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Ogle’s Ruination: How alcohol ended a West Pointer’s promising military career

By William Gorenfeld 

Ruination by drink is an unfortunate but common tale in military as well as civilian life.

In all ranks and all regiments of the antebellum army or, for that matter, in any other army in history, the problem repeated itself. In his 1868 Treatise on Military Law, Lt. Col. Stephen V. Benet wrote, “Experience teaches us that drunkenness is the prolific source of most of the serious offenses committed in the military state.”

One such case involved Lt. Charles Henry Ogle, whose once-promising career as a dragoon officer was cut short by alcohol.

Lt. Ogle, left, fills the glass of a 1st sergeant. Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s Collection.
Lt. Ogle, left, fills the glass of a first sergeant. Sixth-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Author’s Collection.

The only known written account of his addiction appeared in a book published long after the end of the Civil War. The author, former 1st Lt. William Beach, who served with Ogle in the 1st New York Cavalry, tersely noted in The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry from April 19, 1861 to July 7, 1865 that Ogle was “a West Point graduate, a trained and competent soldier, but given to drinking habits.”

Beach mentioned but a single incident of possible intoxication however, in which Ogle was involved while in command of a battalion of the regiment. The event occurred as the troopers approached a campground in the outer perimeter of the defenses of Washington in mid-October 1862. Ogle, likely intoxicated, unnecessarily berated a sergeant as he directed each company to its place.

No evidence exists that alcohol had an influence over him prior to his military experience. Born in 1826 and raised in eastern Pennsylvania, Ogle was the son of Alexander and Charlotte Ogle. His father, who had served in Congress as a Pennsylvania representative, died at age 32, when Charles was 6. The young man went on to attend West Point, graduated 29th in the class of 1848, and become a second lieutenant in Company B of the 1st Dragoons.

Soon after his promotion, Ogle commanded a 20-man patrol out of Fort Kearny in Nebraska Territory. When his dragoons engaged Indian warriors in western Missouri, Ogle ordered his men to draw their sabers and charge. Two dragoons fell mortally wounded, and four others injured. Wounded by an arrow that grazed his mouth, Ogle managed to rescue one of his fallen men, who was about to be scalped.

In 1852, the army transferred Ogle to Company A. Duty at several West Coast posts followed, including San Diego, Benicia, Fort Redding and Fort Lane. While in Oregon Territory on Oct. 23, 1853, Ogle fought at the Battle of the Illinois River, a desperate struggle in which Company A was nearly overwhelmed by the Rogue River peoples, a conglomeration of Indian nations in southwestern part of the territory.

His rise continued in 1855 when he became the regimental adjutant of the dragoons—a position of authority and responsibility. It seems unlikely that his superiors would have promoted him had evidence existed of him being an irresponsible alcoholic. Ogle held the position for five years, during which time alcohol did not apparently interfere with his ability to command.

This changed in early 1860, when his first overindulgence in drink was recorded. Ogle was transferred from his role as adjutant to recruiting duty in New York City. Recruiting regulations declared that, “It shall be the duty of the recruiting officer to be always present at the examination of recruits, and to see it be conducted in strict conformity with the regulations.” One copy of the enlistment document went to the adjutant general, and the other to the second auditor of the Treasury.

In this 1862 illustration titled “A sutler’s tent near H.Q.,” artist Arthur Lumley depicts soldiers drinking at a bar. Library of Congress.
In this 1862 illustration titled “A sutler’s tent near H.Q.,” artist Arthur Lumley depicts soldiers drinking at a bar. Library of Congress.

Evidence suggests that Ogle initially followed protocol. But by the fall of 1860, he had become inattentive to his duties and absent during examinations of each recruit. Word of his misdeeds filtered up to Maj. Lawrence Graham, the superintendent of Mounted Services, at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. On Nov. 10, 1860, Graham ordered Ogle to file a report to explain his actions. Ogle failed to reply in a timely manner.

The army responded by charging Ogle with frequent failures to visit the recruiting station, and for signing off on recruit enlistments without the required examinations.

Pursuant to General Orders No. 142, a general court martial convened on Nov. 30, 1860, at Carlisle Barracks. Gen. John Garland acted as its presiding officer. Ogle pleaded not guilty to various charges: failure to being present at the recruiting station; signing recruiting documents for those he did not see; and for receiving orders to report immediately to Carlisle and not reporting for duty.

