Citizen-Officers: The Junior Officer Corps: A Chat with Historian Andrew Bledsoe

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Image courtesy of Andrew Bledsoe.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Andrew Bledsoe.  Dr. Bledsoe is an Assistant Professor of History at Lee University, where he teaches classes on the Civil War and American military history.  He is the author of numerous works on military leadership, citizen-soldiers, and the American military tradition, including Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War (LSU Press, 2015), and “The Destruction of the Army of Tennessee’s Officer Corps at the Battle of Franklin,” (in Steven Woodworth’s and Charles Grear’s co-edited volume, The Tennessee Campaign of 1864, Southern Illinois University Press, 2016).

CWI: How did most junior officers attain their ranks during the Civil War?  Who comprised the junior officer corps?  Were there notable differences between the Union and Confederate junior officer corps?

BLEDSOE: There were typically three paths to a junior officer’s commission. Early on, the most common method was through the notorious election process, where volunteers chose their company and regimental officers by ballot. The election of officers seems peculiar to modern Americans, because we have become accustomed to the idea of a professional officer corps. For citizen-soldiers in the 19th century, however, officer elections had a long history rooted in the American militia ethos, and were an important prerogative of the republicanism that informed their military service. Junior officers could also attain their ranks by appointment, either currying favor through patronage or “wire-pulling,” or simply because of some demonstration of natural ability or merit. Finally, as the war dragged on and casualties and promotions mounted, experienced enlisted men were sometimes the recipients of battlefield commissions, or were able to secure commissions in USCT regiments.

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Union officers with black soldiers in the background. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Other than obvious cultural and ideological disagreements on issues like slavery, union, emancipation, and secession, the junior officer corps of both Union and Confederate armies are striking for their similarities rather than their overt differences. I do think that it’s important to remember that despite all their differences, Northerners and Southerners shared a mutual heritage and understanding of military service and the role of the citizen in American civic culture. That said, there were some differences. Junior officers tended to come from “gentlemanly” occupations before the war, with both Union and Confederate junior officers usually coming from professional, white-collar, farming, or skilled-artisan occupations in far greater proportions than enlisted men. Confederate junior officers were more likely to come from agricultural backgrounds than their Union counterparts. The most significant difference between Northern and Southern officers had to do with slavery. Some 40 percent of Confederate junior officers either owned slaves or lived in slaveholding households in the 1860 census slave schedules, much higher than the average slaveholding rate of all Confederate households. This definitely shaped the Confederate junior officer corps in a multitude of ways.

CWI:  What was the nature of junior officers’ relationships with career military leaders?  How did those relationships change or evolve over the course of the war?

BLEDSOE:  Volunteer junior officers possessed a kind of dual nature, and in some ways, that split personality reflects deeper changes at work within the American military as a whole. For company-grade officers, part of the process of learning how to lead in war involved adapting to military life and creating a military culture of their own, while acknowledging and accounting for their volunteer soldiers’ demands. This process is probably best understood not as professionalization, but rather as a form of regularization—a syncretic arrangement of melding the regulations and methods of the regular army with the persistent citizen-soldier ethos of the republican tradition.

As the American military establishment worked to professionalize itself on a wider scale, volunteer officers found themselves caught between two worlds—the older world of the militia tradition, with all the trappings and oddities of republicanism, and the pressing professional requirements of discipline, bureaucracy, and effective and efficient leadership. Eventually many volunteer junior officers accepted the value of what regulars called “system,” as well as the importance of establishing military authority and a convincing command presence. For amateurs, West Pointers were the example par excellence on how to lead troops, and the regulars’ discipline was something many volunteer leaders came to admire as well as to emulate. There are numerous examples of volunteers mimicking regulars when they practiced their command voices and leadership styles.

CWI:  What leadership challenges did junior officers face, and why?  What was the impact of the Civil War on Union and Confederate notions of military hierarchy and republican military traditions?

BLEDSOE:  Company-grade officers often knew each volunteer in their unit personally, and officers’ actions could dictate whether their men lived or died. This was an exceptionally difficult environment in which to establish military authority. Enlisted volunteers expected their officers to treat them as equal citizens, but to lead with competence and effectiveness. The tension between these two fundamental expectations, respect versus authority, could put company officers in an impossible position. The need to lead by example and display courage also led to extreme casualty and attrition rates among officers. Union junior officers suffered a 36-percent casualty rate, while Confederate junior officers sustained a 47-percent casualty rate. For comparison, recent estimates of the overall casualty rates for all Union soldiers are 16 percent and 31 percent for Confederates. With such dangerous conditions, defiant volunteers, the undermining impact of officer elections, and the urgent need to learn their duties under the pressure of combat, it is difficult to imagine a more challenging role than that of a junior officer in charge of a Civil War company.

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Union officers in camp, including George Armstrong Custer (right front). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite these challenges, over time, company officers adapted. The trials of 1862 helped volunteers to realize that their officer-election systems were not producing adequate combat leaders, and by 1863, many enlisted volunteers understood that competence, discipline, and composure were the most essential characteristics for successful officers, rather than status or popularity. This could be a begrudging sort of process, and the traditions of republican military service persisted. Volunteers retained an element of consent as a condition of their service, and they required their officers to explain how orders, particularly incomprehensible ones, would serve the military goal at hand. Officers and men alike eventually learned to discard some of the more egalitarian notions of the era, relying on a combination of coercion, persuasion, and displays of courage and competence to make the whole enterprise work.

If you are interested in hearing more from Andrew Bledsoe and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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