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The Politics of Promotion

5th February 2013

By Timothy J. Orr

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In the summer of 2006, as a member of the PHMC’s scholars-in-residence program, I spent a month in Harrisburg researching at the Pennsylvania State Archives. I spent time sifting through Record Group 19, the records of Pennsylvania’s adjutant general, examining Civil War commissions’ files.

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Early on, a particular set of correspondence captured my attention. I encountered a stack of letters related to the promotion of Lieutenant Colonel Gustavus Town. In 1862, Pennsylvania’s adjutant general had to answer a hefty stack of letters about Town’s promotion to colonel. As I read the ill-toned epistles, the reason for the controversy became obvious. A cluster of Union generals, all of them well-known Democrats, wanted to deny Town—a Republican—his promotion to colonel. Meanwhile, state politicians—all Republicans—insisted upon Town’s elevation. I expressed shock to learn that the promotion of a single junior officer could paralyze the functioning of Pennsylvania’s executive office for months, and I wondered what made Lieutenant Colonel Town’s case so special. But then, as I examined the commissions’ files for other Pennsylvania regiments, I noticed similar stacks of papers, all of them filled with vicious, petty squabbles over promotions. I must have examined over 100 Pennsylvania regiments that summer, and I had yet to find a single regiment that did not bicker like petty school children.

When I left Harrisburg, I wondered why Pennsylvanians were so quick to argue about promotions. Did something make them particularly factious? I kept this question in my pocket until the next summer, when I visited the state archives in Albany, New York. When examining the records of these adjutants-general, I noticed the same trend. Indeed, for four years, New York’s three adjutants-general answered volumes of letters from irate Union officers demanding promotion, usually on account of their partisan loyalty. After Albany, I visited more state archives and at each one I found the same kinds of letters. “Goodness,” I wondered, “what was wrong with the Union army?” No group of people in nineteenth-century America appeared more vindictive, more ruthless, more back-stabbing, and more ambitious than the junior officer corps of the Union army. Clearly, I had discovered a dysfunction of the Union army that had never appeared in the literature. What, though, should I make of this?

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My eyes opened when I presented my initial findings at the Society for Military History’s annual conference. Mark Neely, for whom This Distracted and Anarchical People honors, served as commentator. In his remarks, he announced, “Timothy Orr shows us that the typical Union regiment was as corrupt as the New York Customs House.” I let this sink in. Is that what I proved? The Union army was a crooked system founded on political spoils? As a military historian, such an idea seemed alarmingly contrarian. I understood that all modern officers derive their promotions through the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act of 1980, which set into place specific parameters that determined a person’s promotion eligibility and fitness. I always knew that in regards to command-fitness, Civil War officers lived in a pre-modern world, but until then—until Neely pointed it out to me—I never comprehended how different that world really was.

Later on, after the conference had ended, Neely offered me more advice, saying, “I see politics in everything. In fact, I borrow an idea from the historian Roy Franklin Nichols: the nineteenth-century suffered from ‘too much politics.’ Introduce a little Roy Franklin Nichols into your problem, and I think you’ll come up with an answer.”

Following Neely’s direction, I used political history to make sense of a military history problem. The result is my contribution to This Distracted and Anarchical People. I hope that readers might stand in awe of the subject as I do. Nowadays, we live in a world where the U.S. government takes strenuous precaution to elevate the most qualified officers to positions so they can lead our servicemen and servicewomen into battle competently. During the Civil War, no such system of meritocracy existed. From 1861-1865, state governments directed the course of promotions, using partisan loyalty unashamedly as the barometer for leadership in the U.S. Army.

Leadership is a fascinating thing, and I think it is an enlightening exercise to contrast the way Americans have defined the meaning of military leadership over the course of 150 years.
Dr. Timothy J. Orr is Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University. He specializes in American Military History and History of the Civil War Era. In particular, he has written on Union mobilization and the lives of Union soldiers. His latest research focuses on partisan conflict within the officer corps of the Army of the Potomac and also upon U.S. Naval dive bombing during the Battle of Midway. Dr. Orr teaches courses on American Military History, American Naval History, Virginia History, and the History of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Captions for the photos:
*Photo 1: The first image depicts King’s accuser, Arthur Harper Grimshaw (seated, center). In 1862, Grimshaw became colonel of the 4th Delaware Infantry. (In this photograph, Grimshaw is surrounded by his fellow officers.) The commissions’ files kept in the Delaware Public Archives reveal that Grimshaw never stopped intervening in matters of promotion. During the war, he deluged the office of Delaware’s Secretary of State (who assumed the duties of an adjutant general during a time of war) with opinionated letters, most of them aimed at elevating his Republican officers or denying promotions to the 4th Delaware’s Democrats. (Image courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society.)

*Photo 2: The second image depicts a segment of “Traitor in the Camp,” a broadside published by Arthur H. Grimshaw of Wilmington, Delaware. Grimshaw, a Republican, sent this broadside to New York’s Adjutant General, Thomas Hillhouse, with an aim to rescind the lieutenancy offered to Adam E. King, a Delaware Democrat who served in the 31st New York Infantry. Although Grimshaw’s effort to remove King represented an unusual amount of hateful obsession, by no means did it embody a rarity among the files of the adjutants-general in the Northern states. In every regiment, in every state, Republicans accused Democrats of promoting unworthy officers, and the Democrats accused the Republicans of playing political favoritism. (Image courtesy of the New York State Archives, Albany, New York.)

*Photo 3: The third image depicts Adam E. King, the subject of “Traitor in the Camp.” Although Arthur Grimshaw painted King as an inveterate secessionist, King’s fellow officers—the Democratic ones, only—vouched for his sterling character. Swayed by their plea, New York’s governor, Edwin Morgan, elected to keep King at his post. Eventually, King rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general, as seen here. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress).