As chronicled here and elsewhere, General Orders No. 33 from the Adjutant General’s Office on June 18, 1861 allowed for up to one third of new Regular Army officers to be appointed from deserving noncommissioned officers in existing regiments. This of course was an excellent opportunity for advancement, and a great number of these former enlisted men served with great distinction during the war.
What had not previously occurred to me was the logistics behind these promotions. Every officer promotion or new appointment in the Regular Army had to be approved by the Adjutant General’s Office and Congress, since it controlled the Army’s purse strings, then officially published by the Adjutant General’s Office. The inevitable delays of this system frequently resulted in officers learning of their appointments or promotions months after their effective dates.
What was the method for prioritizing requests for new officer appointments before they reached the A.G.O.? It apparently did not exist early in the war. Consider this response I recently found written by the Adjutant General himself on a cavalry sergeant major’s appointment recommendation in the spring of 1862.
“Respectfully referred to Maj. Gen. McClellan for the reports of intermediate commanders, through whom this letter should have passed. There are on file 150 recommendations, like this, for the promotion of noncom’d officers in the regular army. Of course, it is impossible to appoint all, or even one half, or one fourth of the number. And it is both an insidious and a difficult task for the Adjt. Gen’l. to make selection among them. They should be classified, first by their regimental commanders, & again by the commanders of the brigades, divisions and of the Army in which they are serving. It is only after a careful comparison of the merits of all, conscientiously made by those [who] are best acquainted with them, that justice can be done to all.
[signed] L. Thomas, Adjt. Gen’l.”
One would have thought this a blinding flash of the obvious, but it evidently took a very frustrated Adjutant General to bring it to pass.
Here is a brief snapshot of the process. The regimental adjutant writes the request for appointment of Sergeant Major X, which is approved and signed by the regimental commander in the field. A second piece of paper is wrapped around the first and signed by each level in the chain of command, all the way up to the Army’s Adjutant General Office. The requests are carried by horseback up to army level, then most likely by train to Washington, a process of weeks at the best of times. Up to this point in the war, such endorsements normally read, “Respectfully forwarded.” By regulation at the time, such a request had to be forwarded to the Adjutant General’s Office, whether the recommendation was approval or disapproval. Such noncommital endorsements placed the A.G.O. in a quandary, as described above. I have a mental image, probably wholly inaccurate, of a clerk standing before the Adjutant General’s overflowing desk, saying, “Sir, I have 19 lieutenant vacancies in the infantry regiments, and over 100 recommendations for appointment to fill them. How would you like me to proceed?”
This was much less of a problem later in the war, though it is unclear whether this was because of fewer vacancies or fewer qualified noncommissioned officers to fill them.