Shamed at Sharpsburg: The Court Martial Case of Alfred Ransom Courtney

A postwar portrait of Alfred Ransom Courtney
(courtesy of George Seitz, findagrave.com)

As September 17, 1862, wore on, Robert E. Lee realized he would need as much help as he could find. Robert Chilton, a staff officer of Lee’s, wrote a dispatch in the midst of the battle to artillery chief William Nelson Pendleton, requesting “fifteen or twenty guns, suitable for our purposes…with a sufficiency of ammunition.” Lee stressed to Pendleton: “We want ammunition, guns, and provisions” as the battle intensified.[1]

 

One artillery officer who had plenty of capacity to help Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in this respect on September 17 commanded a battalion of artillery (four batteries)—Maj. Alfred Ransom Courtney. The 28-year-old major’s roots in North America dated back to 1620. “With an ancestry in whose veins flowed Scotch and English blood so pure,” wrote one of Courtney’s associates, it was no surprise that Courtney “developed in a high degree characteristics of intelligence, integrity and courage.” Courtney passed his bar exam before the Civil War began. He became a lieutenant in one Confederate battery at the outset of the war before receiving command of his own battery in July 1861.[2]

Courtney’s performance as an artillery officer attached to Richard Ewell’s command seemed promising. His battery performed good work during the June 8, 1862 Battle of Cross Keys. Massed in the Confederate center with several friendly batteries, Courtney’s guns poured a “well conducted” fire into the Federal ranks.[3] The captain’s solid performance caught eyes, and Courtney became a major and artillery battalion commander following the Seven Days’ Battles.[4] Unfortunately, for Courtney, his solid record soon ran dry.

Following the Army of Northern Virginia’s forced capitulation of the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry on September 15, 1862, most of the Confederate forces involved in that operation immediately began marching to rejoin the rest of the army at Sharpsburg, Maryland. This included Ewell’s Division (Alexander Lawton commanded the division in the wounded Ewell’s absence) to which Courtney’s Battalion was attached. Some of Courtney’s batteries joined the hurried march back into Maryland, but Courtney remained behind with a handful of Confederate batteries attempting to reequip their commands from the captured Federal stores.[5]

In the wake of the Maryland Campaign, Alfred Courtney came under the ire of Jubal Early, who pressed charges against Courtney for neglect of duty, disobeying orders, and being absent without leave. Early faulted Courtney for not bringing three batteries under his command to Sharpsburg from Harpers Ferry with the rest of Ewell’s Division on September 16 and for failing to bring them to the Antietam battlefield in time the next day. On September 18, as Lee desperately sought to strengthen his lines as best as he could, Early again called upon Maj. Courtney to cross his batteries to the north side of the Potomac River to bolster Early’s line and to report to Early in person. According to Early’s charges against Courtney, the major ordered the senior captain present to follow Early’s orders before Courtney himself went absent without leave for nearly one month.[6]

The charges that Jubal Early pressed against Courtney stood up against a court of inquiry, which found Courtney guilty of “dereliction of duty.” Courtney subsequently lost his command in Robert E. Lee’s army.[7]

Though severely singed by the ignominy of a court-martial, Alfred Courtney did not give up on getting back into the war. On July 18, 1863, he wrote Confederate Gen. Samuel Cooper begging for a new position. Courtney was “anxious to be on duty,” he wrote, and hoped to receive orders assigning him to either Braxton Bragg’s or Joseph Johnston’s western commands.[8] The Confederate government gave Courtney a second chance. The artillerist received orders to head west, where he fought in the Atlanta Campaign and suffered a serious wound during the Battle of Resaca. He recovered quickly enough to rejoin his soldiers during the battles for Atlanta and surrendered as an artillery battalion commander at the end of the war.[9]

Courtney took up his law practice when he returned home. The citizens of Henrico County elected him as their Commonwealth Attorney, a position Federal military authorities barred him from holding. Alfred Courtney also became a Freemason in the midst of the Civil War while stationed in Dalton, Georgia. His prominence rose in that organization, too. By 1896, Courtney occupied the post of Grand Master of Masons in the state of Virginia. After a Mason meeting in November 1914, a brain hemorrhage afflicted Courtney. He died on the evening of November 4, 1914, in Richmond.

Courtney’s obituary concluded with the following passage: “Good comrade, true friend, dear brother, we bid thee not good-bye but good-night, for you, like your great commander, [Stonewall] Jackson, have only passed over the river and now ‘rest under the shade of the trees,’ where we believe we will be reunited to you in the great beyond.”[10] Many Confederate veterans who remembered Courtney’s performance at the Battle of Antietam likely winced at this comparison to Jackson, whether that comparison came in life or death. Despite Courtney’s court-martial for his performance at Antietam, the rest of his career, including his military one, did not seem to match his conduct during those few days in September 1862.

***This post was originally published on Kevin Pawlak’s Antietam Brigades blog***

[1] Robert H. Chilton to William N. Pendleton, September 17, 1862, in OR, vol. 19, pt. 2, 610.

[2] “Major Alfred R. Courtney,” The Virginia Law Register 20, no. 10 (February 1915): 737-38.

[3] Jennings Cropper Wise, The Long Arm of Lee, vol. 1, Bull Run to Fredericksburg (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 174.

[4] “Alfred Ransom Courtney,” American Civil War Research Database, http://civilwardata.com/active/hdsquery.dll?SoldierHistory?C&358028 (accessed May 8, 2018).

[5] Courtney’s old battery, commanded in September 1862 by Capt. Joseph Latimer accompanied the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland but only with one section (two guns) of the battery. These two guns were captured at Harpers Ferry. Latimer’s Battery did not reach Sharpsburg until the afternoon of September 17. This fact begs the question of whether or not Courtney’s later actions during the Maryland Campaign were partially due to him believing the batteries in his command were unprepared for combat. Curt Johnson and Richard C. Anderson, Jr., Artillery Hell: The Employment of Artillery at Antietam (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), 93.

[6] The details of Courtney’s court-martial case are found in Courtney, Alfred R. file, roll 63, M331, Compiled Service Records of Confederate General and Staff Officers, and Nonregimental Enlisted Men, RG 109, National Archives and Records Administration.

[7] “Alfred Ransom Courtney,” American Civil War Research Database.

[8] Alfred R. Courtney to Samuel Cooper, July 18, 1863, in Courtney, Alfred R. file, roll 63, M331, RG 109, NARA.

[9] “Major Alfred R. Courtney,” The Virginia Law Register, 738-39.

[10] Ibid., 739-40.

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2 Responses to Shamed at Sharpsburg: The Court Martial Case of Alfred Ransom Courtney

  1. Thomas R Place says:

    thank you Kevin . like to get time and meet you at Antietam for a tour . Get you up here for a talk at Buffalo Round Table and Echoes Though Time AS WELL .

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