Absent Without Leave Army Officer: Lt. Josiah Sheetz

While indexing general orders for several military departments in the 1870s I was struck by several orders calling for the detainment of active duty regular officers absent without leave (AWOL).  The orders essentially served as all point bulletins notifying all military and civil authorities throughout the country to detain the officers so that offenders could justify their absence. For example, the Adjutant General issued orders to apprehend 2nd Lieutenant John Aspinwall, 7th Cavalry, in May 1874 and Captain William McClellan Netterville, 21st Infantry in March 1876.  Military authorities failed to catch up to those two officers.  They were eventually dropped from the Army list.  However, the case of 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, reported AWOL in 1875, is an intriguing story.

Brevet Brigadier General Josiah A. Sheetz, ca. 1865. Courtmatialed for being absent without leave.oldarmyrecords.com
Josiah A. Sheetz as a Brevet Brigadier General, ca. 1865.  Photo courtesy of MOLLUS-MASS Civil War Photo Collection RG667s, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle, PA.
Meteoric Rise

The Civil War catapulted thousands of men into senior leadership roles.  One such person was Josiah Sheetz.  In the spring of 1861, Sheetz resided in Pekin, the county seat of Tazewell County, Illinois.  Responding to the call to arms, Sheetz helped organize Company F, 8th Illinois Infantry, mustering in as a 2nd Lieutenant.  The 8th Illinois served in the Western Theater, mostly along the Mississippi River.  He participated in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson.  By December 1864, Sheetz rose to the rank of colonel, commanding the same regiment he joined in 1861.  In March 1865, he received the honorary rank of brevet brigadier general of volunteers.

From Brigadier General to Private

Sheetz resigned his commission in February 1866.  However, he was back in the army less than three months later.  His return to service was less prestigious than when he first left.  He enlisted as a private in the 1st U.S. Infantry.  No doubt, Sheetz’s Civil War experience allowed him to advance through the noncommissioned ranks.  He soon served as 1st Sergeant, his previous service no doubt factored into the promotions.  Within a year of joining the regular army, Sheetz attained a commission as 1st lieutenant in the 30th Infantry; he transferred to the 4th Infantry in March 1869.

Doomed by Standard Military Service

As a regular army officer, Sheetz’s military service record is unremarkable.  His responsibilities included roles as adjutant and post treasurer (i.e. financially responsible for money used to fund post schools and funds used to purchase supplies for companies).   His downfall began innocently enough.  However, facts later proved that improprieties began months earlier and quickly spiraled out of control.  In April 1875, Sheetz served with his company at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming Territory.  About the middle of the month he was ordered to escort a soldier to the government insane home in Washington, DC.  His route took him to Fort Laramie.  On his way Sheetz also escorted 11 enlisted, including two defendants and nine witnesses, to Fort Laramie to appear before a general court martial.  His Fort Laramie mission would prove ironic.

Absent Without Leave

While in Washington, the Adjutant General approved Sheetz’s request to delay his return to Fort Fetterman by 20 days.  Sheetz then proceeded to his father’s home in Illinois, via Chicago.  By July neither the Adjutant General nor his post commander had heard from Sheetz.  With no information on his whereabouts, the Adjutant General listed Sheetz as AWOL and issued the instructions to military commands across the country to, if encountered, detain him.  The various military commands in turn reissued the instructions.

The Military Division of Atlantic, for instance, issued the following circular on July 29th.  “Should 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, 4th Infantry, appear at any post or station in this Division, the commanding officer will retain him and report the fact to these Headquarters.”  In the meantime, Sheetz became aware of the problems he was facing and made a feeble attempt to justify his absence, claiming to be ill and bedbound.  Nevertheless, the government, now aware of Sheetz’s location, ordered the rogue officer back to his station at Fort Fetterman.  A lengthy general court martial case was also being prepared.

General Court Martial

On October 18, 1875, the general court martial of 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz began in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory.  A panel of nine officers heard the case.  Captain William H. Bisbee prosecuted the case as judge advocate.  The case included 6 charges and 26 specifications.  In addition to being absent without leave, the facts of the government case included the following.

