The Provost Impression, An Article

Law and Order: The Provost Impression
by M. Craig Hadley

Reenactor's Journal, February and March 1995

In the many years I have been involved with this hobby, I have seen numerous impressions come and go. Most are content with simply doing a soldier's impression ... the common infantryman, the backbone of the armies. Don't get me wrong, those impressions are as difficult to do properly as any. But there are many impressions which have yet to be fully explored. In this difficult transitional age of our hobby, we are in the midst of growing pains. In many cases, individuals who decide to branch out and explore other types of impressions are met with a great deal of skepticism. Such was my journey into putting together a Civil War brigade-level provost marshal.

I believe my journey started out as most. I was tired of burning powder after 10-plus years and wanted to do something different. I wanted to try something new, and in the process, learn more about myself and the hobby I have grown to love. I soon discovered that information concerning the provost in the Civil War was difficult and in some cases, near impossible to discover. But as I searched deeper and deeper, I began to realize that I had hit onto a branch of service which played a more significant role in the war than most realize. I hope to give you some insight into the role the provost departments played on both sides, and how you can put together a good, solid provost impression for your unit, battalion, or brigade.

Up until this point, most reenactment provost impressions were volunteer positions consisting of directing traffic and doing gopher work at events. Such is the waste and misunderstanding of a poorly researched impression. To start with, let's examine the provost guard in the Confederate States army.


The provost marshal and guard were originally sanctioned by the Articles of War which were adopted on March 6, 1861 (Radley 1989:1). References to brigade provost marshals prior to the 1st Battle of Bull Run make it clear a provost structure was operating within the Confederate military structure early on (Davis 1977:xi). I was struggling to find references to the Confederate provost system for almost a year when I came across a book called "Rebel Watchdog: The Confederate States Army Provost Guard". (Kenneth Radley: Louisiana State University Press, 1989). It is loaded with invaluable information and a listing of most of the army units serving as provost units during the war in both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.

The Federal army had organized the provost department into actual corps, however the Confederate Army never incorporated this into their system. They relied more on line officers and volunteers. In relation to this, there were two very different types of provost marshals during the war: 1) provost marshals taking the field with the armies and 2) district and town provost marshals.

The first usually consisted of line officers of a high caliber and they either had been recommended for the job, been wounded, or were recovering from some illness. These line officers proved to be very effective provost marshals for the armies on the march as they were field officers who knew how to handle men (Radley, 1989:13).

On June 5, 1862, the Department of Northern Virginia put out a general order directing that provost guards be chosen for their reliability and efficiency. This order directed that each divisional guard would consist of one officer, one noncommissioned officer, and ten men from each regiment in the division. These men would be answerable to the division provost marshal (OR Vol. XI, Pt. 3:576-577). In fact, General Robert E. Lee considered this role so important that following the Seven Days Battle he directed that officers with provost commands be "effective, energetic, and firm" (OR Vol. XIX, Pt. 2:618-619).

However, the district and town provost marshals were usually untrained ruffians that used provost duty as an excuse to escape active military service and were thus known fondly as "skulkers" or "Bomb-proofs" (Radley 1989:15). The number of men making up these "units" were undetermined, and often they were involved with shady deals of their own. They often abused their authority and were able to arrest anyone simply out of suspicion and without evidence (Radley 1989:64).


The Federal army was much more organized in constructing the provost system than the Confederates were. This is largely attributed to the organizing skills of General George McClellan. McClellan saw an immediate need for a provost department, and immediately upon assuming command of the Army of the Potomac, he formalized the provost system in Washington, D.C.. He realized there needed to be an immediate generation of the Provost Marshal's Department. Army divisions, and later corps, were directed to appoint provost marshals and guards. By March of 1863, all military police duties were being handled by the Provost Marshal's Department (Long 1971:271; U.S. Army 1994:3). These marshals and guards used specific badges, often based on their corps design, to designate them as provost.


The duties of the Confederate field provost marshals mirrored quite closely those of their Federal counterparts. The provost marshal's responsibilities (both Confederate and Federal) were the following:

- Suppression of marauding an depredations, and of brawls and disturbances, preservation of good order, and suppression of disturbances beyond the limits of the camps.
- Prevention of straggling on the march.
- Suppression of gambling houses, drinking houses, or barrooms, and brothels.
- Regulation of hotels, taverns, markets, and places of amusement.
- Searches, seizures, and arrests.
- Execution of sentences of general courts-martial involving imprisonment or capital punishment.
- Enforcement of orders prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors.
- Deserters.
- Countersigning safeguards.
- Passes to citizens within the lines and for purposes of trade.
- Complaint of citizens as to the conduct of soldiers.
- Confiscation of contraband.
- Prisoners of war.
- Intelligence.
- Passports for travel.
- Arrest of "Draft-dodgers" and men who were "AWOL".
(Radley 1989:50; U.S. Army 1994:3).


As you can see, there is a lot there that can be used to put together a great impression for living history events. As to putting together a good impression, here are some good tips.


