Military Unpreparedness and Policy of the U.S. During the War of the Rebellion

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Chapter IX Pages: 94-100

The outbreak in Baltimore on April 19th, in conjunction with the proximity of the enemy's troops, virtually isolated Washington and its capture appeared imminent. In the face of such a calamity, which threatened the overthrow of the Government, the President promptly assumed and exercised the war powers which under the Constitution belong to Congress alone.

On May 3rd he decreed by proclamation that the Regular Army be increased by 22,714 officers and men, the Navy by 18,000 sailors, and additionally called for 42,034 volunteers to serve for three years. (18) No usurpation could have been more absolute, but it was fully justified by the circumstances and, when Congress convened on July 4th for the extra session called by the President, so universal was the approval and gratitude of the people that Mr. Lincoln's course was completely sanctioned. (19)

Meanwhile the Secretary of War was so overwhelmed with the work of equipping the 50,000 volunteers called out on May 3rd that their organization and that of the regulars was "tossed over" to the Secretary of the Treasury. Fortunately, three experienced officers (20) were detailed to assist him, but the final decision rested with Mr. Chase alone, who eventually agreed to the three-battalion system (21) for the regulars but rejected it for the volunteers because of their unfamiliarity with it__thus adhering to an organization which had descended from the days of the Revolution. This scheme was embodied in the General Orders (22) issued by
the War Department on May 4th, was adopted by Congress and formed the basis upon which all the national forces were organized. (23)

"Novel as were the duties imposed upon the Secretary of the Treasury, he and his assistants deserved the gratitude of the nation. By simply fixing the term of enlistment at three years, thus giving the volunteers time to become veterans, they insured us against a series of disasters such as under the system of 1812, or that adopted for the volunteers at the beginning of the Mexican war, (24) must inevitably have terminated in the dissolution of the Union." (25)

Congress lost no time in getting down to business and, by the Act of July 22nd, authorized the President to accept 500,000 volunteers for service " not exceeding three years nor less than six months," to organize them into regiments, brigades and divisions, their pay and allowances to be similar to that of the Regular Army. (26) Again was committed one of the many legislative
blunders whose effect might readily have been as far-reaching as a similar mistake in 1846, (27) and in at least two other respects this law was most defective. (28)

The Act of July 25th permitted the President to call out an additional half a million men but wisely required their enlistment to continue "during the war." (29)

The next law, that of July 29th, provided an increase of the Regular Army, (30) on condition that within one year after the termination of "the existing insurrection and rebellion" it might be reduced to 25,000. (31) The enlistments made during 1861 and 1862 were limited to three years, those after January 1, 1863, to be for five years. (32) The last section voiced the desire of Congress that professional officers should be employed with the volunteer regiments "for the purpose of imparting to them military instruction and efficiency" (33)__a very wise provision which most unfortunately was completely nullified by the previous mistake
of giving the governors the right to appoint the volunteer officers without permitting the President to designate at least one field officer in every regiment. (34)

Another act approved the same day, looking to the enforcement of law and the suppression of rebellion, authorized the employment of militia with the wise provision that it was to continue in service until discharged, on condition that such term was not prolonged more than sixty days after the beginning of the next regular session of Congress.

The Acts of August 3rd and 5th related principally to the staff, although the appointment of an Assistant Secretary of War was provided for, (35) certain increases authorized, the dragoons and mounted rifles merged into the cavalry, (36) and a retiring board to deal with officers "incapacitated for service" prescribed. (37)

On August 6th four acts were approved. Two of these were concerned with the increase of the Engineer and Topographical Engineer Corps, and heed was paid to the popular clamor against the vicious system of permitting the election of volunteer officers (38) by an amendment providing that such vacancies should be filled by the governors of the States, as in the case of original
appointments. (39) The evil was thus rectified, but not until after 250,000 men had been accepted under this demoralizing scheme. The third act increased the pay of the privates in the Regular Army and volunteers from twelve to thirteen dollars a month and, what was most important sanctioned all of the actions of President Lincoln. (40)

At the end of the year a bill was introduced in the Senate "to abolish all distinction between the regular and volunteer forces of the United States," but the Committee on Military Affairs very properly killed it then and there. (41)

In four weeks and a half Congress had assuredly worked like a Trojan and deserved credit accordingly. In that short space of time it had enacted a military system under which one of the greatest wars of modern times was to be prosecuted, its haste being in marked contrast to the laborious slowness of the Prussians who, after the annihilation of their army by Napoleon at Jena, October 14, 1806, took years to build up the fabric of a system under which they humiliated Austria in a few weeks in 1866, crushed France in 1870 and are fighting today. "By their fruits ye shall know them," and we shall have occasion to see the consequences of the
delusion of Congress that, once it had passed a series of laws be they good, bad or indifferent creating a military system however defective, almost over-night, its duty had been discharged and that all future mistakes were none of its concern. (42) We shall see how its virtual rejection of trained troops upon which all other nations depend, and the reliance which it placed in untrained volunteers, (43) most of whose officers were necessarily devoid of military experience, was destined to prolong for four years a struggle which witnessed the repetition of almost every blunder of our past wars and which caused bloodshed and expenditures nothing short of appalling.

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Website: The History
Article Name: Military Unpreparedness and Policy of the U.S. During the War of the Rebellion
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my collection of Books: The Military Unpreparedness of the United States- A History of American Land Forces from Colonial Times until June 1, 1915. By Frederic Louis Huidekoper; Publisher: The Macmillan Company-New York 1916
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