Officers in the Regular Army, especially veterans of the Mexican War, had “a regular’s contempt for ‘fancy volunteers.’” Men like George McClellan denigrated untrained and undisciplined volunteer officers as the dregs of society, kicked out of “county courthouses, & low village bar rooms.” Unyielding in his disdain, McClellan sought to double the number of officers in the regular army, so he could then transfer a strong cadre to command positions in the rapidly expanding volunteer army, thereby limiting the number of officer slots for volunteers. McClellan soon focused his attention on the many regiments of volunteer cavalry pouring south to join his army around Washington, D.C.
“[In] my judgement a greater number of cavalry regiments have been authorized than the service at present requires,” the general told Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in January 1862, and “I…recommend that measures be taken to reduce the number of regiments and at the same time to increase the strength and efficiency of those retained. To effect this some regiments should be disbanded and the men transferred to other regiments.” A certain number of men would “never make efficient cavalry soldiers,” in McClellan’s opinion, and he believed these men should be transferred to the infantry, while the best candidates from the disbanded mounted units should be sent to bolster the ranks of the “regular cavalry.” Seeking an equitable means of accomplishing his goal, McClellan proposed sending a regular army officer to “carefully and minutely inspect” each volunteer regiment. He also sought authority “to require all the cavalry officers in the volunteer service to be examined by a board of general officers selected, as far as practicable, from those familiar with the mounted service.” The army disbanded several regiments over the winter and disrupted others, but any further plans to disband units quickly died once McClellan began his campaign on the Virginia Peninsula. The authority for examination boards remained in effect throughout the war, however.
The previous June, Congress had authorized department and army commanders “to appoint a military board or commission of not less than three nor more than five officers, whose duty it shall be to examine the capacity, qualification, propriety of conduct, and efficiency of any commissioned officer of volunteers within his department or army, who may be reported to the board or commission, and upon such report, if adverse to such officer, and if approved by the President of the United States the commission of such officer shall be vacated: Provided always, That no officer shall be eligible to sit on such board or commission whose rank or promotion would in any way be affected by its proceedings, and two members, at least; if practicable, shall be of equal rank of the officer being examined [emphasis in original]” Thus, McClellan already had authority to send officers before a board for cause. In his request to Stanton, the general sought to expand the law that he might “require all” cavalry officers to face a board regardless of specific cause or complaint.
The same law authorized regimental commanders to hold elections to fill vacancies within the officer corps, but Congress repealed that proviso shortly thereafter and returned such authority to state governors to appoint men to fill vacancies as they saw fit. Neither alternative, regimental elections or political appointments, guaranteed effective, fair and intelligent leadership within a regiment. Raising a regiment in late-1862, Col. John Irvin Gregg quickly recognized the problems inherent in the patronage system, complaining: “Any person desiring it received from the Adjt. Gen’l of the State an order to raise a company and in order to facilitate the recruiting, he would offer to any person who could obtain a certain number of recruits a Lieutenancy, consequently all the line officers of the regiment were appointed without any reference to military ability… the defects of this system must be obvious to everyone,” Gregg concluded.
Both systems, patronage and elections, relied upon friendships and standing within a community rather than intellect, energy and proven leadership ability. Young, untrained officers who owed their rank and privilege to their friends could find the unpleasant task of instilling the harsh discipline necessitated by war extremely difficult. “Officers,” as historian Stephen Starr explained, “had neither the habit of command, nor, with rare exceptions, the willingness to risk the unpopularity that went with the exercise of authority.” In time, some poor candidates recognized their deficiencies and resigned. Commanders sent some back home on recruiting duty. Others fell to disease or bullets. Too many, however, especially in the first half of the war, retained their commissions while making little, if any, effort to improve themselves as leaders. The only means by which senior officers might remove such men from their position lay with the examination board. Unfortunately, the surviving records of these boards are scattered and difficult to locate.