Even though line officers were appointed as provost marshals, they would still be considered staff. Therefore, one can wear staff uniforms if one wants, or stick with their infantry uniform. I portray a major serving on a brigade in Patrick Cleburne's division in the Army of Tennessee. He was originally a line officer who was transferred to provost marshal duties for three years. So I wear a double-breasted shell jacket with blue markings, but wear a staff kepi and trousers. I would get a copy of Radley's book and find either a specific individual or unit to portray and base your uniform thusly.


A Federal staff officer's uniform is to be used for provost marshals on the brigade, division, and corps levels. However, regimental provost marshals and guards wore standard infantry uniforms.


As to rank, the following applies:

- Corps Level - Brig. General
- Division Level - Major to Colonel
- Brigade Level - Captain to Major
- Battalion Level - 2nd Lt. to 1st Lt.
- Company/Regimental Level - 1st Sgt. to 2nd Lt. (Radley 1989:255).


There are many items you can obtain to put together a good provost impression. Some of the items I would deem necessary are the following:

- Badge insignia
- Hand cuffs and/or shackles
- Wall-tent
- Good Field Desk
- Paperwork (i.e. passes, prisoner forms, etc.)


Confederate provost insignia seems to be a point of contention as there is no reference which can be found as to what emblem or insignia designated the Confederate provost guard. Yet in all accounts reviewed, the provost were immediately recognizable by troops both in the field and in towns or cities.

Radley, Civil War historian Douglas Southall Freeman, and myself all agree that there must have been some sort of badge used. The Federal provost guard used badges extensively throughout the war and as the Confederate provost guard mirrored their Federal counterparts so closely, it seems logical that they would have done the same. Some people have used arm-bands in the past, but there is no legitimate reference to substantiate this. Even in Stonewall Jackson's corps, men detailed to take care of the wounded wore a prescribed "badge" (Hunter 1947:124). So I believe (along with Radley and Freeman) that a badge must have been used by some of the provost guard units.

My provost marshal's badge design was based on an original used by the Federal XX corps Provost Department. It resembles a Texas rangers badge, a star within a circle. I had it made from German silver like the original with the appropriate period script marked "PROVOST MARSHAL - 2nd Brigade." I am also in the process of having a batch of 8-pointed brass stars with a "Provost Guard" title stamped across it. These are based on originals used by the Federals marked "Provost Guard - Birney's Brigade" (Lord 1963:137). As to a design you can utilize, you should design your own badges based on originals used by the Federals. These badge designs were popular for the period and we assume the Confederate badges would have resembled the popular styles of the day. Unfortunately, there is not a sutler around that I know of who provides accurate provost badges, so you will have to do what I did: find a sutler with the right connections and design your own. [NOTE: This statement is dated, there are several authentic badge styles available now from major sutlers. JMP]


As to shackles, you can purchase a very good pair of 19th century handcuffs from Dixie Gun Works (order # MA1506). They were going for around $15.00 a pair, but there is usually a waiting list. You can also have a ball-and-chain set made up if you really want to go all out. [NOTE: This statement is also dated, and I can provide updated info on mail order companies/sutlers with appropriate equipment. JMP]


You will need to have a good table and preferably a field desk to conduct all manner of business. The provost marshal's equipment would have been deemed an important necessity so it would have had priority in the baggage train. So don't feel guilty for having a wall tent and all the extras, as it would have been normal. No matter what level of provost marshal you are portraying, you should set up your camp within the headquarters section of the camp for the level of provost marshal you are portraying (i.e. battalion provost marshal camp with the battalion staff, brigade with the brigade staff, etc.). If you do not wish to invest in a wall tent, you can use an A-frame if you are only portraying a regimental provost. [NOTE: Confederate provost marshals, with the scarcity of available equipment, can make do with an A-frame and tent fly for any level portrayed. JMP]


Getting a good set of period paperwork for a provost impression can be difficult. I have gotten copies made from originals that can be found at Civil War shows, rare book dealers, etc.. You can get a good starter set from Dixie Leather Works (not to be confused with Dixie Gun Works!). They offer some provost paperwork you can start with. [NOTE: Sullivan Press has paperwork that can be utilized as well. JMP] You can also make copies of some paperwork that can be found in the U.S. Army 1863 Revised Regulations manual, such as prisoner forms, etc..


Now that you have gotten everything, what do you do with it all? Ah, there are so many possibilities! Work out scenarios with men in your unit to conduct a "raid" of illegal activities, such as gambling. Or arrest a bootlegger for selling liquor.

Once you have staged your raid, you can then haul the individual over to the provost marshal's office and have fun with the scoundrel. Chide him in front of the spectators as you place the handcuffs on him. Then march him through the camp in disgrace.

All too often, this is not done with all the pomp and circumstance it deserves. In most instances, the accused was marched through camp with a drum and fife corps behind him playing either the "Rogue's March" or "Yankee Doodle". The offense was often hung around his head for all to see, and the guard would occasionally stop for an announcement of what the man had done and what others could expect if caught as well. Once that is over, you can take him back to the provost marshal's tent where you can continue to punish him in various ways. Such punishments could include riding a rail, gagging with a bayonet, or riding the wheel.

