The New Student's Reference Work/Courts-Martial

Courts-Martial, in their modern form, as regular tribunals set up by Congress or in minor cases by a military or naval commander, for the trial of offences against martial law or discipline in the army, navy or marines, date from an ordinance of Charles I, and are referred to in the first mutiny-act of William and Mary. Both in America and England there are several grades of courts-martial. In the highest or general courts, the more serious offences and also all charges against commissioned officers are tried. Often, when evidence is to be gathered, courts of inquiry are set up for this purpose. These courts in America may summon witnesses upon oath; but in England they have no such legal powers. When sentence of death is decreed, it is usually by shooting. The old-fashioned drumhead courts-martial, held upon the field before passion had time to cool and before full evidence could be gathered, are no longer held. Summary courts may, however, be held, in America in the place of regimental and garrison courts, and in the British army chiefly to try offences committed upon active service abroad, when it is difficult to have the offenders tried in the ordinary courts. The more serious offences are never tried by such courts, which in the United States consist of but a single officer. Courts-martial have the defect that their members belong to one and the same class, and may have a special army or navy sentiment. In 1757 Admiral Byng was sacrificed by an English court-martial to popular clamor, and shot, having perhaps made an error of judgment in avoiding battle with a vastly superior fleet. Great public interest has recently been shown (1907) in the sentence of a company of negro troops to disbandment under martial law by President Roosevelt. In a court-martial the prisoner at present has much the same privileges of having an advocate, a right to reply, etc. as in the ordinary criminal courts. The judges are of equal or superior rank to the prisoner.