What did it take to command a regiment? What qualities made a commanding officer “good” in the eyes of the military or in the eyes of his men? How did these commanding officer take or rise to their rank and position? If we read the Order of Battle lists, frequently the name of the regiment’s commander in a fight appears next to the unit’s listing. A commander could mean the deaths or savings of his men, and he could (somewhat) ensure a fight for victory or a wavering into a retreat.
Emerging Civil War’s new blog series will focus on the biographies and some historical context of the men who commanded regiments. They were not all colonels, they were not all “born to command.” But their leadership (or lack thereof) could make a difference in battle to their men and to the rest of brigade…or army. The regimental commander is a crucial military position to understand – one of the “go-betweens” for the ranks and the brass.
Ideally, a Civil War regiment was commanded by a colonel. However, as the war continued and battle and disease took their heavy toll, other officers stepped into the commanding roll with lower ranks. The regimental officer ranks were: colonel, lieutenant colonel, major, captain, lieutenant. Finding an officer of lower rank as the regimental commander is not uncommon in battle reports or Order of Battle, and the lower the rank, typically the higher the casualties suffered in that regiment from fighting or sometimes illness.
In John D. Billings’s classic Hardtack and Coffee, he offered some griping about officers and promotion:
“Hundreds of officers were put in commission through influence at court, wealth or personal influence deciding appointments that should have been made solely on the basis of merit. At the beginning of the war it was inevitable that the officers should have been inexperienced and uninstructed in the details of warfare, but later this condition changed, and the service would have been strengthened and materially improved by promoting men who had done honorable service and shown good conduct in action, to commissions in new regiments. It is true that such was the intent and partial practice in some States, but the governors, more less from necessity, took the advice of some one who was a warm personal friend of the applicant, so that shoulder-straps, instead of always conferred for gallant conduct in the front rank, were sometimes a mark of distinguished prowess in the mule-train or the cookhouse, which seemed to maintain readier and more influential communication with the appointing power at the rear than was had by the men who stood nearest to the enemy.” (page 151)
In other situations, the commander of the regiment took his position under fire. Nelson Miles had been transferred from a Massachusetts regiment into the 61st New York Infantry to serve as lieutenant colonel. At the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, the command passed to him in the midst of the regiment’s fight through the Sunken Road when the colonel fell badly wounded. Miles later wrote in his memoirs: “It was here that [the colonel], a fearless and accomplished officer, was severely wounded and carried from the field, leaving me in command of the regiment, my first experience as a field officer under fire. However, my first order was to advance, and from the Bloody Lane we drove the enemy through [a] cornfield and orchard, and remained there with nothing on our right or left until ordered back to a line occupied by the other troops.”
Whether they took command through political maneuvering, deserved promotion, battle default, voting within the ranks, or some other method, the men who commanded regiments faced the odds of leadership and battle. Their stories and their influence (for good or bad) are worth examining and we hope to revisit some known biographies and help a few others to emerge into the discussion over the next few weeks.
Post-Script: We’re not excluding our navy historians! You may see a post or two about men who commanded ships (of any size) and had to exhibit leadership and skill on the water.