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Old Army Records: Special Orders

This article is a continuation of the series describing the various orders issued in the Old Army.  Most orders fell into two categories:  general or special.  As previously discussed, general orders covered a broad range of subjects.  The Regulations for the Army of the United States (1881) summarizes the information contained in special orders:

Special Orders are such as do not concern the troops generally; such as relate to the march of some particular corps, the establishment of some temporary post, the detaching of individuals, the granting requests, and generally such matters as need not be published to the whole command.

This rather simple official definition belies the amount of information contained in special orders.  Special orders were, essentially, personnel management instructions.  They specified duties performed by all soldiers, officers and enlisted men alike.

Special Orders

Each order included the source (order number, date of issue, place of issue, and the name of the commander issuing the order).  Often orders also included the name of the adjutant.  As discussed in the previous post, orders emanated from a variety of Old Army commands and units, including the War Department through the Adjutant General of the Army (AG), division headquarters, military posts, regiments, or battalions.

Of all of the types of orders issued in the 19th century, special orders were the most numerous.  Special orders issued by the adjutant general totaled 268 in 1876, 302 in 1887, and 308 in 1898.  Obviously, in times of open conflict the number of orders issued rose dramatically.  In 1846, General Zachary Taylor, commander of the United States Army of Occupation, issued 142 special orders over an eight-month span.  Likewise, during the peak of the Civil War, the adjutant general issued nearly 600 special orders in 1863 alone.

Every special order typically included paragraphs, which could number 50 or more.  Each paragraph typically referred to a unique individual or circumstance.  The content of most special orders is summarized below.

Promotions and Demotions

Promotion was the goal of most Old Army officers.  Higher rank meant increased responsibility, pay, and social status.  The AGO issued orders regarding the promotion or, occasionally, demotions, of officers.  Whereas army headquarters dealt with the status of officers, the professional fate of enlisted men largely rested with their regiment.  Company commanders, who in theory observed the day-to-day interactions of the enlisted men under his command, recommended men for noncommissioned officer (NCO) positions to the regimental commander.  In turn, the regimental commander considered the request and, in most instances, approved the changes.

Surprisingly, promotions and demotions occurred frequently.  The expiration of service, disciplinary action, and a simple desire not to have the responsibility required periodic changes in NCO positions.  In rare instances battle losses resulted in mass-promotions.  In the weeks immediately following the Battle of the Little Big Horn, for example, Major Marcus A. Reno, field commander of the 7th Cavalry, issued several special orders promoting individuals to fill the ranks of noncommissioned officers killed in the engagement.  Special Order No. 59 (7th Cavalry), approving promotions in Company K, is a representative example:

Corporal George Hove to be sergeant (vice 1st Sgt. DeWitt Winnie killed)

Private Michael P. Madden to be sergeant (vice Sgt. Robert H. Hughes killed)

Duty Assignments (Officers)

Special orders convened a wide range of panels on which officers served.  Many, such as boards of survey, councils of administration, courts martial, occurred regularly.  These mundane duties consumed a large portion of a line officer’s duty.  Special orders also assigned officers to unique duty.  For instance, in April 1863, the AGO ordered Captain Cyrus B. Comstock, with the Corps of Engineers, to assume charge of the balloon establishment (also known as the Balloon Corps).  The order also empowered Comstock sole discretion for requisitions and accounts pertaining to the balloon organization.

In April 1863, the Adjutant General ordered Captain Cyrus B. Comstock to assume charge of the U.S. Army Balloon Corps.
Duty Assignments (Enlisted Men)

Old Army duty required extensive labor commitments.  Routine activities, such as erecting buildings, escorting supply trains, providing water and firewood to the garrison, more often than not required the labor of enlisted men.  For small escorts, such as transferring mail, orders specified, by name, the NCO in charge.  When there was a shortage of available men, privates often filled in, temporarily, as the NCO in charge.

Most special orders, especially at the regiment and post levels, assigned men to complete these onerous tasks.  Therefore, special orders are excellent sources for viewing the day-to-day life of an enlisted man in the 19th century army.  Special Order No. 182, issued at Fort Abraham Lincoln in September 1876 is typical of the “job” assignments.  In the order, Private Charles Banks, a Battle of the Little Big Horn survivor from Company L, 7th Cavalry, was detailed on daily duty as mail carrier for the post adjutant.

In March 1886, 6th Cavalryman, Private John H. Gaston got a brief reprieve from field duty with his company, then serving at a remote temporary camp.  He was ordered to “his station at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, to prepare [the] troop garden for the coming season.

Special orders also demonstrate that even lowly privates assumed, at least temporarily, heady responsibilities.  On March 7, 1885, District of New Mexico commander, Colonel Luther Bradley, issued Special Order 14 detailing Private Hugh Hartmann, then serving with a General Service detachment, to proceed to Fort Selden, New Mexico to verify and establish the boundaries of that military reservation.

