[Citizen-Officers: The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War by Andrew S. Bledsoe (Louisiana State University Press, 2015). Hardcover, photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:240/341. ISBN:978-0-8071-6070-1. $47.50]
Much has been written about the Civil War regiment but analysis of the backbone of small-unit leadership, the company officers, has thus far evaded a similar degree of specialist study. Union manpower needs were so large and so immediate that the nation's tiny contingent of Regulars could not fulfill their intended role as cadre for the Third System's expansible army. Instead, it was common to find entire regiments composed of complete military amateurs who would all have to learn their craft on the fly. It was a rough transition but most units were able to balance democratic ideals with enough subordination and discipline to get the job done, often at a very high level of proficiency achieved only after enduring a costly learning curve. The new Confederacy had the same problems but none of the existing bureaucratic apparatus. Andrew Bledsoe's Citizen-Officers explores the wartime journeys of both Union and Confederate company grade officers (the lieutenants and captains), along the way he delves into a wide variety of specific challenges, examines officer culture, and traces early to late war differences in officer expectations and skill levels.
The study of the citizen-soldier ethos in United States history from the Revolutionary War to today is a common theme in the literature and it's certainly a major part of Bledsoe's investigation. Civil War volunteers were extremely reluctant to give up the egalitarian privileges of republican citizenship and obtaining their consent to serve at the bottom of the army's rigid hierarchical system was a hard fought struggle by the junior officer corps of the Union and Confederate armies. One of the most cherished and consequential concessions to democracy was the election of regimental officers, a subject dutifully explored in the book. It was a "right" expected by the soldiers and was widespread, though it became less so as the war dragged on. It's obvious negative consequences for competent leadership, discipline and efficiency could be somewhat ameliorated by the need to pass officer examination boards. Bledsoe, one thinks, properly points to the great army reorganizations of 1862 as the pinnacle of the institutional harm rendered by officer elections. At that time, many company officers of demonstrated ability were cast out only to be replaced by more popular men (the electioneering could be quite cynical). All too often, the new officers were less likely to impose the type of discipline that was necessary yet chafed the men's democratic sensibilities.
According to Bledsoe, the challenges experienced by citizen-officers in adapting to military culture can be difficult to analyze due to their infrequent presence (at least at a detailed level) in most wartime writings and post-war reminiscences, but many generalities can be enumerated. Fortunate was the volunteer officer who had Regular Army veterans in his regiment that could provide a model for leadership and training. Otherwise, the entire process was haphazard and chaotic. Citizen-officers and their men also found it difficult to shed their ingrained egalitarianism, a process made even harder by the fact that in many cases the officers knew their men personally from civilian life. The soldiers naturally and quite actively resisted military hierarchy. Officers most able to effectively solve these problems were those that could compromise without destroying discipline, firmly assume the habit and presence of command without being a martinet, and resort to coercion as infrequently and judiciously as possible. Different from Regular Army officer habits, the willingness to teach and the ability to explain why certain demands were made upon the volunteers was an important citizen-officer trait. It was by no means an easy task. Simply being competent, in both combat leadership and in providing for and taking care of the men off the battlefield, also went a long way toward ensuring soldier obedience, confidence and respect. If used with discretion, officers from higher class backgrounds could apply their paternalistic instincts to their leadership style with some success. Over time, strong emotional bonds could be built between company officers and men, and many leaders could further motivate their men to mutual sacrifice with appeals to patriotism.
Company grade officers of both sides developed a similar citizen-officer culture during the war. They eventually adapted to the regulations, expectations, and standards of the professionals but always with concessions to the democratic traditions of the American volunteer soldier. This modified "regularization" process became more consistent over time and served the volunteer armies well during the middle and later periods of the war, though the citizen-soldier ethos stubbornly persisted until the end. In addition to discussing many of the military cultural aspects of officer duties, virtues, responsibilities, routines, rank privileges and moral expectations, Bledsoe also keenly points out some of the material benefits (like higher pay) and symbolic tools of the office (like shoulder bars and swords).
The maturation process of citizen-officers is another important theme in the book. Early war company officers were green, uncertain in their abilities, and made tremendous mistakes. Though conspicuous courage was expected, Bledsoe maintains that many historians have overestimated its importance in the eyes of the soldiers, who equally valued competence and coolness under strain and realized that the best officers needed to stay alive to be any good to them. Regardless, dangerous and even reckless exposure on the battlefield was commonplace and casualty rates high. In Bledsoe's sample of 2,592 volunteer junior officers that served in 33 regiments between 1861 and 1865, Union officers suffered an astounding casualty rate of 43 percent and Confederates an even higher figure of 47 percent. Of course, bravery wasn't the only component in this, as Bledsoe points to officer targeting and vulnerable positions in the battle line as important factors in high officer casualties. The author also delves into some junior officer duties less covered in the literature, like file closing.
By the late war period, due both to casualties and high attrition from discharge, resignation and promotion [in Bledsoe's sample, there was 43% non-combat attrition in Confederate regiments and 53% in Union ones], the junior officer corps of the armies were largely composed of men who had worked their way upward through the ranks. According to Bledsoe, these individuals were experts in the tricks of the trade, they successfully adopted the veteran's emotional and psychological survival technique of protective callousness, and they were also capable of tactical innovation. Citizen-officers evolved with the changing nature of combat. With the continuous fighting that was a common characteristic of 1864-65 campaigns, it also became more acceptable for company officers to expose themselves only when critically necessary. Given the extreme levels of flux among the junior officer corps throughout the war, Bledsoe is probably right to reserve judgment over the issue of whether late war company officers were instrinsically "better" than their early and middle war counterparts.
Bledsoe's research sample of nearly 2,600 officers has been mentioned above but he also examined the letters, journals, diaries, and memoirs of 150 junior officers (75 Union and 75 Confederate) and mined this material for meaningful extracts which he flawlessly integrated into the text of Citizen-Officers. The pieces that describe their personal thoughts on the essential elements of the volunteer officer craft and their experiences in leading their men into combat were expertly selected and particularly insightful.
Bledsoe's quantitative research is also well expressed in the appendices in the form of pie-charts and tables. While much of the content and analysis in the main text was common to both armies, the quantitative analysis points to many differences. The typical Confederate company officer was slightly older, much wealthier, and more likely to be married with children than his Union opponent. In terms of antebellum occupations, the two most common backgrounds were agriculture (40% owned slaves) and the professions for the Confederates and skilled artisanship and agriculture for the Union junior officer corps. Bledsoe also charts officer casualties on a monthly basis as well as promotion/resignation attrition raw totals and rates for each regiment in his sample. Aggregate casualties are also graphed by month for each year of the war.
The Civil War reader of wide experience will find few truly startling revelations in Citizen-Officers but Bledsoe's study really isn't about changing popular perceptions or challenging academic consensus. It is the first book to concentrate solely on volunteer company officers in order to present a scholarly history and analysis of their collective Civil War genesis, duties, trials, evolution and combat experiences. Bledsoe's book is essential reading for anyone seeking to more fully understand the leadership of the most fundamental building blocks of Civil War armies.
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* Lincoln and Citizens' Rights in Civil War Missouri: Balancing Freedom and Security
* War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914
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