Laws of War | The Trial of Thomas Knox | HistoryNet MENU
(Left) Union Major general William T. Sherman. (Right) Thomas W. Knox.

Laws of War | The Trial of Thomas Knox

By John A. Haymond
9/12/2017 • MHQ Magazine

In 1863 a veteran newspaper correspondent defied a Union general’s order. He was court-martialed for the transgression.

In late December 1862, Major General William T. Sherman opened the campaign to capture the fortified Confederate city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, by landing troops in the swamps to the north. The rebels’ strong defensive positions repulsed every one of Sherman’s assaults, and after three days of frustrated battle, he withdrew his divisions. The Battle of Chickasaw Bayou was a small foretaste of the difficulties that Union forces would face in capturing Vicksburg. It also provided the backdrop to a precedent-setting case of American military law.

Before embarking on the expedition, Sherman had issued General Order No. 8, which expressly prohibited reporters from accompanying his forces or sending dispatches for publication from his area of operations. Any correspondents sending out news that might give the enemy “information and comfort,” the order stated, “will be arrested and treated as spies.” Sherman’s dislike of newspaper reporters was already well known; “the most contemptible race of men that exist” was one of his more polite descriptions of them.

Thomas W. Knox, a correspondent for the New York Herald, defied General Order No. 8, bringing down on himself the full force of Sherman’s dislike for the press. For whatever reason—either because he was unaware of Sherman’s order or because he assumed it did not apply to him—Knox had attached himself to the expedition and written a dispatch in which he denounced Sherman in scathing terms. One of Sherman’s staff officers found Knox’s report in the outgoing mail, read it, and called it to Sherman’s attention. Undeterred by the confiscation of his draft, Knox wrote his story a second time and carried it by hand upriver to Cairo, Illinois—some 400 miles away—where he mailed it to the Herald.

In his article, Knox said “there is little doubt that Vicksburg would, ere this, have been in Union hands,” if only someone other than Sherman were in command. “General Sherman was so exceedingly erratic,” he wrote, “that the discussion of the past twelve months with respect to his sanity, was revived with much earnestness.” He accused Sherman of refusing proper medical care for wounded soldiers in an attempt to keep the failure of his assault from becoming public knowledge and of ordering the destruction of 50,000 rations in his haste to leave the field.

Knox hadn’t witnessed most of the events he described, instead compiling his report from dubious secondhand sources, but still he assured the Herald’s readers that “the battle of Chickasaw Bayou has been a repetition on a smaller scale of the great battle of Fredericksburg, a month ago.” The public’s horror over the carnage from Union general Ambrose Burnside’s repeated frontal assaults on Fredericksburg’s Marye’s Heights on December 13, 1862, was still painfully fresh. Knox’s claim was wildly inaccurate: The Union army suffered more than 12,000 casualties at Fredericksburg, compared with 1,776 total losses at Chickasaw Bayou. Knox’s hyperbole was stubbornly impervious to such facts. Sherman’s “failure has dashed the hopes of the nation,” he wrote; “insanity and inefficiency have brought their result.” He declared that the only hope of capturing Vicksburg was Sherman’s immediate removal from command.

Knox was not the only correspondent who made slanderous statements about Sherman’s mental state. The New York Times ran an article maintaining that Sherman’s operational plans were proof of his “madness”; another newspaper printed a story declaring that during the fighting at Chickasaw Bayou, Sherman was “confined to his stateroom perfectly insane.” What made Knox different, though, was that he was physically within the reach of Sherman’s military authority, a fact the journalist perhaps overlooked when he figuratively threw his gauntlet at the general’s feet and all but dared him to pick it up. He did not have to wait long for Sherman’s response.

On February 3 Sherman received a copy of the Herald with Knox’s dispatch. The next day he wrote: “I am going to have the correspondent of the New York Herald tried by a court-martial as a spy, not that I want the fellow shot, but because I want to establish the principle that such people cannot attend our armies, in violation of orders, and defy us, publishing their garbled statements and defaming officers who are doing their best.” Reporters such as Knox, Sherman believed, were undermining the war effort with “their limited and tainted observations as the history of events they neither see nor comprehend.”

