Old Army Records: General Orders

In the last post, I briefly discussed Old Army orders.  Orders covered a wide range of subjects and were typically issued as either general or special orders.  We will discuss general orders in this post.  As the name implies, general orders covered a broad range of subjects.  Although the exact content of general orders changed over the course of the 19th century, the Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895) summarizes the information contained in these orders:

General orders announce the time and place of issues and payments, hours for roll calls and duties, police regulations and prohibitions, returns to be made and their forms, laws and regulations for the Army, promotions and appointments, eulogies or censures, the results of trial by general courts-martial in all cases of officers or of enlisted men involving matters of general interest and importance, and generally, whatever it may be important to publish to the whole command. Orders eulogizing the conduct of living officers will not be issued except in cases of gallantry in action or performance of specially hazardous service.

This post led off with Article 65, paragraph 771 from the 1895 Army Regulations.  Examples of the categories referenced in the regulations are described below.

Hours for Roll Calls and Duties

Drums, bugles, and/ or trumpets regulated the daily routine of an Old Army soldier.  General orders announced the times of these signals.  Changes in the seasons, due to reduced hours of sunlight, necessitated changes in the schedule.

Time and Place of Issues and Payments

Troops, especially those serving in remote regions, often went months without receiving pay.  Payday was, therefore, a significant occurrence.  Formal inspections often accompanied pay activities.  General orders prescribed the order in which the troops received pay (i.e. by company letter, medical department, etc.).  These instructions often detailed the specific requirements for uniforms and equipment at inspection.

Police Regulations and Prohibitions

On April 29, 1873, Fort Laramie commander Colonel John E. Smith issued an order forbidding all persons from crossing the nearby bridge, across the North Platte River, “in a vehicle or on horseback at a gait faster than a walk.”   In another order, issued a week later, Colonel Smith forbid enlisted men from “peddling” at the post because it destroyed good order and military discipline.

Returns to be Made and Their Forms

Record keeping dominated much of the Old Army officer’s day-to-day activities.  Forms and reports accounted for weapons, uniforms, equipment, foodstuffs, animals, and a myriad of other items.  General orders provided instructions for the use of and/or changes to these forms.  For example, in General Order No. 76 (dated December 16, 1887) the Adjutant General discontinued the following returns, reports, and blanks furnished by the Medical Department:

No. 23 (Return of posts and stations)

No. 25 (Return of private physicians under contract)

No. 26 (Return of hospital stewards)

No. 27 (Return of hospital matrons)

No. 29 (Return of ambulance corps when in service)

Occasionally, general orders solicited detailed information from reports prescribed in the regulations.  The following order, from the Department of Texas requested that boards of survey report on a variety of information pertaining to the personal and service life of an enlisted man.

The Results of Trial by General Courts-martial in all Cases of Officers or of Enlisted Men

As noted early, we will discuss GCMO in a later post.

Laws and Regulations for the Army, Promotions and Appointments

Federal laws affected the pay, punishment, enlistment term, and a host of other subjects for the Old Army.  The task of disseminating information on laws and regulations fell to the Adjutant General.  Promotions of officers always came from the Adjutant General.  Conversely, promotions of enlisted men to staff positions within a regiment or at a military post typically originated at the unit or garrison level.

The subject matter of a large proportion of general orders issued at the department and division level dealt with the appointment of staff positions and aides-de-camp.  These appointments are especially useful in developing an experience matrix for Old Army officers.

Eulogies or Censures

As the subject heading implies, these types of general orders highlight the careers of deceased officers or, in the case inappropriate behavior, publicly reprimands officers.  These types of orders also designate the appropriate level of memorial observances for the deceased.  General Order No. 14 (dated November 9, 1872), issued by the headquarters of the Division of the Pacific reads:

In respect for the memory of Major-General George G. Meade, U.S. Army, whose illustrious services to his country have won for him imperishable renown and the enduring gratitude of his countrymen, it is ordered that, on the day of his funeral, Monday the 11th instant, the national flag be displayed at half mast at all the posts in the harbor of San Francisco, and from Alcatraz Island half-hour guns be fired from sunrise to sunset.

General Order Miscellany

Not surprisingly, each order included the source (general 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.  Once written, the adjutant issued the instructions through intermediate commanders, in order of rank.  Depending on the issuing entity, a hundred or more copies of a single general order may exist.  For example, a general order issued by the Adjutant General in 1873 reached 5 geographic divisions, 11 geographic departments, over 153 posts or stations, and the army staff departments.

Whereas most general orders originated from the Adjutant General, subordinate commands and units issued fewer instructions.  The following illustrates the disparity in the number of general order issued by the Adjutant General, the four subordinate divisions, and two departments and military posts in 1873 (NOTE:  general orders often included the proceedings and findings of general courts martial.  In these instances, these documents were labeled General Courts Martial Orders [GCMO].  We will discuss these unique orders in a future post and, as a result, the tallies do not include GCMO):

Adjutant General’s Office:       112

Atlantic, Division of the :          21

Missouri, Division of the :         4

Pacific, Division of the:            10

South, Division of the:               9

Dakota, Department of :          10

Platte, Department of the:      19

Fort Fetterman:                        23

Fort Laramie:                            26

Often, a member of the staff read the contents of a general order, especially those issued by a post commander, to the entire garrison at parade.  Regulations stipulated that posts, and later units (i.e. companies and regiments), retain hard copies of all general orders they received.

Future posts will address three other types of written instructions: special orders, circulars, and general court martial orders.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Adjutant General’s Office, General Orders and Circulars
Department of Texas, General Orders, Circulars, and General Court Martial Orders
Division of the Pacific, General Orders, Circulars, and General Court Martial Orders
Division of the Pacific, General Orders, Circulars, and General Court Martial Orders
Fort Laramie General and Special Orders

Government Documents
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)
Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1873)


2 thoughts on “Old Army Records: General Orders

  • September 20, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Do you want to know what the “General Regulations for the Army”, 1847, has to say on “Orders, description &c, of..” in paragraphs 902 to 916? Got it, if you need it.

    Can you give us further info on the Order Book, 2nd Dragoons Detachment? Any info from the unit, at that time, at this place (San Antonio) is very important to the U.S. Army in Texas and the founding of what will become Fort Sam Houston.

    Director, Fort Sam Houston Museum
    Fort Sam Houston, Texas 78234
    (and a trained Army clerk)

    • September 22, 2018 at 10:17 am

      First, thank you for your service. Second, we appreciate the offer for the 1847 army regulations. We have digital copies of the 1847 regs plus 14 other editions from 1803-1895. Paragraphs 902-916, from 1847 edition, provide great examples of order formats and content.

      As for the 2nd Dragoon order book, it includes over 120 orders issued at camps in the San Antonio area, including Camp Bexar (21 orders), Camp Concepción (51 orders), Camp Leon (1 order), and Camp Olmus (53 orders). The orders date from October 1845 to December 1846, with some gaps. The orders provide a wealth of information on day-to-day life of a dragoon leading up to and during the first year of the Mexican-American War. The orders primarily deal with the courts martial of men serving with the detachment. However, orders also assigned soldiers to perform specific tasks.

      The order book and corresponding name, place, and subject index (prepared by Old Army Records) is available for purchase. Please contact us for more information.


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