The Court-Martial of Lieutenant Kidd

Lieutenant John Kidd served in the First Maryland Regiment when it fought at the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776. Although Kidd managed to survive the battle and make it back to the American lines at Brooklyn Heights, his days in the army were numbered. Shortly after the Battle of Brooklyn, a court-martial convicted Lieutenant Kidd of violating orders by taking men off of fatigue duty.[1] Although Kidd pleaded guilty to the charges and cited unfamiliarity with the orders, other officers disputed this claim and the court-martial did not show any leniency. General George Washington ordered Kidd dismissed from the army on October 8, 1776.[2]

Kidd’s expulsion from the army is interesting for a couple of reasons. Prior to this incident Kidd appears to have been in an exemplary officer. In a letter to the Council of Safety on May 1, 1776, Captain Samuel Smith lobbied for the promotion of Kidd to first lieutenant and specifically referred to his character:

I shall be exceeding happy to have my Second Lieut. appointed to the vacancy, he is very capable & more acquainted with the men & their dispositions & of consequence can be of more use in the Company than a stranger. Should you have determined to raise the officers according to their seniority. I doubt not you have heard of Mr. Kid’s character (who is eldest 2nd Lieut.) & I rest satisfied you will not promote any person who is not equal to it.[3]

Kiddletter-page-001

Letter of Captain Samuel Smith to the Council of Safety, May 1, 1776. MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Red Books) Volume 15. Page 6. MdHR 4577 [MSA S 989-21, 01/06/04/09].

Smith’s high praise of Kidd is in stark contrast to the lieutenant described as ignoring orders and disobeying superior officers in the court-martial. It is also possible that Kidd held the same radical revolutionary views as Samuel Smith, influencing his letter to the Council. (Kidd received the promotion to first lieutenant, but was simultaneously transferred to Captain John Hoskins Stone’s First Company.)

The timing of Kidd’s court-martial and dismissal is also of importance because it exemplifies General Washington’s emphasis on military discipline and professionalism. September 1776 was a critical period for the Continental Army as the Americans desperately tried to check the British advance into Manhattan. Furthermore, the Battle of Brooklyn depleted the ranks of the Continental Army and especially the First Maryland Regiment. Dismissing Lieutenant Kidd at a time when the First Maryland Regiment was in desperate need of men and capable officers is indicative of the priority placed on discipline. The seemingly minor nature of the offense and the fact the Kidd pleaded guilty is further evidence of this.

In the end, Kidd’s dismissal is most likely a reflection of General Washington’s efforts to enforce strict military discipline and mold a professional army. While General Washington needed soldiers, he placed a higher premium on soldiers and officers that followed orders and obeyed the chain of command (See the case of Lieutenant John Stewart, another Maryland officer that faced court-martial during this period). Washington’s insistence on order and discipline even at this early and critical juncture of the war later paid dividends as the Continental Army withstood defeats and eventually developed into an army capable of defeating the British.

Notes:

[1] Fatigue duty is work carried out by soldiers that does not require the use of weapons, such as digging trenches or building defensive fortifications. “Brigade Court-Martial ordered by Brigadier General McDougall,” American Archives series 5, vol. 2, p. 1140.

[2] “General Orders, 8 October 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives. http://founders.archives.gov/?q=john%20kidd&s=1111311111&sa=&r=6&sr.

[3] MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Red Books) Volume 15. Page 6. MdHR 4577 [MSA S 989-21, 01/06/04/09].

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