On February 5 Sherman issued General Order No. 13, convening a general court-martial at Young’s Point, Louisiana. Thomas Knox was charged with “giving intelligence to the enemy, directly or indirectly,” “being a spy,” and “disobedience of orders.” The first two charges were the most serious, invoking the possibility of a death sentence if Knox were to be convicted. But the court found Knox guilty only of the third charge, disobeying orders. The sentence of the court-martial was that he be “sent without the lines of the army, and not to return under penalty of imprisonment.”

Sherman might have thought he had seen the last of Knox, but the newspaperman had influential friends, who appealed to President Abraham Lincoln to override the court-martial verdict and allow Knox back into Sherman’s theater of operations. Lincoln, mindful of the need to avoid antagonizing the New York newspapers and his generals in the field, agreed only to allow Knox to put his request to Major General Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman’s commander.

Grant gave the petition short shrift. “You came here first in positive violation of an order from General Sherman,” he wrote in his reply to Knox. “You made insinuations against his sanity, and said many things which were untrue.…General Sherman is one of the ablest soldiers and purest men in the country.” He would allow Knox to return, Grant added, only if “Sherman first gives his consent.” Since Knox still had not apologized or published a retraction, such consent was unlikely.

When the matter reached Sherman, he reminded Knox that the reporter had earlier tried to excuse his conduct with the explanation that “you had to supply the public demand for news; true if possible, but false if your interest demanded it.” Sherman said that he would welcome Knox if he came as a soldier, but his presence as a reporter was intolerable. “Come as you do now…as a representative of the press, which you yourself say makes so slight a difference between truth and falsehood,” Sherman wrote, “and my answer is, Never.” He would not relent.

Sherman had actually overstepped his bounds by hauling Knox before a court-martial. It was not that he didn’t have the authority to charge a civilian with criminal activities and bring him to trial—he did. The problem was that he tried Knox before the wrong kind of court. As a civilian, Knox was not subject to the conventional military law represented by a court-martial. And since Sherman was campaigning in Confederate territory, where no U.S. civil courts had jurisdiction, there was no recourse to a civilian court. With court-martial or civil court out of the question, the only legal option was a trial by military commission.

In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War of 1847, Major General Winfield Scott had created military commissions so that the U.S. Army would have a way to handle cases that fell outside the reach of courts-martial. An unorthodox and slightly field-expedient idea at first, military commissions gained a new legitimacy and codified structure in the first year of the Civil War. In 1862, just a few months before Knox ran afoul of Sherman, the U.S. government legislatively recognized them as courts of law. Major General Henry Halleck, the foremost legal scholar of the Union army during the Civil War, pointed out at the time that “many classes of people cannot be arraigned before [courts-martial] for any offense whatsoever, and many crimes committed cannot be tried under the ‘Rules and Articles of War.’ Military commissions must be resorted to for such cases.” The Knox case clearly fit that definition.

More important than the question of jurisdiction and venue, however, was the fact that Sherman’s decision to prosecute a newspaper correspondent raised troubling questions about the line between the army’s legitimate need to control operationally sensitive information and the vital constitutional protections that guaranteed freedom of the press, even in time of war. It was understandable that inaccurate and distorted newspaper reports infuriated Sherman—especially accounts that impugned him personally—and he would have been well within his rights if he had decided to sue those papers for slander. As the commander of an army in the field, however, he established a dangerous precedent when he ordered Knox’s arrest and trial. To date, it remains a precedent without repetition: Thomas W. Knox is still the only credentialed representative of the American press ever tried and convicted by a U.S. Army court-martial for his reporting. MHQ

John A. Haymond, a conflict historian, is the author of The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History (McFarland & Company, 2016).

Photo: (From left) Mathew Brady Collection/National Archives; A.D. Worthington & Co., Publishers

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