Many factors contributed to the battlefield success which the Union cavalry began to experience in the spring and summer of 1863. One of those factors, as I mentioned in the previous post, is the growth and improvement of the officer corps at every level, and examination boards played a vital, though largely forgotten role in the improvement, especially at the company level. General William Averell sat on several boards and believed the exams to have been “of immense benefit to the cavalry service,” as a means of removing “the idle and shiftless dependents of influential, social or political connections.”
I should mention that applicants for commissions in the regular army also faced a grilling before a board of officers. Walter Robbins, who later rose to the rank of brigadier general by brevet for his service with the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, had originally sought a commission in the regular army and he later described his examination. “After being subjected to many questions, I was asked if I had any” letters of recommendation. After presenting such a letter, he “was told to retire to another room and remain until called. I was soon summoned, and, after having answered a few more questions, was told that I would be recommended for a second lieutenancy in…the infantry. I was in hopes it would have been in the cavalry, for I had told the board I was familiar with horses.” Robbins career path changed after meeting Col. Percy Wyndham, who had just taken command of the 1st New Jersey. As Robbins recalled, Wyndham challenged him to a boxing match. Robbins accepted and impressed Wyndham, who promptly offered him a lieutenancy in his regiment.
In early-1864, 1st Lieut. Samuel Harris, 5th Michigan Cavalry, was ordered before an examination board. “I knew at once that this was the work of my arch enemy, Col. [Russell] A. Alger,” Harris recalled years later. “It was well understood…that it was equal to being dismissed from the service to be ordered before such a board. Many officers,” in Harris’s opinion resigned rather than go before a board. Harris remembered Brig. Gen. Henry Davies as the president of his board but either did not recall or chose not to name the other members of the panel. “I stepped near the center of the room and came to ‘attention’ and saluted each member of the board…Soon the recorder asked my name, regiment, rank, etc., … the General [then] asked one of the other officers to begin the examination. He began by asking me questions about sabre practice and motions.” I find Harris’s oft-quoted memoir highly unreliable, but if he is to be believed he replied, “General, I did not think it proper to wear my sabre before the board to be examined for dismissal, but if you will allow me to use your sabre I will go through the sabre manual.” Accepting a proffered weapon, Harris then “went through the manual without mistake. Then they asked about the evolutions of a company and regiment on drill and in action…all of which I answered correctly.” Harris then “parried” several rather cavalier questions before the general told him, “Lieut. Harris, I wish to compliment you on your examination. You have passed the best one of all the officers that have been before us, and I wish to say to you that some officers are recommended for dismissal and some are not. We will now excuse you.” Several hours later, Harris received official notice that he had “passed a most excellent examination.”
As mentioned, Robbins faced a panel of officers as an applicant for a commission, a job interview if you will, while Harris sought to retain his commission. Whatever the accuracy of Harris’s memory and the supposed jocular attitude he exhibited before the senior officers on the panel, he points out a recurring concern. Initially instituted to weed out incompetents, the boards, based on the records I have seen, soon became a means by which regimental commanders tried to remove difficult though otherwise competent officers they simply did not care for or to remove officers promoted by previous commanders.
The earliest request I have seen, from October 1861, is such a case, wherein Col. Ernest Chormann, 8th Pennsylvania Cavalry, found himself embroiled in a contest for supremacy within his regiment. Seeking to solidify his authority, Chormann asked Gen. George Stoneman, McClellan’s Chief of Cavalry, to order six officers, including Lieut. Col. Amos Griffiths, a captain and four lieutenants “before a Board of Examination,” as “the retention of the within named gentlemen would prove destructive of all subordination and proper discipline.” Stoneman’s response remains unknown.
Shortly thereafter, Chormann received orders to appear before a board himself, and was discharged by the end of the year based upon an “adverse report.” In a letter written shortly thereafter, a member of the regiment wrote, “There has been nothing of much interest…save a victory that the commissioned officers have achieved over our former Colonel by way of causing his removal. There has been a contest between the Colonel and officers for some time… The change will lead to others, as many of the Chormann pets will not be allowed to hold high places when there are others who can fill them with equal, if not superior knowledge of their duties,” the writer asserted. All the officers named in Chormann’s letter to Stoneman retained their commissions; five achieved at least one additional promotion before their term of service expired. Lieut. Colonel Griffiths resigned a year later, having failed to achieve command of the regiment. The problems between Griffiths and Chormann may have led to David Gregg, a regular army officer being offered the colonelcy of the regiment rather than Griffiths.