First, Sheetz claimed and knowingly received two salary payments for the month of April 1875 and three payments for May 1875 thereby defrauding the government of $450.00 (about $10,340 today).  Second, Sheetz failed to properly account for the post fund, under his accountability, in the amount of $502.54 (about $11,548 today).  Third, the lieutenant failed to properly compensate soldiers serving as post baker, assistant post baker, and schoolteacher.  Similarly, Sheetz failed to pay the appropriate money, from the post fund, to units that served at Fort Fetterman.

Under the charge of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” the government claimed that Sheetz received cash for his fraudulent pay vouchers from numerous banks and businesses at Fort Fetterman, Cheyenne, and Chicago.  Additionally, the government claimed that Sheetz failed to pay bills, incurred by him while serving as post treasurer, as well as failing to deposit money, given to him by one of his soldiers.


Sheetz pleaded not guilty to five of the six charges.  He plead guilty to the charge which included specifications for being AWOL, not accounting for the post fund, failing to pay enlisted personnel from the post fund, and failing to pay for school supplies.  Sheetz represented himself and put up a feeble defense.  The most damning part of the prosecution’s case was the fact that Sheetz signed the three fraudulent pay vouchers.  At the end of the eighth day of trial the court panel briefly adjourned and rendered their findings.  They found the 1st lieutenant guilty of all charges and sentenced him to be cashiered, confined in prison for two years, and publish the crimes, place of confinement, and punishment in newspapers in Freeport, Illinois (where Sheetz’s father lived) and Laramie City, Wyoming Territory.

An Abrupt End to A Military Career

In view of Sheetz’s admirable Civil War record, the Secretary of War remitted the punishment to dismissal from the Army only.  Throughout Sheetz’s military service record documents, the curt word “cashiered” appears, an inglorious end to his army career.  Sheetz died on January 8, 1883.  What prompted the former brevet brigadier general to defraud the government and go AWOL?  Did the isolation of serving on the western frontier cause him distress?  Was he living a colonel’s lifestyle on a 1st lieutenant’s salary?  We may never know why this regular officer went rogue, but Old Army Records will continue to index documents in an attempt to answer those types of questions.

Sentence and Review section of GCMO for 1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, 4th Infantry for being absent without leave.
The published findings of the general court martial of Josiah A. Sheetz covered 12 pages. The sentence simply read, “1st Lieutenant Josiah A. Sheetz, 4th Infantry, ceases to be an officer of the Army from the date of this order.”


Unpublished Sources (Old Army Records collection)
Department of Dakota, General Orders, General Court Martial Records, and Circulars
Department of Texas, General Orders, General Court Martial Records, and Circulars
Division of the Atlantic, General Orders, General Court Martial Records, and Circulars
Josiah A. Sheetz, Consolidated Military Officer’s File (military service record)
Josiah A. Sheetz, General Court Martial Record

Government Documents
Historical register and dictionary of the United States Army: From its organization, September 29, 1789, to March 2, 1903 (Heitman, 1903)

Old Army Libraries: Publications Overview

“When the sentinel on the rampart announced the arrival of the mail boat today, a happy feeling came over me…so that I found it difficult to restrain my impatience while anxiously waiting for the orderly with the mail.”  Penned by a lieutenant serving on recruiting duty at Fort Wood in New York Harbor, these words no doubt echoed the sentiments of many Old Army soldiers.  Officers and enlisted men in the 19th century welcomed letters from family and friends.  However, mail often included books and periodicals.  Together correspondence and published works offered a brief reprieve from onerous army duty.  By the end of the 19th century army libraries contained thousands of publications.

Old Army Libraries

From an early date, army regulations provided for reading material for U.S. soldiers.  Provisions for army libraries appeared in the 1821 army regulations.  Article 41, Paragraph 14, for example, stipulated that proceeds from the post fund could be used for the “ purchase of books, &c. for a library, one section of which, to be adapted to the wants of the enlisted men.”  Post funds supplied army libraries with reading material throughout most of the 19th century.  Revenue generated from sutler taxes or savings accrued by not using the daily flour ration subsidized the post fund.

