The Provost Marshal System in the Armies

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Provost Marshal System

Civil War Provost Marshal badgeThe American Civil War was the great divide in American history. Everything during and after was changed in the way we did things. The military changed dramatically but not in the way most people might think. After the war the Army reverted to much of its former size and practices but one department remained, that of the Provost Marshal.

The provost marshals were the military police of both armies. They hunted and arrested deserters, spies, and civilians suspected of disloyalty; confined prisoners; maintained records of paroles and oaths of allegiance; controlled the passage of civilians in military zones and those using Government transportation; and investigated the theft of Government property. In some instances, provost courts were set up to try cases that fell under the provost marshal’s jurisdiction and those cases where military personnel were accused of civil crimes.

That’s a broad description of how each side used their provost marshals. But how they organized them were quite different. The Union had a more hierarchical structure while the Confederates used a more ad hoc approach. But first a little historical background is in order.

On July 18, 1861, Union General Irvin McDowell issued General Order No. 18, defining the authority of the provost marshal in the Army of Northeast Virginia, as the troops moved southward on campaign. In 1862, General George B. McClellan assumed command of the newly formed Division of the Potomac, which included the departments of Northeast Virginia and Washington.

McClellan issued the first orders describing the duties of provost marshals within a field army during the Civil War. For the duration of the war, each division, brigade, and corps of the Union Army included a provost marshal. Guards were assigned to the provost marshal to assist in carrying out assigned functions, chief of which was preservation of order.

The Federal army was much more organized in constructing the provost system than the Confederates were. McClellan realized that there needed to be an immediate generation of the Provost Marshal’s Department. Army divisions, and later corps, were directed to appoint provost marshals and guards. By March of 1863, all military police duties were being handled by the Provost Marshal’s Department. These marshals and guards used specific badges, often based on their corps design, to designate them as provost.

In September 1862, the federal Adjutant General’s office issued General Order No. 140, appointing special provost marshals for each state. The special provost marshal had many responsibilities, which included investigating charges or acts of treason and arresting deserters, spies, and persons deemed disloyal. James Fry was appointed on March 3, 1863 to be the first Provost Marshal General during the American Civil War.

A reorganization of the War Department in 1863 eliminated the position of special provost marshal, but appointed an assistant provost marshal general (APMG) for each state, a provost marshal for each congressional district and a deputy provost marshal for each county. The duties remained much the same. In addition, the provost marshal assigned to the district was responsible for maintaining troop discipline, assuming custody of prisoners and deserters, administering punishment, and suppressing any depredations and disturbances caused by Army troops or individual soldiers.

Confederate Provost Marshals were originally sanctioned by the Articles of War which were adopted on March 6, 1861. References to brigade provost marshals prior to the 1st Battle of Bull Run make it clear a provost structure was operating within the Confederate military structure early on.

While the Federal army had organized the provost department into actual corps, the Confederate Army never incorporated this into their system. They relied more on line officers and volunteers. In relation to this, there were two very different types of provost marshals during the war: 1) provost marshals taking the field with the armies and 2) district and town provost marshals.

The first usually consisted of line officers of a high caliber and they either had been recommended for the job, been wounded, or were recovering from some illness. These line officers proved to be very effective provost marshals for the armies on the march as they were field officers who knew how to handle men.

On June 5, 1862, the Department of Northern Virginia put out a general order directing that provost guards be chosen for their reliability and efficiency. This order directed that each divisional guard would consist of one officer, one noncommissioned officer, and ten men from each regiment in the division. These men would be answerable to the division provost marshal. In fact, General Robert E. Lee considered this role so important that following the Seven Days Battle he directed that officers with provost commands be “effective, energetic, and firm”.

However, the district and town provost marshals were usually untrained ruffians that used provost duty as an excuse to escape active military service and were thus known fondly as “skulkers” or “Bomb-proofs”. The number of men making up these “units” were undetermined, and often they were involved with shady deals of their own. They often abused their authority and were able to arrest anyone simply out of suspicion and without evidence.

We will cover the provost marshals in the states in a later post.


Series NavigationThe Union’s State Provost Marshal System >>

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