Although convened in February, 1864, McLaws’ court martial for dereliction of duty in the assault on Fort Sanders at Knoxville, was on-again, off-again, for the next several weeks.
Finally, on March 11, the trial commenced at a private home in Greenville, Tennessee, where Longstreet’s artillery battalion was camped for the winter.
Indeed, the artillery battalion’s commander Colonel Edward Porter Alexander was one of the trial’s principal witnesses. It was heard by a seven-officer court, which included the Mississippi Brigade’s commander Gen. Humphreys, the only member who had previously reported to McLaws.
McLaws had demanded the trial after Longstreet relieved him for failure “to make arrangements essential to success” in the attack on Fort Sanders, specifically in not providing ladders for the assaulting Mississippi and Georgia troops to climb the icy walls of the fort’s northwest bastion.
“My trial commenced yesterday,” McLaws wrote his wife, Emily, on March 12, “and two witnesses were examined for the prosecution, both of whom testified as strongly as possible in my favor.”
Alexander was one. He “declared,” McLaws wrote, “that he made a reconnaissance of the enemys works, and the result was his conviction that there was no ditch at the north west angle of the enemys works that offered any obstacle to entering the works[,] that he repeatedly declared this to Genl. Longstreet and myself and repeatedly advised that the assault be made at that point and that it was his opinion which he expressed openly, there was no [need] for ladders or fascines to get over the ditch.”
The problem, of course, was that the fort sat on a higher elevation than the immediately surrounding terrain. So no Confederate, including Longstreet, could see the ditch well enough to properly estimate its width and depth.
“The other witness, the next,” McLaws continued, “was surgeon [Dr. J.S.] Cullen, who visited the fort under [the] flag of truce [and testified] that the ditch at the angle where the assault was made was not more than four feet deep but that along the sides of the work it was ten feet deep and ten feet wide at least.”
Other observers not involved in the trial put the depth where the assault was made at much more than four feet. Less easy to refute in the trial was Longstreet’s charge that throughout the siege of Knoxville, McLaws had showed a want of confidence in the commanding general. And, in the end, the court found McLaws guilty and sentenced him to a sixty-day suspension of rank and pay.
A reviewing officer later threw out the verdict. He decided the court had not substantiated its decision and “irregularities…fatal to the record” had occurred when Longstreet tried to manipulate the court’s officers. McLaws was ordered reinstated in command of his division. But he never returned.
Longstreet succeeded in having Gen. Lee order McLaws replaced. McLaws went on to supervise troops in the defense of Savannah, Georgia, until the war was over.