In November 1861, Col. George Bayard asked Stoneman to order five officers, 2 captains and 3 lieutenants, from the 1st Pennsylvania Cavalry before a board. All five men appear to have resigned rather than face the board, three within days of Bayard’s request and the other two the following month.
Shortly thereafter, General McClellan ordered several senior members of the same regiment before a board. The panel subjected Lieut. Col. Jacob Higgins “to a very thorough and rigid inquiry” and found “that in Cavalry tactics he is almost totally deficient, even in a knowledge of the school of the platoon. The Board do therefore respectfully recommend that Lieut. Col. Jacob Higgins… be discharged the service.” In lieu of dismissal, Higgins resigned.
The panel also questioned majors Owen Jones and Sylvester Barrows, “both of whom displayed a commendable degree of proficiency in Cavalry tactics, and the duties of their position generally, and the Board does therefore recommend them as fully capable of filling the position they now occupy.”
In January 1862, a board examined five members of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, and deemed them “all gentlemen of more than common intelligence and capacity and their appearance and manner were highly commendable. If properly drilled and taught they will become good officers and do their duty well. The Board however found them all to be very deficient in tactical knowledge and learned that there has never been any school of instruction or officers drill in their regiment. The Board are of the opinion that their want of proficiency proceeds from the neglect of their superior officers and not from incapacity or idleness on their part and therefore recommend that they have an opportunity for a reexamination a month hence. The Board are further of the opinion that the interests of the service would be promoted by an examination of the Colonel and other field officers of the 1st Michigan and have requested that they be summoned before the Board.” The next day the board questioned a captain from the regiment and judged him “reasonably familiar with his duty, [though he] did not fully come up to the standard for officers of his rank. In consequence of the fact that he has been ill for some time past the Board has concluded to permit him to be reexamined a month hence.”
Five of the officers remained with the regiment until either killed or discharged and the sixth was dismissed in August 1863. The regiment went into the field shortly after the board made its recommendations and I have found nothing to indicate the men were ever re-examined or that Col. Thornton Brodhead was questioned before his death in August.
After questioning two captains from the 4th New York, the board concluded, they “would soon render [themselves] capable under proper instruction and that taking into consideration the limited opportunities [they have] enjoyed for learning [their] duty [they] had done well and certainly had made every possible effort to fit [themselves for their duties].” The panel cited one of the officers for having “a good understanding of outpost and picket duty and exhibited a quickness … and zeal for the service that were highly commendable.”
Calling for both men to be retained, the panel members expressed their disapproval of the colonel and his failure to provide adequate training. “There has never been in the regiment a school of instruction for officers. There has never been an officer’s drill. There has never been any regimental drill. There is no opportunity allowed the officers even for company drill. It appears that one battalion of the regiment is constantly on picket duty. That from seventy-five to one hundred men are detailed from the regiment as orderlies and that one company is constantly on duty as escort to the commanding general of the division. The men in camp [barely suffice] for police duty and drill is out of the question. Dress parade is never had and the whole time of the regiment is taken up in the above duties and they are entirely prevented from having any opportunity for drill or instruction.”
Reconvening several days later, the panel recommended dismissal for two officers who did “not possess the capacity for receiving instruction necessary to render him an efficient officer.” The board members also found one of the officers “entirely wanting in the soldier like qualities requisite for one of his position.” The army dismissed both men within a few days.
The panel also showed little sympathy for a third officer from the regiment, especially after he told them he been in the U.S. Dragoons for five years prior to the war. “Had he been capable of learning the duties of a soldier he should have attained considerable proficiency” during his previous term of service. As he had learned so little, the officers saw “no benefit to the service…to have him retained.” Though discharged almost immediately, the officer soon received another commission in the regiment and rose to the rank of captain before being captured in the summer of 1863.
