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  • Writer's pictureAmy Milne-Smith

The Courts Martial project

Since I posted the spreadsheet of the transcription project that my research students have been working on for the past 2 years I thought I would explain how the project came about. (And why, unfortunately, that is the end of the project).

I photographed the charts summarizing military courts martial for the second half of the nineteenth century as part of my scouting research the last time I was able to go to the archives before the pandemic. In a psychiatric textbook I came across a case of a General who had led his men foolishly into a slaughter who was court-martialed and then found to be insane. I wondered if there were other cases where soldier's mental illness was discovered at a court martial. Hence the photographs. This normally would have entailed scanning through the photos and taking notes on the results.

However, with the outbreak of the pandemic my research plans were put on hold. I also had a number of students struggling to find work to make ends meet. So I decided to redirect some of my research funding from travel to student research. I remembered my collection of military records and thought it might be a great project for undergraduates. Those who could read nineteenth century handwriting worked to transcribe the records and create a digitally accessible database. I imagined such a resource might be a great focus for an undergraduate or MA thesis, and I thought genealogists might find it useful as well.

I'm glad to see there is interest in the project, as my research funder (SSHRC) prioritizes research mobilization as one of its key aims. In the end, it's a bit of a dead end for mental illness. While we might theorize that alcohol was used by some as a coping mechanism to deal with battle trauma, that was certainly not something military authorities were keen to accept at the time. There are only three cases of clearly recognized insanity in the records.

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