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.



The Union’s State Provost Marshal System

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Provost Marshal System

James Barnett FryThe Union Army had a robust and organized provost marshal system for their field army. Their goal was to collect stragglers, police the battlefields and hunt down deserters. Away from the armies the Lincoln government created a state-by state system after the passage of the Conscription or Enrollment Act on March 3, 1863.

On March 17th, Lincoln appointed Colonel James Barnett Fry, an Illinois West Pointer as the head of Provost Marshal General’s Bureau. Fry created the administrative machinery of his Bureau, dividing it into four branches.

The first branch, Fry’s staff, consisted of two officers, one who served as his assistant and the other as an assistant adjutant-general. The second or enrollment branch was in charge of enrolling and drafting. Its responsibilities were to supervise and keep all records relating to enrollment and draft, to keep records of volunteers recruited from each district and to work out draft quotas. It goes without saying that this branch received the special attention of Fry and his assistants.

The other two branches were disbursement and accounts, and deserters and their rolls. It was necessary later to add several other branches because of increased responsibilities. The later branches dealt with medical affairs, the invalid or veterans reserve corps, and disbursements and accounts for volunteering.

The original act had only made provision for a provost marshal in each congressional district. The need for regional or state offices had not been considered. Fry insisted on the need for such offices and the appointment of an assistant provost marshal general for each state was made. This officer was to coordinate the work of all other provost marshals and boards of enrollment in the state with the central office in Washington.

Since the states were to continue their former recruiting, and drafting was to be only a final resort, it was necessary that a genuine feeling of cooperation
and harmony be reached between Federal and State officials. There was also a desire to have state support in case of violence resulting from the draft.

To better understand how the bureaus functioned, let’s take Ohio as an example. Ohio was divided according to the newly established congressional districts which resulted in the creation of nineteen enrollment districts. Each of these districts was supervised by three individuals. The over-all responsibility rested with the district provost marshal who was assisted by an office force and the enrollment board; the latter composed of the provost marshal, a practicing physician or surgeon, and a civilian called the commissioner.

These officials were appointed in Washington upon the recommendation of local politicians, congressmen, and the governor. The task of appointing this group, the Provost Marshal General later reported, was especially difficult because of the lack of information on the qualifications of many of the applicants. In some districts appointees failed to answer or if they did answer they declined to serve. In other districts men applied but failed to have proper recommendations submitted. All of this was time consuming.

To facilitate enrollment, Congress had authorized enrollment boards, when they deemed it expedient, to sub-divide their congressional districts into sub-districts, at the rate of one for each city ward, one for each county, and, in sparsely populated districts, one for each township. The officers in these areas enrolled all men subject to the draft and were hired only long enough to complete this work and temporarily rehired to make corrections.

The most obvious reason for the presence of the provost marshals in the different districts was to guarantee the Lincoln Administration that the soldiers needed to fill the depleted ranks in the Union Army would be furnished. Behind this was a more ingenious reason; one which was just as effective in stimulating recruiting and in some respects more important, that of preserving loyalty and peace within the community.


Marsena R. Patrick, Provost Marshal General

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

General Marsena R. PatrickMarsena Rudolph Patrick was the provost marshal for the Army of the Potomac and later held the same position for the armies of the Eastern Theater under General Ulysses S. Grant.

Patrick was born in Jefferson County, New York on March 15, 1811. He worked on the Erie Canal and briefly taught school before his appointment to West Point. He graduated in 1835 and was commissioned in the infantry. In 1839 he served in the Seminole Wars. He served in the Mexican War where he was promoted to captain in 1847. Promoted to major in 1849, nevertheless he resigned his commission a year later.

Initially, he was president of the Sackett’s Harbor and Ellisburg Railroad. He later became an expert farmer, studying and using the latest farming practices. In 1859, he was appointed president of the the New York State Agricultural College, serving in that role for two years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

At the onset of the war Patrick enlisted in the New York State Militia as its inspector general. By March 1862 he was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers and given command of a brigade. His unit was part of  a division commanded Brig. Gen. Rufus King. They were part of Irvin McDowell’s Army in the Shenandoah Valley. It was here that they battled the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah led by Gen. Thomas J. Jackson who had become the famous ‘Stonewall’ at the First Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).

Patrick was almost immediately appointed military governor of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in April 1862. Transferred later in the year to the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, he commanded the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, I Corps in the defenses of Washington, D.C..