A panel examined three officers of the 1st Maryland Cavalry in February 1862 and temporarily excused the deficiencies of two of the officers. One of the men, a carpenter by trade had been assigned by a superior to superintend “the erection of quarters & stables for his regiment and has been able to devote but little time to his duties as [Lieutenant]. The second officer had been assigned to two different companies, neither of which had received their horses, and thus the board could not fault him for his ignorance of the mounted drill. The panel found the third officer “deficient in capacity to fill the position he now occupies.” Though impressed by his “laudable spirit of patriotism, and desire to be of service to his country, his qualifications are evidently such as would render him fit only for a subordinate position – the Board do therefore recommend that he be discharged.”
William Halsted, commander of the 1st New Jersey Cavalry, had been a lawyer and politician prior to the war. Nearly 70 years of age when he received his commission, Halsted, like Ernst Chormann and John Lemmon (who I have discussed at length in previous posts) proved totally inept as a military leader. Halsted’s relationship with his lieutenant colonel, Joseph Karge, proved especially contentious, with the subordinate officers forced to take sides in their disputes. Though prickly, Karge, who had served in the Prussian army before fleeing to America, proved a competent leader. When Halsted left on sick leave in November 1861, Karge instigated an investigation which resulted in Benjamin Halsted, the colonel’s son, being relieved as regimental quartermaster. Furious, the colonel abandoned his sickbed and hurried back to the regiment, only to be arrested on charges leveled by the War Department. Halsted eventually proved his innocence, but his absence gave Karge an opportunity to rid the regiment of several officers he either believed to be inept or too strongly in Halsted’s camp. On December 19, he asked Stoneman to order five officers, including Maj. Henry Halsted, the colonel’s cousin, before an examination board. No paperwork has been found to confirm if Stoneman granted the request, but Colonel Halsted found himself ordered before a board in early-1862 and he was discharged following an “adverse report.” Major Halsted received his discharge the same day. In late-January, the strife within the regiment became public knowledge when a soldier wrote to a hometown newspaper. “The Regiment is utterly demoralized; there is no order nor discipline, and the Regiment will never be worth three cents until every field officer is removed… Our officers have been quarreling amongst themselves ever since we became a Regiment.” The soldier termed the situation “abominable.” With no alternative, the governor appointed an outsider, Englishman Percy Wyndham, to replace Halsted. Within a short time, three of the officers singled out by Karge either resigned or received their discharge.
Within a matter of weeks, Wyndham sent another eight officers before an examination board. Though Wyndham’s paperwork has not been located, he ordered Karge, Maj. Myron Beaumont, Capt. Hugh Janeway, Lieut. Francis Allibone and several others before a board, possibly as a means of further quieting the unrest within the regiment or clearing the names of men previously arrested by Halsted.
The board determined to examine Karge’s military acumen but also investigated the charges leveled against him by Halsted. After three days and thirty witnesses, the officers found the charges to be “in nearly every instance of the most frivolous and absurd character and those that are of sufficient gravity to merit an investigation are entirely unsupported by proofs.” The officers recommended the charges “be dismissed, considering them to be one of the results of the bad feeling and demoralization that has so long pervaded this regiment and not as arising from any demerit or fault of Lieut. Colonel Karge.”
The panel members also granted Karge some leniency after questioning him about military matters. “[He] did not appear to advantage” when asked about cavalry tactics “but upon consideration of the fact that for a long period he has been prevented by sickness from performing active duty and the reputation he has as an active and zealous officer the Board recommends that he be re-examined at the end of thirty days from the date of this report.”
