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Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
Sergeant Charles Campbell, the chief complainant, swore that when Thompson first approached the stragglers, the Union troops were in full control and that the Rebels the doctor questioned were acknowledged prisoners and not the free agents Thompson took them to be. Nonetheless, Campbell asserted, the surgeon, without establishing the true nature of the situation, as the only officer among the hundred-odd stragglers, immediately took command. Going up to one of the Confederates, he said, “I surrender all these men to you.” Thunderstruck at this turn of events, Campbell, though only a sergeant, intervened. “I told him not by a d———d sight he would not,” and the doctor withdrew the offer.
Moments later Thompson announced “he wanted it fairly understood … that if we met any of the enemy that he did not want a shot fired, as he was a non-combatant and did not wish to get hurt.”
“I told him,” Campbell went on, “that if we met any of the enemy there would be a shot fired, and I would commence by shooting him if he did not behave himself.…”
This incriminating affidavit—a “profane, exagerated and untruthful statement,” Thompson called it—was supported by sworn testimony from three other witnesses, one of whom, undoubtedly referring to the “towel” the doctor had at one point raised, spoke of it as a white flag of surrender.
Taken together, the four accounts were too damaging to be ignored, and shortly after their arrival at II Corps headquarters Thompson was formally charged with cowardice and treachery arising from seven specific acts. Brought before a six-man court on November 15, the surgeon readily admitted that he had done the things the Wisconsin Volunteers described, but, he said, his actions were not really what they seemed to be. He had not been impelled by lack of courage or disloyalty; the raising of the white flag, for example, had been for the protection of the group, and the other acts had proceeded from the same impulse.
The prosecution called no witnesses, and Thompson refused to hail his accusers into court on the ground that they could not be expected to change their written testimony—nor deny the motives they imputed to him—under cross-examination. Instead he brought forward three character witnesses from the surgeons’ ranks in II Corps.
It was a fateful legal maneuver and, as Thompson subsequently acknowledged, a fatal error. “I was,” he later wrote, “a victim of misplaced confidence,” for if each testified to his loyalty, none could certify his courage. Two of the surgeons said they had never seen him in any situation where it might be tested, and the third, M. V. K. Montfort, who had served with Thompson at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Locust Grove, swore that the accused had always assumed the safest possible position while performing his duties in the field. Asked pointedly by the prosecutor to assess Thompson’s reputation for bravery among the men of the 124th, Montfort replied simply, “It is not good.”
Given the circumstances, the court was unsympathetic; it ruled that Thompson’s admission to the specific acts, whatever interpretation he chose to place upon them, was tantamount to an admission of cowardice and to “conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” Having taken command in a confused situation, he had automatically under martial law lost his noncombatant status. Absolving him of the charge of disloyalty, the court found him guilty on all other counts and sentenced him to be cashiered with a loss of all pay and allowances.
There was no appeal, and on November 25 Thompson was dismissed from the service. He returned home to Goshen seemingly in disgrace, but within a matter of weeks the officers of the 124th, defending his loyalty but ignoring any reference to his bravery, succeeded in bringing his case before President Lincoln. Encouraged by William Seward, Secretary of State and a native of Orange County, the President, by executive order, granted Thompson a pardon on January 25, 1865, restoring his civil rights and removing all future disabilities his dismissal might otherwise entail. Given the opportunity to re-enlist in February, Thompson failed to respond, unwilling perhaps to chance another separate peace.
After reading the above account Surgeon Thompson’s greatgranddaughter, Mrs. George Cheney, Jr., wrote, the following:
“Surgeon Thompson’s Separate Peace” is based on one paper found among my great-grandfather’s effects. I had thought it an interesting official report of his “capturing thirty Johnny Rebs” rather than a deposition for his courtmartial.