Military installations large and small had libraries.  The library for Fort Preble, a small artillery garrison located on the Atlantic shore in Maine, was located in a small frame building also occupied by four staff officers.  In 1875, the Surgeon General reported that the Fort Duncan, Texas, “post library consists of about one hundred and seventy volumes of miscellaneous books, which are kept in two hospital tents situated on the parade-ground a short distance southeast of the hospital, and used as library and reading-room; the latter is open to the garrison from guard­ mount until tattoo. Semi-daily and weekly papers are received. There are also two literary societies at the post, composed of members of the two cavalry companies.”

In 1886, the Adjutant General decreed that these items became public property attached to the respective post.  However, a year later army headquarters specified that neither newspapers nor periodicals could be purchased with post funds.  Rather subscriptions for these publications could be made from an allotment made to each company by the Quartermaster Department. By 1897, the Secretary of War reported a cumulative number of 51,498 volumes of books in libraries at 74 military posts.

…a judicious selection of interesting and instructive books…

Numerous benevolent aide societies and fraternal organizations also contributed reading material to army libraries.  Many of those organizations were faith or temperance based and, accordingly, most of their reading material reflected those tenents.  These groups included the American Bible Society, National Temperance Society, YMCA, and the U.S. Military Post Library Association (USMPLA).  Established in 1861, the aim of the USMPLA was to “establish libraries and reading rooms in all military posts and stations, and it call[ed] upon all benevolent and philanthropic persons to aid it in th[e] free distribution of proper reading material.”  By 1876, the USMPLA provided military installations throughout the nation with 4,672 volumes, 80,000 religious papers, 178,000 secular papers, 9,875 magazines, and 7,000 publications of the association.  The organization also facilitated the establishment of 13 literary and debating societies and 19 reading clubs.

Newspapers and magazines were also common.  Not surprisingly, common periodicals, including Army and Navy Journal, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Harper’s Weekly, were widely distributed.  However, other weekly papers including Puck, Harper’s Franklin Square Library, and the Cincinnati Graphic were also distributed.  Puck was a very popular magazine known for its satirical cartoons.  In 1882, the weekly ranked second to the Army and Navy Register for distribution to military posts.

So what publications were available at specific posts?  Numerous period documents list the publications, and occasionally who checked them out, at individual posts.  The following are two examples.

Puck was a weekly magazine characterized by satirical cartoons. Several Old Army libraries received subscriptions to the periodical.
Examples From Old Army Libraries

In October 1866, a post council of administration, convened at Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory, authorized 2nd Lieutenant John R. Eschenburg, 14th Infantry, to purchase 10 books and a one-year subscription to the Sacramento Weekly Union, all for $10.00.  Books purchased included The Works of Washington Irving, including the short story titled Wolfert’s Roost, Macaria, or the Altars of Sacrifice a novel by Augusta Jane Evans, and one volume of the three-volume history titled History of the Dominion of the Arabs in Spain translated into English by Mrs. Jonathon Foster.

A council of administration at Fort Fetterman in present Wyoming authorized the purchase of a wider selection of books.  They included:

History of Charles XII, King of Sweden
John Lothrop Motley’s History of the Rise of Dutch Republic (ca. 1858)
John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (ca. 1860)
George Bancroft’s History of the United States (ca. 1860)
David Hume’s History of England (ca. 1826)
Antoine Henri de Jomini’s The Art of War (ca. 1862)

“Shakespear’s Complete”, probably one of various editions of William Shakespeare’s poems titled The Complete Works of Shakespeare…
“Byron’s Complete”, probably one of various editions of Lord George Gordon Byron titled The Complete Works of Lord Byron…
“Scott’s Complete Peotical Works”, probably one of various editions titled The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott…
“Burns Complete Poetical Works”, probably one of various editions titled The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns…

“Shakespear and His Friends”, probably Shakespeare and His Friends or “The Golden Age” of Merry England by Robert Folkestone Williams (various editions)
“Sir Walter Scotts (complete)”, a set of novels written by Scott

A council of administration, convened at Fort Fetterman in 1868, authorized the purchase of several books, including History of the Netherlands, for the post library.
A Diverse and Worldly View?

Interestingly, the Fort Fetterman list includes several books related to Scandinavian history.  I wonder if these books reflect the high number of soldiers born in that region?  The few books listed in the Bowie and Fetterman libraries suggest that the Old Army attempted to offer a diverse and thoughtful view of world.  Whether the rank and file actually read and appreciated these works is a question worthy of further investigation.  What are your thoughts?  Leave a comment or contact us directly.


