When I did my post on Col. Othniel De Forest of the 5th New York Cavalry, I noted that in the spring of 1864, De Forest was cashiered from the army, and that not long after his death that December, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and reinstated to his prior rank of colonel posthumously. The reasons for this were a mystery, and I indicated that I intended to pursue the answer to this question in the hope of solving the mystery. I ordered De Forest’s service and pension files in the hope that they would hold the key to solving the mystery.
I am pleased to report that the mystery has, indeed, been solved, that the system worked the way it was supposed to work, and that an injustice was thereby corrected.
Sometime shortly after the end of the Gettysburg Campaign, De Forest was arrested and charged with fraud. He had been ill during the early phases of the Gettysburg Campaign and only returned to duty on July 10, during the retreat from Gettysburg. At that time, he became commander of the First Brigade, Third Cavalry Division, as its senior colonel. However, on July 29, he was sent to the General Hospital in Washington, D.C. on orders of the Cavalry Corps surgeon. There was some confusion over this, as he was reported to be away without leave, but “he was found on a [railroad] car quite ill.” Although he was ill, when De Forest arrived in Washington, he was arrested by the Provost Marshal and conducted to Old Capitol Prison. Then, on August 3, he was taken to New York City under guard, where he was turned over to the civil authorities despite being what was described as “dangerously ill.” Presumably this was the same illness that ultimately caused De Forest’s death the following December.
An individual named Samuel Strong claimed that at the time that the 5th New York Cavalry was formed in 1861, De Forest conspired with others, including his brother Benjamin DeForest, to (a) procure authority to raise the regiment, (b) to purchase horses and equipment for the regiment and (c) to share in the profits of the venture. “The evidence shows that the Govt was defrauded of large amounts thro these parties, which was accomplished in various ways,” states the summary of the court-martial proceedings against De Forest. The document indicates that horses were purchased for $45 and sold to the government by the conspirators for $113, with the parties dividing the profits. De Forest supposedly controlled the inspection of the horses, which enabled deficient horses to be pressed into service. De Forest also was charged with selling the sutlership for the regiment as a bribe. Supposedly, De Forest skimmed more than $50,000 from the government as a result of this scheme, and he was charged with theft. The matter was referred for criminal indictment, and the brief states, “The evidence in this case presents offenses so grave and important that as to require a further punishment than the mere dismissal of Col. De Forest, which of itself does not seem adequate besides some restitution should be made for the losses of the Govt. through his frauds.”
As a result, De Forest was summarily dismissed from the service, and was dishonorably discharged by order of President Lincoln on March 24, 1864. Special Orders No. 131, dated March 29, 1864, declares, “By direction of the President, Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby dismissed from the service of the United States with disgrace, for presenting false and fraudulent accounts against the Government.” A handwritten note on the Special Order dated May 11, 1864, adds: “No payments are to be made to Colonel De Forest without the special orders of the Department. By Order of the Secretary of War.”
In December 1864, De Forest died of “congestion of the brain.” After his death, there was a concerted effort to clear his name and restore his reputation. Consequently, a Military Commission convened to reevaluate the charges against De Forest. The Judge Advocate General’s office opposed the request, arguing:
The Judge Advocate General, in reviewing the case at great length, & with much minuteness, entertains the opinion that the application should be be granted–1st because the evidence strongly implicated the deceased, and 2d because “the order dismissing his officer has been made final by his death. No revocation of it can reach him. Before he can be honorably discharged from the service, as asked for, he must be restored to it; but such restoration is a physical impossibility, because he is dead. It is believed that the action proposed has neither the support of example nor of principle, and if allowed to drawn into a rule of administration, could scarcely fail to lead to dependable results,”
After completing its investigation, the Military Commission rejected the Judge Advocate General’s recommendation. The Military Commission expressly found that “all the charges against Colonel De Forest were trumped up by one Samuel Strong who was solely actuated by vindictive motives.” The Commission recommended that “the order dismissing the accused be revoked and that he be honorably discharged the service as of the date of his dishonorable dismissal.”
As a result, on March 14, 1866, War Department Special Orders No. 115 declared, in part:
By direction of the President, upon the report of a Board of Officers, convened by Special Orders, No. 53, series of 1863, from this Office, so much of Special Orders, No. 131, March 29th, 1864, from this Office, as dismissed Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby revoked, and and he is honorably discharged the service of the United States, as of the date of the aforesaid order of dismissal, with condition that he shall receive no final payments until he has satisfied the Pay Department that he is not indebted to the Government.
On April 11, the General Order was revised:
So much of Special Orders, No. 115, Paragraph 2, March 14th,, 1866, from this Office, as relates to Colonel O. De Forest, 5th New York Cavalry, is hereby amended to read…as follows: He is restored to his regiment, to date September 3d, 1864, when a vacancy occurred in the the grade of Colonel from the discharge of Colonel John Hammond.
And so, De Forest’s dishonorable discharge was revoked and his name was cleared posthumously. As it appears that he was the subject of an injustice, I’m pleased to know that the injustice was corrected, albeit posthumously. And so, the mystery has been solved.
I love pursuing these interesting leads and seeing where they lead. Finding these human interest stories demonstrates plainly that these men were just human beings, plagued with the same flaws and strengths as the rest of us.Scridb filter