Distributing Troops

Whether marching to a battle, shifting positions on the battlefield, or simply changing stations, Old Army soldiers were always moving.  Special orders conveyed detailed instructions regarding the moves.  Those orders outlined the time and place of marches, the unit or number of men required, the amount of ammunition and rations required, etc.  The following example is from Special Order No. 180 issued by headquarters of the 8th Army Corps on July 5, 1863:

Brigadier-General Briggs, U. S. Volunteers, will immediately proceed with the following named troops by railroad to Frederick City, Md.: The Ninth Maryland Volunteer Infantry; the Tenth Maryland Volunteer Infantry; the Eighth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; the Forty-sixth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; the Fifty-first Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry; the Seventh Regiment New York State Militia; detachment of the [First] Connecticut Cavalry; Battery B, First Maryland Volunteer Artillery; Battery C, First Pennsylvania Volunteer Artillery.

The command will go in light marching order.  They will carry with them their blankets, canteens, and haversacks; 40 rounds of ammunition in their cartridge-boxes, and 20 rounds in their pockets.

Leaves of Absence

Serving at remote stations or under arduous field conditions took a strain on Old Army personnel.  Regulations afforded officers greater opportunity for rest.  Justifications for leaves included medical conditions, the desire to see wife and children, or simply a need to attend to “personal matters”.  In all instances, the AG reviewed and approved these applications.  If approved, the AG specified the length of time for sabbaticals in a special order.  Often, the order included an option to extend the break.

Although rare, enlisted men could apply for leaves of absence.  Time off for enlisted men depended upon the length of time they served, their character, and the severity of the request.  As with officers, the AG approved all requests by enlisted men for leaves of absence.  For example, in March 1833, the AG granted Sergeant Alexis St. Martin, with a detachment of orderlies “at the seat of Government”, a three-month furlough.

In August 1856, a general court martial panel found Private John Price, 8th Infantry, guilty of violating the 9th Article of War. His sentence included serving hard labor, with a ball and chain attached to his left leg, for 12 months. However, a portion of the punishment was remitted through Special Order No. 25.
Other Subjects

The topics discussed above typify what is in Old Army special orders.  However, these types of instructions often included information about other subjects such as the requisition and use of specific government property.  Special orders also addressed issues affecting specific units.  One such issue was the abuse of alcohol that persisted throughout the 19th century army.

Curbing Alcohol Use

In January 1863, Major General Ulysses S. Grant, then commander of the Department of Tennessee, issued Special Order No. 26 directing that “[t]he Bars in Government service in this Department will be closed and no Spirituous, Vinous or Malt Liquors will be allowed to be sold on the boats or in the Camps.”

Alcohol remained an issue and commanders struggled to curb its abuse.  For example, Colonel Richard I. Dodge, commanding a battalion on the Powder River Expedition, issued Special Order No. 21 in December 1876:

[t]he Trader or Sutler at this camp is herby forbidden to sell intoxicating liquor either by the glass or quantity to enlisted men of this command.  Liquors will only be sold to Commd [commanding] officers, or on the presentation of written orders from the same; and officers are forbidden to sign orders for liquor for the personal use of enlisted men.  Company Commanders may purchase, in bulk, liquors for the use of men of their respective companies; and will see that it is properly distributed; and be held responsible for any cases of drunkenness which may occur therein. 

However, Dodge’s order did not resonate with the officers under his command, prompting him to issue Special Order No. 22 just one day later.

Company commanders having failed to respond to the desire of the Commanding Officer to allow their men to have liquor, & at the same time keep its sale under proper control Special Order No. 21 is hereby revoked.  The sutler is permitted to sell liquors by the drink to all enlisted men who are not at the time under its influence.  He will sell to enlisted men no liquor by the bottle or quantity, and in no case sell even a drink to any man who is already under the influence of liquor.

Service History Through Special Orders, An Example

Special orders provide a wealth of information on the routine life of an Old Army soldier, whether an officer or enlisted man.  In the last article, I summarized a report compiled by Captain Henry E. Noyes while serving as an assistant inspector general during the Civil War.  Noyes’ army career lasted into the early 20th century.  A query of random special order sets, digitized and indexed by Old Army Records, indicates Noyes’ post-Civil War experience was diverse:

The Value of Special Orders

As the above example illustrates, there is a wealth of information in special orders.  However, orders, like most Old Army records, are either not digitized and/or thoroughly indexed.  Old Army Records developed software and a process to quickly and efficiently digitize and index these significant documents for names, places, events, and subjects.  In the coming months, we will make some 19th century army records available.  While we continue to digitize and index documents, Old Army Records is accepting custom requests by individuals for information in orders (general and special), letters, reports, etc.  Feel free to contact us for information.


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