Patrick’s brigade (renumbered as the 3rd Brigade) suffered hundreds of casualties in the Maryland Campaign, seeing action at the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. At Antietam Patrick’s Brigade was part of the assaults on the West Woods on the morning of the battle.

Following the Battle of Antietam, the Army of the Potomac’s command structure was reorganized with the removal of McClellan and his replacement by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Patrick was named provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac on October 6, 1862 and given the equivalent of a brigade of troops to carry out his duties. At times this formation included the following units:

His unit was responsible for a variety of tasks including maintaining military discipline behind the lines. In November of 1862 the were unable to stop the sacking and looting of Fredericksburg, Virginia from vengeful Union troops. This incident was to dog Patrick for some time as political leaders blamed him for the actions of the out-of-control soldiers.

“The Soldiery were sacking the town!” Patrick wrote, uncharacteristically using an exclamation mark in his diary. “Men with all sorts of utensils & furniture, all sorts of eatables & drinkables & wearables, were carried off. I found the town in a most deplorable state of things. Libraries, pictures, furniture, every thing destroyed & the brutal Soldiery still carrying on the work.”

Patrick described his efforts to restore order with near-melancholy: “Couch sent over for me to clear the town. This was impossible although I put in my Cavalry & 4 companies of Infy.”

In 1863, new army commander Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker had Patrick create the Bureau of Military Information, a network of intelligence agents. Patrick assigned his deputy provost marshal, Colonel George H. Sharpe, to the task. Sharpe was assisted by John C. Babcock, a civilian and former employee of Allan Pinkerton.

His unit was also responsible for processing captured Confederate troops from the battlefield and into captivity. They policed the area behind the battlefields and behind the marching army for deserters and stragglers. In general, it was their job to main order and discipline for the Army of the Potomac.

Patrick’s job as provost marshal began with a marching army. Whether in advance or retreat, a force the size of the Army of the Potomac had to contend with clogged roads, narrow bridges, mud, swift rivers and a host of other situations bound to slow progress. Patrick had to keep the army moving while rounding up stragglers, looters or worse.

Artillery, Packs, Ambulances, Servants, Orderlies & detached commands, with Stragglers of all kinds, began to pour in” as the army approached a narrow bridge, Patrick wrote in his diary. “I was at the Bridge & thereabouts, whip in hand, using it freely & directing the movement successfully, until every wheel & hoof had crossed the bridges.”

As battle neared, Patrick’s job evolved into helping concentrate the army. He had to round up drunks, skedaddlers, looters, stragglers and other unsavory men who were supposed to be in line against the enemy. On June 30, 1863, as the army approached Gettysburg, Patrick wrote, “I was called into town and sent for two Squadrons of Cavalry to go back to Frederick & clean out that town, which was reported full of drunken men & Stragglers.”

During battle, Patrick performed the thankless job of turning around or corralling the men who ran from the battle. He also had to deal with prisoners. During Pickett’s Charge, Patrick and his men were behind the main Federal line. “I had my hands full with those that broke to the rear, but we succeeded in checking the disorder & organized a guard of Stragglers to keep nearly 2000 Prisoners all safe.”

After the battle, Patrick saw to the dead and the mountains of government equipment left on the field. On July 6, 1863, Patrick wrote, “I was soon ordered by Gen. Meade to go into the town & make arrangements with responsible parties for the burial of the dead & Securing of the property on the battle field.”

When Ulysses S, Grant became General-in-Chief in March of 1864, He appointed Patrick as provost marshal for the combined forces operating against Richmond, Virginia. He carried out the same duties as he had previously but on a larger scale. After the surrender of Robert E. Lee, he was appointed as provost of the District of Henrico in the Department of Virginia.

Although appointed a brevet major general in the volunteer army, Patrick resigned from the Army a second time on June 12, 1865, preferring to return to civilian life rather than accept a role in the smaller postbellum regular army. In 1865, he ran on the Democratic ticket for New York State Treasurer but was defeated by Republican Joseph Howland.

Patrick moved to Manlius, NY, and from 1867 through 1868, Patrick served as president of the New York State Agricultural Society, then spent the next two years as a state commissioner, a role he again held from 1879 through 1880. He became a widely known public speaker, particularly on topics related to technological advances in agriculture.

Interested in the care of former soldiers, Patrick moved to Ohio and became the governor of the central branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Marsena Patrick died in Dayton, Ohio, and was buried in the Dayton National Cemetery. His diary, frequently critical of the Army’s commanders, wasn’t published until 1964.