The Trial of Lieutenant Steward

On September 23, 1776, Lieutenant John Steward of Maryland stood before a court martial on the Heights of Harlem. He had slapped a sergeant from Connecticut for cowardly behavior and then argued with, some would say threatened, a colonel who placed him under arrest. The case of Lieutenant Steward shows that despite the chaotic retreats and desertions that frustrated the American cause in 1776, the men of the American Army engaged in a certain amount of self-policing that was tied to honor and bravery in battle.

Steward’s company, the Maryland 5th Independent under Captain John Allen Thomas, had been at the Battle of Long Island. If Steward was a survivor of that battle, his experience may have made him part of a seasoned core of Washington’s troops, whose actions and influence helped to transform the American army of farmers and fortune seekers into a legitimate, disciplined military force. The circumstances of Lieutenant Steward’s court martial were fairly common– conflict among the troops and insubordination– and they were indicative of the unique situation of the fledgling American Army, which needed organization and discipline, but also ideologically resisted hierarchies.

Lieutenant John Steward had been officially accused of “striking Sergeant [William] Phelps of Colonel Silliman’s regiment, and of threatening the life of Colonel Silliman.” [1] Steward pled not guilty to the charges.

The case began on September 17, when Steward and Phelps had been scouting together as part of larger parties. The men’s units had decided to attack the British advance guard, and the two forces had begun to skirmish. After ten minutes, Steward alleged that Phelps and three or four other soldiers had run away. According to Steward, “I ordered him to… go back, or I would shoot him.” When Steward later looked for Phelps, he had disappeared.

The next morning, Lieutenant Steward entered Captain Hubbel’s hut and asked to see Sergeant Phelps. When Phelps arrived, Steward confronted him, according to Hubbel, Steward “told him he wanted to know his name to report him for a coward, for he had behaved like a damned coward the day before.”  The conversation escalated, and Steward “told him [Phelps] he was not fit for an Ensign; on which Phelps replied, he was as fit for an Ensign as he (Steward) was for a Lieutenant.” In reply, Steward slapped Phelps across the face.

Hubble reported Steward’s slap to Colonel Silliman. The conversation between Silliman and Steward grew heated and ended with Silliman ordering Steward “under an arrest.”

Doubt entered the case when the court considered whether Steward had actually threatened Silliman’s life. Captain Hubbel claimed that when Silliman ordered him under arrest, an infuriated Steward had flung his hat to the ground, saying “‘I’ll go to my tent– all you can do is to take my commission, but I am a gentleman, and will put it out of your power, for I will resign it, and in less than two hours will be revenged on you, God damn you.'”

Steward’s friends testified in his defense, saying that Silliman had refused to hear Steward’s explanation, although they did concede that Steward had “made use of some hasty expressions.”

The Court decided that Lieutenant Steward had been provoked into slapping Sergeant Phelps, and that Steward was not guilty of threatening Silliman’s life. Later that day Steward testified against Sergeant Phelps, who was charged with “cowardice and deserting his party when out on a scout.” Based on his superiors’ testimony, the Court ruled that Phelps was also not guilty.

Steward’s zeal made him a Captain by the end of 1776. He was promoted again to Major on April 17, 1777 before being taken prisoner at Staten Island. After his release a silver medal was struck in 1779 to honor his bravery at the battle of Stony Point. He died in the service in 1782, having attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel Commandant.

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