baseball team. When his commanding officer reminded Robinson that he could be ordered to play, he apparently agreed, but added that he could not be ordered to “play well.”

Later, Robinson was assigned to Camp (now Fort) Hood, Texas. There, and throughout his military career, Robinson sought regular medical treatment due to a broken ankle he sustained while playing football in junior college. This injury would get aggravated during periods of high intensity physical activity. One evening, after a doctor’s appointment, Robinson got on the bus to ride back to base. Seated next to a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife, the bus driver ordered Robinson to sit in the back of the bus. Robinson refused, telling the driver to focus on driving instead. The two continued to argue until Robinson reached his stop. Military Police (MP) arrived and asked Robinson to accompany them to headquarters to sort it out. He agreed, but when they all arrived, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and asked if the MPs had the “[n-word] lieutenant” with them. Robinson responded by threatening to “break in two” anyone, regardless of rank or status, who used that word again.

The confrontation continued, and for this Robinson faced a general court-martial for disrespect toward a superior officer and failure to obey a direct command. He was acquitted. But he was subsequently re-assigned.

At his new assignment, Robinson was encouraged to reach out to a semi-pro baseball team and, about a year later, started playing baseball…

There are many more well-known courts-martial, either due to the crimes involved or the individual accused. But these are the ones that I thought were a little unique and interesting, from memory. It’s important to know that early courts-martial were more administrative in nature and subject to much more politics than today’s courts. Have any others to share?


[1] Retired members of a regular component of the armed forces, receiving retirement pay, are subject to court-martial for offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 10 U.S.C. §§ 802(a)(4), 803 (2012).

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