Monday, January 21, 2008

First U.S. Soldier Discharged For Homosexuality

It's amazing what one can find via Google sometimes. I was curious who the first recorded gay soldier was that faced disciplinary action in the military and found this interesting excerpt from Conduct Unbecoming: Gays & Lesbians in the U.S. Military by Randy Shilts:

On March 11, 1778, just sixteen days after [Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von] Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, drums and fifes assembled on the Grand Parade in the brisk morning air to conclude the punishment ordered by a general court-martial and approved by General Washington himself. On that morning Lieutenant Gotthold Frederick Enslin became the first known soldier to be dismissed from the U.S. military for homosexuality.

Enslin had arrived in the United States on September 30, 1774, aboard the ship Union, which had sailed from Rotterdam to Philadelphia. He was in his late twenties or early thirties. He arrived alone, according to the ship’s records, suggesting that he was single. Three years later he enlisted in the Continental Army; within a few months he was serving as an officer in Colonel William Malcom’s regiment.

Though little is known of Enslin’s earlier life, the exact penmanship he used on his company’s muster sheets and his command of the English language indicate that he was an educated man of some financial means. The Continental Army preferred its officers to be educated and able to provide their own supplies.

Under the bunking arrangements at Valley Forge, enlisted men lived in communal barracks while officers resided in small cabins with officers of similar rank. It was in Enslin’s cabin that Ensign Anthony Maxwell apparently discovered the lieutenant with Private John Monhart. Maxwell reported this to his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Burr. Enslin responded that Maxwell was lying in an attempt to impugn his character.

On February 27, 1778, the company commander being in New York, Burr presided first at a court-martial of Ensign Maxwell, charged with “propagating a scandalous report prejudicial to the character of Lt. Enslin”. In his orderly book, Burr later wrote, “The court after mature deliberation upon the evidence produced could not find that Ensign Maxwell had published any report prejudicial to the character of Lt. Enslin further than the strict line of his duty required and do therefore acquit him of the charge”.

Eleven days later, on March 10, Burr presided over Enslin’s court-martial, in which the lieutenant was found guilty of sodomy and perjury, the latter presumably stemming from his charges against Maxwell. According to General Washington’s general order of March 14, was “…to be dismiss’d with Infamy. His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of the Camp tomorrow morning by all the Drummers and Fifers in the Army never to return; the Drummers and Fifers to attend on the Grand Parade at Guard mounting for that purpose”.

Drumming a soldier out of the Army was a dramatic event in those times. According to custom, an officer’s sword was broken in half over the head of the disgraced soldier, while drummers played a very slow tattoo. So did Lieutenant Enslin leave the Continental Army on that cold morning in March, trudging away alone on the deeply rutted and muddy road out of Valley Forge, not far from where Major General von Steuben was shouting orders in broken English.

Some observers have suggested that Enslin’s sentence is evidence that Washington held a lenient view of homosexuality, since such transgressions could have been punishable by imprisonment or even death in the conventions of the day. (Thomas Jefferson demonstrated his liberalism by proposing a year earlier that sodomy be punished by castration instead of death in the new penal code that would replace Virginia’s Colonial charter.) This, however, remains speculation.

So the infamous Aaron Burr presided over Lt. Enslin's trial, eh? How ironic that Enslin would be "drummed out" when such widely-known homosexuals as Baron von Steuben proved himself as indispensable to the success of the American Revolution as the great General Washington himself. I suppose that lower-level officers were not considered to be as essential to the military to overlook their sexual preferences. It's not clear though whether Enslin really was gay, or like some heterosexual males in prisons, merely engaged in homosexual behavior due to the lack of access to a female partner. Nothing is known about what happened to Enslin after he left the Continental Army in disgrace, Shilts speculates that he returned to his native Germany. As former enlisted myself, I notice that nothing is said about what happened to Pvt. Monhart. Was he kicked out? Imprisoned? Killed? There does not appear to be anything in the records about this. While some allowances for the times need to be made for Enslin's perjury and perhaps the fraternization with Monhart, even so because of the latter especially Enslin does not make much of a symbol in my view for efforts to repeal DADT today. There are very good reasons why fraternization is punishable under the UCMJ and though I strongly favor repealing DADT (along with Article 125 which effects everybody), allowing fraternization regardless of sexual orientation would indeed negatively impact unit cohesion. Officers and enlisted have no business nor right to have intimate relationships with each other and when they are caught deserve the punishments they face. All in all though, Enslin's story is interesting and I'm glad to have found out about this book. This looks like one I'm going to have to buy from Amazon and read fully.

(this is also posted over on Gay Patriot)