Published Sources
Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1882, 1883, 1888, 1897)
Annual Report of the U.S. Military Post Library Association, 1870-1871 (1871)
General Orders and Circulars, Adjutant General’s Office (1886, 1887)
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
Public Libraries in the United States of America, Part I (1876)
Outline Description of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri Commanded by Lieutenant General P. H. Sheridan (1876)
Outline Description of U.S. Military Posts and Stations in the Year 1871 (1872)
The Publisher’s Weekly, No. 230, June 10, 1876.
Report on the Hygiene of the United States Army (Billings 1875)

Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders and other documents, Fort Fetterman, Dakota Territory and Camp/ Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory

Unpublished Sources
Isaac d’Isay letter to Alida d’Isay (dated Fort Wood, New York Harbor, July 3, 1867); author’s collection

Bozeman Trail Abandonment Part 3 of 3: Fort Reno

August 1868 was a pivotal month in Old Army history.  It marked the military abandonment of the Bozeman Trail.  After a brief and furious period of packing, selling, and disposing of tons of government property the U.S. Army withdrew from the line.  Troops abandoned Fort C.F. Smith on July 29thFort Phil Kearny was technically abandoned on July 31st, but troops did not leave the vicinity until August 11th.  That left one occupied post:  Fort Reno.

Major General Jesse L. Reno, ca. 1862, oldarmyrecords.com
Major General Jesse L. Reno (1823-1862)

In August 1865, General Patrick Connor established a forward supply base on the Powder River in Dakota Territory.  Volunteer troops manned this remote post, originally dubbed Camp Connor, for the next year.  Colonel Henry B. Carrington and the 2nd Battalion of the 18th Infantry arrived at the post in July 1866.  By then the War Department changed the name to Fort Reno in honor of Major Jesse L. Reno accidentally killed near Fox’s Gap, Maryland in September 1862.

First In, Last Out

The garrison typically included, on average, three infantry companies with a usual garrison strength of 196 men.  In May 1868, Fort Reno must have seemed like an oasis on the Great Plains.  One officer noted that the buildings were painted and whitewashed, presenting a very neat appearance.  This probably made a strong contrast with the lush spring grass and blue-green sagebrush.

Official directions to abandon the trail were issued in May.  This precipitated a systematic withdrawal from north to south towards the Transcontinental Railroad in what is now southern Wyoming.  That meant that, with the exception of some commissary supplies that went to Fort Ellis, in current Montana, all military supplies and troops assigned to the Bozeman Trail passed through Fort Reno.  The subsistence stores wound up at Fort Laramie while most of the remaining property went to Fort D.A. Russell.   Fort Fetterman gained some of the military clothing, camp and garrison equipage.   Over the course of three years, an estimated 1,000 tons of supplies passed through Fort Reno.  That required the transport capability equivalent to 25 modern semi trailers.

The troop withdrawal began in June when the four companies of 18th Infantrymen left; replaced by two companies of the 27th Infantry.  With the change in garrison came a new commander of Fort Reno, Maj. Benjamin F. Smith.  As a staff officer, Smith had been posted with regimental headquarters at Fort Phil Kearny.  His reassignment to Reno was no doubt meant to superintend the packing and disposal of supplies and material at that post.

Fort Reno, D.T. circa 1867.

Honoring the Dead

Although official notification for the abandoned of forts Reno, Phil Kearny, and C.F. Smith was not issued until May 19, 1868, scuttlebutt about the withdrawal began the previous winter.  Nevertheless, projects meant to outlast the occupation proceeded in earnest.  Throughout the spring of 1868, soldiers spruced up the cemeteries at all three Bozeman Trail posts.  In March, for example, the Reno quartermaster reported that soldiers built a paling (picket) fence around the cemetery.  He further stated that pine lumber headboards, with the name of the deceased and date of death, marked each grave.  A monument, made from sandstone laid in mortar, was also erected to honor those who died over the previous three years.  Labor costs for the improvements totaled $9.00 (about $160.00 today).  The monument was an obelisk and likely similar to the one built at the two other posts that guarded the trail.