Five officers, including Beaumont, Janeway and Allibone, passed their exams, while a captain and a lieutenant received adverse reports. Karge eventually went on to command the 2nd New Jersey Cavalry and Beaumont became the last commander of the 1st New Jersey. Janeway may have been one of the most brilliant cavalry officers of the war. He apparently faced the board while recovering from as many as eight bullet wounds received in a skirmish near Springfield, Virginia, in mid-December. Having entered the service at the age of 19, Janeway rose to command the regiment before being killed mere days before the surrender at Appomattox. By one count he had been wounded 12 times before he received his fatal wound. His death is one of the many true tragedies of the war. Francis Allibone rose to the rank of captain and served throughout the war, both with the regiment and as an ordnance officer on Gen. David Gregg’s staff. He died on May 9, 1865, after suffering a stroke, falling from his horse and breaking his neck, while the regiment was still stationed near Petersburg.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davies, 2nd New York Cavalry, chaired several examination boards during the war. In early 1863, Davies, then in temporary command of the regiment, objected to the governor of New York extending a captain’s commission to Lieut. Obadiah Downing. Davies returned the commission, explaining to the state’s adjutant general, “2nd Lieut. O. J. Downing… joined the regt from civil life about the middle of October 1862. He was engaged in recruiting for the regt. and received a commission as 2nd Lieut. in full acknowledgement of his services in that respect. He has served with the regt. since then creditably and has done his duty well, making such allowances as were necessary for his entire ignorance of his duties when he entered the service. He is now a good 2nd Lieut., but he has neither the experience or the knowledge calculated to make him of any use as a Captain. How this commission was granted or upon what grounds I am entirely ignorant, as for the last three months I have had the honor to command this regiment and have never recommended his promotion…nor have I known that such a thing was contemplated. This promotion, if insisted upon, would be a most grievous move to many diligent, brave and faithful officers who have served gallantly and bravely throughout the entire war. It would be an injury to the service by placing Lieut. Downing in a position he is entirely incompetent to fill, and it would result most fatally to this regt by causing a dissatisfaction among the officers that I could not but report as well founded and that would most seriously injure the discipline and efficiency of the command. For my own point I would most respectfully state that I could not remain in the service were officers to be appointed in the manner and with the lack of judgment that appears in the case under consideration, [and] in my own behalf as commanding officer…of the regt, the interests of which are to me of the most pivotal importance, and in behalf of officers who have by their training and devotion on many a battle field earned all the [distinction] that can be given I most respectfully, but most earnestly and firmly protest against this appointment and request that it may be reconsidered and recalled.”
Explaining that the governor had “no power to annul” Downing’s commission, the adjutant general reminded Davies, “Ample provision is made by law, to relieve the service of incompetent or objectionable officers, which is more compatible with the interests of the public service, than arbitrarily withholding the commission.” A couple of weeks later, the regimental commander asked that “a board of examination [be called] to determine the capacity or incapacity of Capt. Downing to fill…the position he now occupies of Captain.” I do not know if Downing went before a board, but he served through the remainder of the war never rising above the rank of captain.
In March 1863, General Stoneman assigned Col. Richard Rush, 6th Pennsylvania, Col. Judson Kilpatrick, 2nd New York and Col. Horace Sargent, 1st Massachusetts, to convene a panel to query officers from the 6th Ohio, 4th New York and 1st Rhode Island. Stoneman charged the men with “examining into the character, qualifications, propriety of conduct and efficiency” of the two senior officers, Col. William Lloyd, 6th Ohio, and Maj. Anton von Puechelstein, 4th New York, and to investigate the cases of the 11 junior officers recommended by their commanders for dismissal [Emphasis in original].
Without providing any details of the examination, the board said of Colonel Lloyd, “although there are no grave charges against this officer, he has not the natural qualifications for efficiency in command and…his resignation should be accepted.” Seeking to soften the blow, the panel added, we “desire to express the entire appreciation of the grave difficulties to which Colonel Lloyd, 6th Ohio Cavalry, has been subjected, in being hurried into the field without preparation, and having had few opportunities to drill his regiment. They also recognize the patriotic motives that seem to actuate the action & disposition of this officer, and regret that the means and necessity of stern discipline do not coincide with their view, or, in their view, meet the requirements of effective service.”