If you want to take the impression an extra step, you can conduct a full-scale court-martial. That impression is worthy of an article within itself as it is much more involved than people realize.

The provost were also responsible for safeguarding the countersigns by the guard and grand guard. You could utilize your position to help post and relieve the guard as well. [NOTE: This really falls under the responsibility of the officer-of-the-day. JMP]


As to battle scenarios, the provost marshal and his guard would have brought up the rear to pick up stragglers. They would have formed their own company and once the battle began, they would be on hand, practically in the thick of things. There they could stop or shoot deserters and cowards and take charge of POWs. They would often fill in gaps in the lines as reserves if the need became apparent (Radley 1989:218). If it is just you as provost with no support, you would simply fall in the rear of the column with the other officers in the last company and watch for stragglers. You could even arrange before a battle scenario to have a few of your pards break and run away in the thick of battle, then shoot them down as the dogs they are (just kidding, guys). Once the battle is going, if you do not have a few cowards to shoot down, or any other prearranged prisoner scenarios worked out, you can always hang back with the staff on the battlefield and fill in the gaps as needed.


Let me take a second to say that there is almost no utilization of prisoners at most events. Prisoners were often taken by both sides, yet one rarely sees it take place either during or following a battle scenario. If the commanders, along with the provost marshals, were to arrange it beforehand, it would be nice to see more prisoners captured during a battle scenario. They could be marched back to camp, placed in an area that was known as a "bullpen" (Radley 1989:164), and then be interrogated in front of spectators. Once their personal information is recorded (i.e. name, rank, unit, etc.), they could be paroled or exchanged.

This could be done quite effectively at most events and would give the spectators a glimpse into an area that is often overlooked and yet so important, especially considering the large numbers of prisoners taken during the war. I am sure there are a number of reenactors who would enjoy going through the experience as it is an added dimension to their impression as a reenactor. We all too often show up at events, do a little drill, march in, burn powder, and march out again. These types of impressions give everyone more to do - something different and unique - and helps educate the public even more.


Finally, as you are portraying a period provost, you will find people at events will come to you with their problems. At one particular event, I attended this past year, I was called to mediate a dispute between a sutler and a private who disagreed with the sutler's attitude. I took two of my corporals who were working provost with me and we went as period provost. Once there, I talked with the sutler and the private and calmed everyone down while my two guards stood close by. I then made out a report and turned it in to the officer of the day. I often have individuals bring me lost items as well.

As provost, you should take the appearance of your impression seriously. Take a detail and march through the camp a few times each day, inspecting the area. You can keep an eye out for out of place anachronisms in the camp, and watch out for spectators [NOTE: or other reenactors. JMP] walking off with someone's gear. If done responsibly, you could certainly have your services utilized by the command staff. Always talk with the command staff at an event and find out what sort of role they would like you to take. If they want you to truly help, act as period camp security in dealing with other reenactors (i.e. anachronisms, keeping things quiet at night, etc.). This does not include directing cars, unless asked as a courtesy.

But do not go to an event and simply assume this role! You should never do more than your planned impression with set scenarios unless you are asked to do so. You will find that the provost were not well liked by troops during the Civil War, and the attitude has not changed much over time. If you are asked to take on this role, you will find that you will need to be 2/3rds diplomat and 1/3rd SOB. [NOTE: I've found 4/5ths SOB and 1/5th Ass works for me. Laugh. JMP]


Finally, an impression of any sort is what you make of it. This particular impression has a myriad of facets which can be utilized to construct a marvelous and educational impression. On the other hand, you could just get the gear and sit under your fly all day looking mean and acting worthless. In the end, it really is up to you. But, I believethat this impression is an important and often overlooked aspect of Civil War life. So, if you are looking for something unique to portray, I can't think of a better impression to put together than that of the provost. After all, what do you think we do with all that confiscated liquor?

[NOTE: As an added part to this article, provost guard positions are an excellent way for those incapable of taking the field (the injured, the sick, or the elderly) to play an important role in the camps as security. Any who are familiar with my camps will recognize the Provost's Cripple Corps (laugh). These positions are also a good way to utilize those old enough to be responsible, but too young to play an active role on the field. JMP]


Davis, William C.; "Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War". 1977. Mallard Press, New York, NY.

Davis, William C.; "The Soldiers of the Civil War". 1993. Mallard Press, New York, NY.

Hunter, Alexander; "Johnny Reb and Billy Yank". 1905. New York, NY.

Long, E. B.; "The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac, 1861 - 1865". 1971. New York, NY.

Radley, Kenneth; "Rebel Watchdog: The Confederate States Army Provost Guard". 1989. Louisiana State Press, Baton Rouge, LA.

Time-Life; "Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Union". 1991. Time-Life Publishing Co., New York, NY.

U.S. Army; "History of the U.S. Military Police Corps". 1994. U.S. Army Military Police Corps Regimental Museum, Ft McClellan, AL.

About the Author: Craig Hadley is a Historic Archaeologist and Historian whose specialty is Civil War and African-American Slave Archaeology and History. Craig commands the Provost Department for Smart's 2nd Brigade. Craig can be reached by email at 16