on blogs and elsewhere we often throw around terms and ranks without an explanation of what the term means or what the responsibilities of a given position were dutring the Civil War. One of those terms I’ve used a great deal over the last few months without an explanation is “sergeant major.”
The sergeant major of a regiment was the senior enlisted man in the regiment. Jim Jones recently tipped me off to this description of a sergeant major in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry in his own words from May 1865.
“Dear mother I have got along very well since I have been in the army. I am now Sergeant Major of the Regiment, but I am sure you will want to know what that is so I will tell you about it.
“A Sergeant Major is a man that does all the writing for the regiment and keeps all the Regimental Books and papers. He keeps a correct account of all the men and notes all the wounded and killed in his morning report which is sent to the headquarters of the army. Also it is his duty while laying in camp to mount guards every morning and make out all details for picket and fatigue duties. This keeps me pretty busy but I have a man to assist me to do the writing. I have a man to take care of my horse and saddle him up when I need it.” (source: http://www.laird-bogstown.com/Elagh%20Letters.php)
This position still exists in the Army today, and the responsibilities have changed somewhat from Sergeant Major Laird’s time. Sergeants major exist in units of battalion size or larger. The sergeant major is the senior enlisted advisor to the commanding officer. He or she serves as a monitor for, and advocate of, the enlisted personnel in the command and basic soldier standards. The position also carries with it certain ceremonial functions such as caring for the unit’s colors, various ceremonies, etc.
I must note here that we’re now not sure exactly what regiment John Laird was the sergeant major for. He wasn’t in the 6th US Cavalry, and the John laird who served in the 6th PA Cavalry doesn’t appear to be him either. Regardless, it’s a good illustration of the position and its responsibilities.