Old Army Orders: An Overview

…all orders given, shall be executed with alacrity and good faith.  The preceding is in Article 2 of the 1821 General Regulations for the Army and epitomizes army duty.  Adherence to orders often determined the success of an Old Army career, for both enlisted men and officers.  Commanders issued both verbal and written orders; written instructions were the most prevalent.  Many people associate orders with commanders directing troops in the heat of battle.  However, army orders covered a wide range of topics.  Most were special orders and dealt with the day-to-day administration of the army.

Not surprisingly, the highest civilian (secretary of war) and military (commanding general) authorities, could issue army orders.  However, most orders originated from the various commands and troops that comprised the Old Army.  These included units (army, corps, wing, division, brigade, regiment, battalion, company, detachment, provisional unit), geographic areas (division, department, district, sub-district), installations (fort, cantonment, station, camp of instruction, remount facility, hospital, convalescent camp), specialized outfits (engineer, signal corps), main service branches (infantry, cavalry, artillery),  bureaus, staff departments (adjutant general, commissary/ subsistence, inspector general, ordnance, provost marshal, quartermaster, surgeon general), and expeditions/ campaigns, just to name a few.

The task of issuing, organizing, and safeguarding most orders fell to the adjutant.  The senior most officer tasked with this duty was the Adjutant General, stationed in Washington, DC.   Adjutants, drawn from officers from line units, filled this duty at the various subordinate commands (i.e. department, post, regiment, etc.).

Per regulations, the adjutant and his clerks memorialized orders in written form either on loose leaf paper or in bound volumes.  These records could represent commands in operation for as little as a couple weeks or several decades.  For example, the unit known as U.S. Forces at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, Virginia assigned to the Department of Virginia and North Carolina issued orders between April 21 and May 3, 1864.  Conversely, the Military Division of the Pacific operated from June 1865 to July 1891.

Usually, commanders issued orders organized by subject or topic.  For example, general orders included information relative to a regiment or division, whereas special orders dealt with information pertaining to individual or small groups of soldiers or topics.  Occasionally, instructions issued in the Old Army era, regardless of subject matter, were simply termed “orders”.  For example, the 1841 Army Regulations stipulated the term “general orders” to edicts issued by the Army Headquarters.   The order book maintained by a detachment of the 2nd Dragoons detachment stationed in Texas, prior to the Mexican War, followed this pattern.  Orders No. 61, dated May 4, 1861 while the dragoons occupied Camp Concepcion, Texas (near San Antonio), provides insight into the thoughts of a unit commander on the eve of war:

The official communication of the commencement of hostilities between the United States and that of Mexico has been made to the Colonel Commanding [William S. Harney].  This new state of affairs calls for extraordinary vigilance on the part of every officer and soldier belonging to this detachment.  Discipline is rendered more than ever, essentially requisite; and with the view of placing this command in the highest effective order for field service, Company Commanders are directed to devote themselves assiduously to the instruction of their companies in mounted movements.

Occasionally, orders conveyed personal information on an individual.  First Lieutenant William B. Weir died in an engagement with Indians on the White River Agency in Colorado.  At the time of his death, Weir commanded the Cheyenne (Wyoming) Ordnance Depot.  The death of one of his subordinates, prompted the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier General Stephen V. Benét to issue the following eulogy in an order:

In future posts we will discuss the main types of written army orders (general orders, general court martial orders, special orders, circulars, etc.).  Check back in two weeks to learn more about general orders.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Detachment Order Book, 2nd Dragoons (December 1845-December 1846; March 11, 1851)
Orders from the Ordnance Office, War Department, Washington D.C.; Series of 1879

Army Regulations
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
General Regulations for the Army of the United States (1841)


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