Eyewitnesses told a different story. Three enlisted men testified about Ogle’s frequent absence from his post. One man stated that he visited the lieutenant on Oct. 12, 1860, at his quarters inside the luxurious St. Nicholas Hotel, and found him sick in bed.

According to the same witness, 42 men enlisted during the month of October—27 of them between October 1 and October 22. Ogle, noted the witness, was not present when any of the 27 men enlisted, and he failed to see them before they left to report for duty.

Additional evidence revealed that Ogle appeared briefly at the rendezvous on October 22. On that day, he signed all the recruiting papers, including a document in which he swore under oath that he had personally inspected each recruit. The desk clerk at the station stated that Ogle personally examined only four men in October.

Yet, witnesses testified that Ogle neither exhibited the effects of intoxication, nor that alcohol had hampered his abilities. Ogle did not offer any explanation for his actions, such as illness, disability or other impairment, that would have prevented him from doing his duty.

One wonders why they failed to mention a clear cause for his actions. One explanation is Victorian discretion: Ogle’s alcoholism was likely well known, but the individuals involved did not want to embarrass a gentleman and officer by mentioning it.

The next witness, Lt. Nelson B. Switzer, had replaced Ogle in command of the rendezvous. Switzer testified that he did not see Ogle when he took command on November 10.

Another lieutenant, Henry Bankhead, testified that he met Ogle on November 11. Bankhead explained that Ogle had heard from Switzer that an order had been issued relieving him of duty, and instructed him to report, under arrest, to Carlisle. Bankhead also claimed that he visited Ogle’s hotel room on November 12 and saw the arrest order on a table in an anteroom.

Ogle submitted a rambling, written opposition in his defense. He listed a number of excuses, none of which addressed his failure to be present at the recruiting station in October 1860. His claims ranged from not being granted leave since 1856 to the ineptness of the recruiting sergeant and desk clerk. Ogle added that he had applied to be relieved and had asked to have the sergeant replaced, but that Superintendent Graham did not respond to the requests.

In artist Alfred R. Waud’s “Heres a health to the next one that dies,” a group of hard-drinking soldiers live life to the fullest. Meanwhile outside the tent, Death patiently waits for his next victim while the sands of time run through an hourglass. Library of Congress.
In artist Alfred R. Waud’s “Heres a health to the next one that dies,” a group of hard-drinking soldiers live life to the fullest. Meanwhile outside the tent, Death patiently waits for his next victim while the sands of time run through an hourglass. Library of Congress.

On Dec. 11, 1860, the panel found Ogle guilty of all charges and specifications. It sentenced him to a six-month suspension from the service, and for him to proceed without delay to his company at Fort Crook, Calif.

Five months later, Ogle was still in New York in violation of his orders. On April 21, 1861, he wrote a letter to Simon Cameron, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War. In it, Ogle explained that he lacked funds to travel to California.

Cameron had every reason to delay his response, as the Civil War had commenced only nine days earlier. But his action was swift. He dismissed Ogle from service on April 23, for failing to account for federal funds held by an officer.

This, however, did not end Ogle’s military service. The 1st New York Cavalry sought him out to transform the new regiment into an effective fighting force.

Ogle became one of the regiment’s two majors, and seemed to function reasonably well during the first year of the war. But he again turned to drink, causing him to lose his composure. One of his last acts of command occurred during a retreat in the fall of 1862 to a campground at Brown’s Farm, Md. There, Ogle’s self-discipline faltered, and he threatened the sergeant in command of the site. A few months following his tantrum, on Sept. 26, 1862, Ogle went on sick leave, which lasted until the end of 1862. Although the record does not cite a reason, alcoholism was likely the cause. He honorably resigned from the 1st before the end of the year.

Ogle was found dead in his bed at his residence in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 7, 1863. The cause of death was not reported.

The once promising dragoon officer was 37.

Author’s note: My interest Ogle originated in 2016 when I acquired this circa 1860 ambrotype of him drinking with a noncommissioned officer. I thought it unusual that they would be photographed drinking together, though the two classes of officers often did so. But this image fed my suspicion of Ogle’s alcoholism.

Special thanks to Black Cat Studio of Novato, Calif., for providing the scan of the image.

William Gorenfeld is a retired attorney who specializes in writing articles and books concerning the history of the 1st Dragoons, 1833-1861. His most recent publication isKearny’s Dragoons Our West: The Birth of the United States Cavalry, printed by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2016.

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