Old Army Records: Circulars

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.

Detailed Instructions

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.

Advertisement Circulars

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)

Memos

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:

During a band concert at Fort Shaw in 1880, soldiers spit tobacco juice on a mess room floor. Post commander, Col. Robert Brooke, deemed the behavior unacceptable and issued this circular.

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.

Sources

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

Government Documents
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1895)

Old Army Officer Duty: Boards of Survey

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.

Commissary of Regiment. Dressed beef by Mathew Brady. oldarmyrecords.com
Most boards of survey dealt with commissary supplies, such as beef.

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.

Proceedings

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 Supply Train", 1876, Old Army Records
“The Supply Train”, 1876

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.

Sources

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)

 

Published Sources

Revised U.S. Army Regulations (1863)

Customs of Service for Officers of the Army (1868)