In previous articles, I discussed general and special orders issued by the 19th century U.S. Army. General and special orders regulated day-to-day operations of the army. Often, officers required detailed instructions on how to complete army paperwork or comply with procedures. Occasionally, line officers became lax in their administrative duties and needed gentle reminders to get them into compliance. Policy changes or adjustments to soldier behavior sometimes required attention. Directions for the composition of and behavior on expeditions needed clarification. Finally, certain army business required specific documents. For the instances referenced above, army commanders issued circulars.
All levels of command, ranging from the Adjutant General’s Office (AGO) to a battalion or detachment, issued circulars. As with other types of orders, the issuing authority maintained books and/or files for circulars. Unlike orders, which were typically numbered sequentially, circulars were often organized and referred to by the date of their publication.
Not surprisingly, an army officer spent considerable time completing paperwork and complying with procedures. Circulars notified officers of changes and helped guide officers through the bureaucratic jungle. For example, in April 1871, the AGO issued a letter to all military divisions regarding reenlistment standards. The headquarters of the Military Division of the Pacific incorporated the letter into a circular which they distributed throughout the division:
Only men who are up to the standard of height [5’6” and upwards and between 21 and 35 years old and concerning whose fitness for the service in other respects there exists no doubts], prescribed in letter of March 18th, 1871, from this Office will be enlisted.
No objection will be made to the re-enlistment of good men, who are below the standard height, in the companies from which they were discharged, provided they apply in person at the station or stations of said companies.
Sometimes, circulars simply functioned as technical pamphlets. For example, in May 1870 the Military Division of the Missouri issued a 6-page circular detailing the construction and use of sundials. Frequently, circulars outlined the process for requisitioning and disposing of arms, equipment, or other government property. The following are examples. First, instructions issued to 7th Cavalry company commanders for requisitioning Model 1873 Springfield Carbines and Colt revolvers. Second, instructions from the Commissary General of Subsistence for the disposal of surplus desiccated vegetables.
The 19th century army, as with today, relied heavily on civilian contractors to complete their mission. Contractors throughout the country provided a wide range of goods and services including freighting, building material, horses, and fuel. In most instances, the government selected contractors based on competitive bids. The army issued circulars detailing which newspapers procuring officers could advertise in. Conversely, leaflets also listed which newspapers no longer warranted advertisements. The following is a small sample of newspapers in which the War Department authorized the publication of ads in the 1870s:
Advocate (Huntsville, Alabama)
Daily Times (Jersey City, New Jersey)
Evening Call (Leavenworth, Kansas)
Grand Era (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Inter-Ocean (Chicago, Illinois)
National Republic (Selma, Alabama)
Our Mountain Home (Talladega, Alabama)
Pioneer (Asheville, North Carolina)
Republican (San Francisco, California)
Skandinavisk (New York, New York)
Circulars also functioned as interbranch memos. Memorandum replaced circulars as a form of communication in the 20th century army. Colonel John R. Brooke (3rd Infantry), commander of Fort Shaw, Montana Territory took issue with the behavior of some of his men at a post band concert. As a result, Brooke issued the following:
Circulars condemning behavior also applied to officers. The 1895 army regulations specifically listed one instance in which officers likely regretted inclusion in the memos:
The notice of stoppage of officers’ pay will be prepared in the form of a monthly circular to paymasters, advising them of stoppages outstanding at its date. This circular will be submitted to the Secretary of War for his approval prior to its publication. When an officer’s name is borne thereon, no payment of salary will be made to him which is not in accordance with the stoppage entry made against his name.
Although not as numerous as general and special orders, circulars contain a wealth of information regarding the administration of the Old Army. They provide insight into what subjects army commanders deemed important throughout the 19th century. Furthermore, the leaflets identify other documents, such as newspapers, that may contain other information pertaining to an Old Army topic.
Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
7th U.S. Cavalry, General Orders, Special Orders, and Circulars
Adjutant General’s Office, General Orders and Circulars
Atlantic (Division of), Orders
Fort Shaw, Montana Territory, General Orders, Garrison Court Martial Orders, and Circulars
Missouri (Division of), Orders
Office of the Commissary General of Subsistence, Circulars
Pacific (Division of), Orders
Texas (Department of), Orders
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)