This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.
Edward Augustus Wild grew up in Massachusetts at a time when abolitionist fervor ran rampant within New England society. A doctor by profession and an adventurer by choice, Wild became a military officer out of a strong sense of personal honor, writing his wife Frances Ellen Wild that he did not enlist “to be elevated, but simply from a sense of duty.” At the outbreak of the war, Wild fulfilled the twin drives of duty and adventure by raising a company of volunteers and becoming a captain in the 1st Massachusetts Infantry.
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.
The tradition of militaries honoring their officers has a long and rich history, from antiquity when the Emperor of Rome bestowed the corona muralis upon the first soldier to plant his standard upon the enemy battlements to the more recent Victori…
The tradition of militaries honoring their officers has a long and rich history, from antiquity when the Emperor of Rome bestowed the corona muralis upon the first soldier to plant his standard upon the enemy battlements to the more recent Victoria Cross of the British Army and the Medal of Honor of the American military for gallantry in service. Captain Robert B. Arms of the 16th Vermont Regiment, 2nd Vermont Brigade, was one of the thousands of soldiers during the American Civil War who received decoration from their government; in his case these decorations included his rank insignia and a Veteran Medal.