Officer Selection

“Let no man be so rash as to suppose that in donning a general’s uniform, he is forthwith competent to perform a general’s functions.”

Attributed to Dennis Hart Mahan, Prof., USMA 1824-1871

Within the Confederacy, volunteer companies, following militia tradition, elected their own officers (captain and lieutenant). State governors official appointed regimental officers (colonel, lieutenant colonel and major) but in many regiments these officers were still elected by the men of the regiment of by the officers of the companies within the regiment. When Confederate regiments elected officers, usually men with some military training were chosen.

Within the Union, enlisted men elected many of their officers and governors appointed the rest, similar to the Confederacy, at the start of the war. The practice of electing officers was reduced to a small scale though by 1863. The practice of electing officers still existed on a small scale throughout the war in the Union Army despite the army ending it relatively early.

Professional soldiers strongly disapproved of the practice of electing officers in volunteer regiments. Professional soldiers saw an army as a nonpolitical institution based on rigorous training, discipline and unquestioning obedience to orders. With this mindset, the act of electing officers did not make any sense. Citizen soldiers did not feel the same way; still believed that they were citizens with voting rights. If they voted for congressmen and governors, they did not see why they should not have the opportunity to vote for their officers. This led to the selection of officers based upon popularity and political influence rather than ability to lead. 

Many officers voted on due to political influence proved to be the obviously incompetent. The creation of military boards in mid-1861 by the Union Congress did not end the practice of electing officers, or of appointment by governors due to political influence, but began to establish standards of competence for those elected/appointed. By 1863, the Union army had pretty much ended the practice of electing officers but in the Confederacy, the practice of electing officers lasted much longer. 

Politics played a role in the appointment of generals and lesser officers. Both the Confederate and Union president commissioned generals and awaited confirmation by the Senate. Lincoln and Davis considered factors of party, faction and state when appointing generals, cabinet officers or postmaster. Many politicians yearned for a brigadier’s star for themselves or their friends. Appointment of military generals was inevitable in the highly political society during the time of the war.

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