And the Court Martial of Commodore Thomas T. Craven
In regard to the CSS Stonewall parading about flaunting her flags before the Federal Navy in neutral waters, likewise the ships under the command of Commodore Craven ought to have joined her in open waters, if not to make observations of her enemy's speed, rapidity of turns, and to have made close inspections as to how to sink the vessel. Furthermore, it had not appeared before the convened body that the accused had formed any plan of attack should an action actually occur; therefore, guilty of the charge simply in a lesser degree.
The Secretary of the Navy was furious. The finding had been in conflict with the law itself, and had been returned to the panel of officers for a revision. He had not disputed the court's right to find a prisoner guilty in a lesser degree, but a court can only find such where there was a kindred nature between the offense charged and the offense found proved. The statutory offense was designed to embrace all offenses of a kindred nature and thus make him guilty of the capital offense. After reconsideration, the court found Commodore Craven guilty and suspended him from active duty for two years on leave pay.
Secretary Gideon Welles commented that the offense for which his commodore had been tried demanded the protection of the public interest and national character in time of war, which included the possibility of a death sentence. The recommendation of clemency could only come from that of the President of the United States. Continued disappointment in the revised verdict, the court, in the opinion of the Navy Department stated mitigating circumstances as justification to award a lighter punishment; although a violation of the law, Welles perceived their course as erroneous, yet still might have some indication of sufficient motive or consistent action leading to that conclusion. Instead, pointing to mitigating circumstances they left upon the record a statement of aggravating circumstances.
The three issues of censure the panel concluded upon for the commodore's lack of zeal, losing personal observation of the rebel ram, his conduct in remaining at anchor while his enemy paraded about in neutral waters, flaunting her flags and his failure to have some sort of plan of attack should an action occur, all warranted a greater punishment than two years leave of absence.
None of these excused the commodore from sense of duty to encounter the Stonewall and had he failed through negligence or any other fault, he would have been considered to have not done his utmost to capture or destroy the vessel and was still guilty of the charge preferred against him. None the less, the court found him guilty of it, and from the facts proved it appeared that the accused failed in many respects and was indeed wholly and inexcusably derelict. He was therefore not just guilty of the charge but in the broadest sense his guilt called for adequate punishment.
In consideration of the grave error in judgment pronounced by the court itself, the Department felt it impossible to gather whether Commodore Thomas T. Craven had been guilty of the charges at all. The Secretary of the Navy strongly felt the court attempted to find some compromise among those who saw him guilty and those who had not; by doing so compromised the decision of the entire proceeding.
In setting precedence, the Department now had to deal with the disclaimer of commanding officers who would believe they could refuse a fight if there is the slightest chance of defeat, rather than the converse rule of: "Fight if there is a chance of victory."
Nothing more could be done without bringing further embarrassment upon the Navy Department. After his publication of utter disgust and frustration, the Secretary had no other choice than to release the prisoner from arrest upon setting the proceedings of the court aside. The war had been over, and perhaps among the multitude of victories enjoyed during his tenure, the one embarrassment encountered would fade from memory with time. For one court room drama left among the archives of dust and dimly lit passageways, it ought never be forgotten as one of the most curious decisions of Naval History.
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