The panel found Major von Puechelstein, “utterly ignorant of the U.S. Cavalry Tactics and recommend that he be discharged from the service.” The board members found the captains and lieutenants to be a mixed bag; two resigned rather than face the panel and three simply failed to appear, with one reportedly having deserted. Another claimed to have been wounded at Kelly’s Ford and could not appear. 1st Lieut. [Enos]. F. [Wenckebach] or [Von Wenckenbach], 4th New York, “impressed the board very favorably” but he had “submitted his resignation two days before he heard that he was presented for examination,” leaving the panel with a conundrum. Likewise, the board found no reason “for dismissing” the other officers and expressed “their surprise, that these names should have been recommended for dismissal, in as much as, with the exception of Lieut. Wenckenbach who impressed the board as a fine officer of large experience and high qualifications, they appear to have had small opportunities for acquiring cavalry instruction and to have labored earnestly and quite successfully to instruct themselves.” Like Colonel Rush, General Stoneman expressed his concern as to why the men had been sent before the board and he demanded a written explanation from Col. Luigi di Cesnola as to why he had submitted their names. Like several of the cases already mentioned, Cesnola cited reasons beyond the competence of the officers.
Colonel Cesnola’s career had not been without controversy. He had been arrested, imprisoned and dismissed in February 1863 for allegedly sending stolen weapons back to New York. Cleared and reinstated on March 3, Cesnola returned to his regiment to find four of the officers, including Capt. Nehemiah Mann, had received commissions in his absence. The colonel claimed they had received their commissions “by paying the varying sum of $400 & $200 to a civilian.” A few days after resuming command, Cesnola encountered one of the new officers on outpost duty. Finding the officer and his men ignorant of their duties, Cesnola arrested the officer, ordered a court-martial and sent him before the board. After examination all four men retained their commissions. Mann proved an especially capable officer and a leader well-respected by his men. One of them died in a POW camp in 1863, Mann died in battle in 1864 and the others served their full terms of service.
Regarding the officer who claimed to have been wounded at Kelly’s Ford, Cesnola countered, claiming “he simply fell from his horse while going to the [battlefield] and came back without being in action. He has always been on the staff of Brig. Gen’l. [Adolph] von Steinwehr, 11th Army Corps. He may be able to suit a General as a Staff Officer, but I am confident he is unable to be a cavalry officer & drill even a platoon in the field.” The officer resigned in June 1863, during the fighting in the Loudoun Valley.
Like the board members, Cesnola had been impressed with Lieutenant Wenckenbach. “This officer, young, well-educated and endowed of intelligent mind, from whom a Colonel ought to expect accordingly, has been…with this Regt. [for] more than a year in several capacities as Lieut. & Adjutant.” Then, after a stint on detached duty, “he was ordered to [rejoin] his Regiment and then he was seen walking in Washington…without leave… Orders were sent…for his arrest but the Provost [Marshal] at Washington returned the order saying this officer could not be found.” Cesnola then received orders “that Lt. Wenckebach should be dropped from the rolls as he, Lt. Wenckenbach, drew pay & was appointed in the Regiment … but he has never received any commission from the Governor…
“While I was dismissed,” Cesnola continued, “Lt. Wenckenbach went to Albany & got a commission and a few days ago rejoined the Regt… The next day I had the saber exercise for the Regiment and as I had put him in command of camp & as the order was that the company commanders should drill their own companies, Lt. Wenckenbach came to me and he begged me to excuse him as he did not know how to drill his company. [For] this reason I recommended him to be brought before the board of Examination. Lt. Wenckenbach, hearing perhaps that he was to be brought before a Board of Examination tendered his resignation, approved by the Regimental Surgeon…on account of heart disease and I forwarded & approved it but as his name was already sent in for examination, I could not withdraw it [Emphasis in original].” Wenckenbach, who is listed on the roster under several variations of his name remained with the regiment through his term of service. Judson Kilpatrick, a member of the examining panel, may have been especially impressed with Wenckebach, appointing the lieutenant to his staff on June 16, 1863 [Emphasis in original].