Casualties Mount

Col. Benjamin F. Smith, ca. 1862. oldarmyrecords.com
Major Benjamin F. Smith, pictured here as a volunteer Colonel ca. 1862, died at Fort Reno early in the abandonment process.

The plans for the orderly abandonment were short-lived.  Major Smith died suddenly of an undisclosed illness not long after assuming command of Reno.  Command fell to 1st Lieutenant, Jacob Paulus.  Paulus had the unenviable task of not only assuming command of the post, but also seeing to the preparation of Smith’s funeral.

Peace commissioners tasked with gathering the northern plains tribes and signing a treaty predicated on the abandonment of the Bozeman Trail arrived at Fort Laramie in April 1868.  Despite their presence in the region, Indian warriors continued to harass the troops spread out along the trail.

On the morning of July 19th nine enlisted men left Fort Reno in search of cattle that strayed the previous night.  About a quarter of a mile from the post, roughly 25 warriors, surprised the tiny detachment.  Fortunately, Company A, 2nd Cavalry was at the post serving as the escort for the army paymaster.  The cavalrymen rode to support of the tiny detachment.  After a running fight and three shots from a howitzer the Indians broke off their attack and disappeared.  Two cavalrymen sustained injuries in the pursuit.  Private Joseph Miller received a flesh wound in the arm while Private George F. Peach was killed.  Peach has the distinction of being the last known military death on the Bozeman Trail.  His was the 33rd burial made in the Fort Reno cemetery.

The Court does therefore sentence him…

The frenzy of activity at Fort Reno precipitated by the abandonment of the post proved too much of a temptation for at least one soldier.  On August 1st, Private Robert Hoover, Company “D”, 27th Infantry, sold articles of clothing, belonging to a company mate (Thomas Waldron), to teamsters employed by the government.  At a garrison court martial the court found Hoover guilty.  In one of the last extant general orders issued, on August 11th, his sentence was published for distribution to the whole garrison:  forfeiture of $16.00, one month’s pay (about $285.00 today), and to be confined in charge of the post guard at hard labor for one month.  In addition, a 24-pound ball with a 6-foot-long chain was attached to his left leg.

Hoover likely marched the roughly 255 miles between forts Reno and D.A. Russell in charge of a guard.  It is not known if he carried the ball and chain.  Life as a soldier evidently did not sit well with Hoover.  He and several comrades stood trial, and were found guilty, of various infractions in the summer of 1867 while stationed at Fort C.F. Smith.  After departing the Bozeman Trail Hoover deserted his guard post at Fort D.A. Russell.

Abandonment Complete

Whereas the closure of Phil Kearny occurred in fits and starts the withdrawal from Reno was anticlimactic.  The abandonment occurred on August 18th.  The Record of Events for the Year 1868 of the Twenty Seventh U.S. Infantry tersely documented the event.  “Companies B, D, and F, left Fort Reno, D.T. (abandoned) enroute to Regimental Headquarters near Fort D.A. Russell, D.T. where they arrived on the 29th [of August].”  In many ways this is a fitting summation of the closure.  Nineteenth century soldiers, just as those serving today, frequently rotated stations.  The men who served on the Bozeman Trail simply moved on to continue their Old Army careers and enlistment obligations.

Where is Major Smith?

As previously mentioned, Maj. Smith died at Reno June 22nd.  Immediately upon receiving news of the death, regimental commander Colonel John E. Smith, directed Lieut. Paulus to encase the remains “in a good box and then cover this with tin, or similar material and closely solder it, if you have no material to do this with, a covering of canvas is suggested, which should be well painted.”  Col. Smith further specified that an officer escort the remains, “shrouded in the National Colors” to Fort Fetterman for temporary internment.  As a matter of course, Col. Smith sent a letter to the commander of Fort Fetterman warning him of the arrival of Maj. Smith’s body with the intent to eventually forward the remains to Philadelphia.

A review of the remaining records from both Forts Reno and Fetterman do not document a funeral escort or receipt of Smith’s body.  Rather, the monthly burial record kept for Reno lists one interment in June 1868.  Since no other deaths are documented for that month, the burial is likely for Smith.  In 1911, the Army removed the 33 bodies from the Reno cemetery and reinterred them at the Custer National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.  Deterioration of the wooden headboards during the intervening 43 years presumably made most, if not all, of them illegible.  This is why most of the marble headstones for the Fort Reno dead simply read “UNKOWN U.S. SOLDIER.”  It appears that Maj. Smith is one of the unknowns.

