Duties of 19th century army officers varied. The lowest grade officers (captain, 1st lieutenant, and second lieutenant) directed the day-to-day operations of companies and completed regular rotations as officer of the day. Colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors oversaw the operations of regiments, posts, and often districts. All officers also served on ad hoc assignments. These included councils of administration, boards of survey, courts martial, and courts of inquiry. Over time, we will examine these types of duties, but will begin with a discussion of boards of survey.
What is a Board of Survey?
Officers, regardless of rank or duty, were responsible for public property at some point in their career. Public property included any article purchased by or used by the government. The main categories of public property included subsistence (commissary), quartermaster, ordnance, and medical stores (click here for a further description of public property). Property could include anything from a bottle of ink to mountain howitzer. Per army regulations, “[w]hen public property becomes damaged, except by fair wear and tear, or otherwise unsuitable for use, or a deficiency is found in it, the officer accountable for the same shall report the case to the commanding officer, who shall, if necessary, appoint a Board of Survey.” Regardless of how small or inexpensive the article, officers could be held financially liable for any loss or damage to the article.
In addition to examining arms, uniforms, and material, boards of survey determined the cause of the destruction of military buildings, due to fire or some other cause. Boards also convened to identify the personal effects of deceased soldiers or to rectify the accounts of dead officers. Sometimes boards recommended the destruction of damaged property, including horses.
A commanding officer, through his adjutant, convened a board of survey by issuing a special order. The order included the name, rank, and position of the responsible officer and the composition of the three officers composing the board. Typically, the junior officer of the board served as the recorder, transcribing the proceedings.
Most boards of survey convened shortly after the arrival of wagon trains, laden with supplies, at their destination. Perishable food items were susceptible to spoilage and wastage while in transit. Not surprisingly, commissary supplies were typically the subject of most boards of survey.
The proceedings began by reviewing the bills of lading. Typically, the recorder prepared a detailed list comparing the invoiced amounts versus the received amounts. The board then physically inspected the property in question. Boards had the authority to call witnesses and prepare affidavits in an effort to determine the facts of the case. Witnesses could be officers, enlisted men, government employees, or civilians. More often than not boards determined that the responsible party was not accountable for loss or damage. Click here to see an example of proceedings.
Approval of Boards of Survey
Once the board prepared its written decision, each member signed the proceedings and forwarded them to the commanding officer for review and approval. Copies were also provided to the responsible party and members of the board. Occasionally, boards were required to reconvene to address any improprieties or consider additional information.
Next, the commanding officer submitted the proceedings to the immediate superior command, normally department headquarters, where the appropriate staff department (i.e. ordnance, quartermaster, inspector general, etc.) reviewed and provided comments on the findings. Pay was withheld for enlisted men and officers deemed responsible for property lost or damaged. If contractors were held responsible, their contracts were amended to recoup the loss.
Boards of survey provide a wealth of information pertaining to the supplies, equipment, and furnishings of the Old Army soldier. These significant documents are often fragmented and incomplete. However, Old Army Records will continue to digitize and index them.
Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Reports of Boards of Survey, Department of the Platte (1866-1876)
Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort C.F. Smith, M.T. (1867-1868)
Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort Phil Kearny, D.T. (1866-1868)
Proceedings of Boards of Survey, Fort Reno, D.T. (1867-1868)
Revised U.S. Army Regulations (1863)
Customs of Service for Officers of the Army (1868)