Concluding his explanation, Cesnola stated, “When I retook the command of my Regiment, I found these gentlemen in my Regiment without horses & equipment, and unable even to perform the Regimental camp duties – knowing that my regiment would be called very soon into battle and [believing] the above named officers without cavalry knowledge [and] inexperienced in the field [they might] cause [my regiment to be] disgraced & my men killed uselessly and only on the account of their inexperience… knowing besides that the time is too short for them to become efficient as cavalry officers; knowing that the responsibility of a Colonel is very great, and if he has not officers upon whom he can put his confidence he cannot save his regiment from disgrace; knowing that the rank & file of my Regt. are of the best fighting [material]; and knowing finally that a huge number of my non-commissioned officers are thoroughly able to be officers, I therefore recommended the above officers for examination, as to my own knowledge they are perhaps able to undergo a theoretical examination but if put before a platoon or a squadron they most assuredly would prove themselves unable to drill them in the U. S. Cavalry Tactics and they would as they did [on] some occasion brought upon them the [laughter] of the enlisted men. They are intelligent and with time they would become perhaps good cavalry officers but at [present] they cannot perform the service expected from them.”
Located records of cavalry examination boards tail off by mid-1863. In late-August, Brig. Gen. George Custer asked to have seven members of the 7th Michigan Cavalry ordered before a board, an action instigated by Col. William Mann as a matter of vindictiveness. Readers may find a full account of the case in my article, “‘It is horrible to have such a man in command of a Michigan Regiment:’ Col. William Mann and the 7th Michigan Cavalry during the Gettysburg Campaign,” The Gettysburg Magazine, Number 48, 2013. The last mention I have seen is a single case in January 1864, in which a board recommended a young lieutenant from the 2nd New York Cavalry be dismissed.
By 1863 company-grade officers seeking positions or promotions in the engineers and ordnance branches had to pass examinations before a board of three senior officers. No officer or enlisted man could serve in the Signal Corps without having passed an examination, nor could an applicant receive a commission in a U.S. Colored Regiment without first passing an examination. Current and prospective paymasters as well as quartermasters also had to be approved by a board of examiners. I am not aware of similar policies regarding infantry and cavalry officers. The higher casualty rates in these two branches may have convinced the army not to adapt such policies but rather to administer examines on a case by case basis as described above.
Thick journals record the results of quartermaster examinations and similar records may exist for other branches of the service, but records of cavalry examinations are scattered throughout the personnel and regimental files. While I have found only a few such records, the cases I have seen do not confirm Lieut. Samuel Harris’s claim that a summons before such a board meant automatic dismissal. On the contrary, especially early in the war, the examiners tended to show leniency and a willingness to give intelligent officers a second chance. Still, a summons before a board must have been both embarrassing and stressful but by the summer of 1863 the process had contributed to the improvement of the Union cavalry.
With Special Thanks to Jim McLean and Mike Musick
Documents from the National Archives
Bucks County Intelligencer
The Official Records
Samuel Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Vol. 5
John Callan, The Military Laws of the United States – 1863
Edward Eckert and Nicholas Amato, Ten Years in the Saddle, The Memoirs of William Woods Averell
Samuel Harris, Personal Reminiscences of Samuel Harris
Roger Hunt, Colonels in Blue
Francis Kajencki, Star on Many a Battlefield
William Lloyd, 1st Pennsylvania Reserve Cavalry
Edward Longacre, Jersey Cavalrymen
Longacre, Lincoln’s Cavalrymen
Henry Pyne, Ride to War
Lilian Rea, Editor, War Record and Personal Experiences of Walter Raleigh Robbins
Stephen Sears, George B. McClellan, The Young Napoleon
Sears, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan
Stephen Starr, “The Inner Life of the First Vermont Cavalry, 1861-1865,” Vermont Life
Starr, The Union Cavalry in the American Civil War, Volume 1
Thomas Thiele, The Evolution of Cavalry in the American Civil War, PhD Thesis