The Fort Reno dead are likely in this group of unknowns in Section A at the Custer National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

Bozeman Trail History Lives

The question of Maj. Smith’s remains is indicative of the Fort Reno records.  The surviving records contain several chronological gaps and some types of records, such as correspondence, do not exist.  Reno was the first post established on the Bozeman Trail and last to be abandoned.  It was a microcosm of the Old Army.  At various times during its short history the post was the station for volunteer units (6th Michigan Cavalry), Indian auxiliaries (Company A, Omaha Scouts), former Confederate soldiers known as Galvanized Yankees (5th U.S. Volunteer Infantry), and regular army units (18th and 27th U.S. Infantry).  Despite its rich history, less has been written about Reno than Forts Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith.

Troops manned Fort Reno for three years, compared to about two years for both Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith.  However, Reno has the fewest documents compared to its length of service:  219 documents over three years (most date to 1867 and 1868).  By way of comparison, Fort C.F. Smith has 208 documents covering two years (most date to 1867 and 1868) and over 1,600 documents for Fort Phil Kearny (1866-1868).  Incidentally, all of these documents have been transcribed and indexed by Old Army Records.

The amount of publications written over the past 30 years suggests a strong interest in Bozeman Trail history. However, much of the what has been written regurgitates the same information.  Writers often misquote original documents or take the information out of context.  In this series Old Army Records strove to highlight the closing of the trail through the perspective of soldiers performing mundane day-to-day activities.  Our goal is to present the rich history that was the Old Army by placing its members in context with the paperwork, jobs, arms, equipment, and surroundings required for their duty.

What’s Coming Up?

We hope you enjoyed this Special Series.  We will resume the biweekly article schedule on August 27th.    In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment regarding this series, or any Old Army subject.  We welcome information on data gaps in Old Army records.  Anyone with information on the final resting place of Maj. Smith, please contact us.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)

18th U.S. Infantry Regiment

  • Record of Events for the Year 1868 of the 18th U.S. Infantry
  • Regimental Returns, 18th Infantry

27th U.S. Infantry Regiment

  • Letters Sent
  • Record of Events for the Year 1868 of the 27th U.S. Infantry
  • Regimental Returns, 27th Infantry

Fort C.F. Smith

  • Special and General Orders

Fort Reno

  • Post Returns
  • Special and General Orders
  • Monthly Report of Progress Made on the National Cemetery at Fort Reno, D.T. (March, June, July 1868)

Department of the Platte

  • General Court Martial Orders
  • Letters Sent, Office of the Chief Commissary of Subsistence
  • Letters Sent, Office of the Chief Quartermaster

Unpublished Sources

Isaac d’Isay letter to Alida d’Isay (dated Fort Reno, May 1868)

Old Army Numbers: Boards of Survey 1870

Old Army officers constantly served on boards of survey.  These ad hoc councils determined who or what caused the loss or allocation of government property and were discussed in a previous blog.  This post presents some of the details of boards of survey convened in the Department of Platte (D.O.P.) in 1870.

Composition of Boards of Survey 

About 11% of the U.S. Regular Army was stationed in the department (a list of these stations may be found here).  That amounted to 60 companies representing the 2nd and 5th Cavalry Regiments, the 4th, 7th, 9th, 13th, and 14th Infantry Regiments, and a contingent of Engineers.  Boards of survey involved  249 officers as either the responsible party (the person financially responsible for government property) or board members (1-3 officers tasked with determining the disposition of government property).

As the chart below illustrates officers from the infantry, cavalry, and engineers comprised the boards.  Interestingly, 29 officers not assigned to a specific unit, also served on boards.  In 1869, Congress mandated a substantial reduction in the strength of the regular army.   This law consolidated several units, mostly infantry, and left many officers without a command.  They had no specific assignment until a vacancy opened up.

Distribution, by rank, of officers associated with boards of survey in the Department of the Platte (1870).

On average officers were associated with boards five times during the year.  First Lieutenant Thomas J. Gregg, 2nd Cavalry, was a responsible party once and served as a board member the most (16 times).  All commissioned ranks, 1st Lieutenant through Colonel, were associated with the boards.  Not surprisingly, company grade officers were the most frequent responsible parties and board members, as shown in the chart below.

Comparison, by rank, of officers who were responsible parties or members for boards of survey convened in the Department of the Platte (1870).

Boards of Survey Subject Matter

In 1870, 294 boards of survey convened in the department.  The four major categories of government property were Commissary Stores, Quartermaster Stores, Ordnance Stores, and Medical Stores.  The following is a breakdown of the 294 boards of survey convened in the D.O.P. in 1870.  Examples from the categories follow:


This catchall category includes boards convened to examine more than one class of government property (i.e. commissary and quartermaster stores).  It also included a case Signal Corps stores and equipment (Fort Douglas) and determining the number and size of stoves required in a cavalry barracks and kitchens at Omaha Barracks.  The board concluded that buildings in question should have Pioneer No. 38 and Charter Oak No. 12 stoves, the latter with 5 and 25 gallon coffee boilers.

Medical Stores

Three of the eight boards convened to examine medical stores involved liquor.  They include the loss of 12 quarts of brandy (Fort Fetterman), 9 bottles of whiskey, 2 bottles of alcohol, and 4 bottles of sherry (North Platte Station), and one bottle of whiskey (Miner’s Delight).  In the latter case, the board determined that Sergeant John Schumaker, Co. K, 7th Infantry was responsible for the theft of the whiskey plus:

Ordnance Stores     

Ordnance stores, not surprisingly, included artillery, small arms, horse equipment, and associated equipment and tools.  Surprisingly, 17 boards convened at nine posts/ sub-posts to determine the responsibility for the theft of 120 firearms throughout the department.  The loss of these weapons also meant a large financial burden for the government.


In most cases deserters stole the firearms and, consequently, were accountable for the loss.  While deserting from Plum Creek Station one night in May 1870, Sergeant John H. Groover, and four others from Co. F, 5th Cavalry took 8 Sharps Carbines and 30 Colt Army Revolvers.

Although the board of survey absolved Groover’s company commander, Captain William Henry Brown, of responsibility for the loss, Captain John R. McGinness, D.O.P. Chief Ordnance Officer, wrote a brief admonishment.  In his opinion the revolvers “…should have been placed in the hands of the men of the Comp[any] in order that each man could be held personally responsible for their safe keeping.”  McGinness further stated “[t]he fact that five enlisted men, wishing to desert would connect themselves with such a suspicious circumstance as to carry 6 revolvers and a carbine or two in addition about their person or offer them for sale seems strange enough to excite comment.”

Quartermaster Property

This category is by far the largest and most diverse classification of government property.  In the D.O.P., boards of survey for quartermaster property convened for as little as one crosscut saw (Fort Bridger) to 3,532 itemized uniform components (Fort D.A. Russell).

Perhaps the most unique subject of a board of survey was a pontoon bridge located at Omaha Barracks, Nebraska.  The bridge included 13 pontoon boats, 14 boats oars, 21 incomplete boats, and 12 anchors.  The board concluded that the bridge was “…nearly valueless five years ago, and [it] has been in almost constant use ever since.”

Virginia, Pontoon boat used by the Army of the Potomac. Old Army Records, LLC
Boards of survey often condemned government property.  In 1870, a board, convened at Omaha Barracks, considered 16 pontoon boats, similar to this one, “nearly valueless.”

Commissary Stores

Commissary stores comprised the largest numbers of boards of surveys.  Most of these items were perishable and subject to rot and loss due to evaporation and dehydration (known in Old army parlance as “shrinkage”).   Boards convened to examine something as little as little as 13 pounds of ham (Fort D.A. Russell).  More commonly, boards determined whether these articles were fit for issue or sale.  The following is an example from Fort Fetterman:

Closing Remarks

From food to furnishings, boards of survey provide a wealth of information pertaining to the life of an Old Army soldier.  The information provided in this post is only a small representation of the data contained in boards of survey documents.  Feel free to contact us at admin@oldarmyrecords.com for more information on this subject.


Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)

Reports of Boards of Survey, Department of the Platte (1866-1876)