Authority in a Citizen Army

Where does authority come from? In a regular army, authority is bestowed upon officers and non-commissioned officers by their rank. The rank is conferred by appointment. There are usually clear rules and laws governing appointment and promotion. Disregarding or undermining the authority of officers, for example by insubordination, is punished severely.

However, the Union Army was, for the most part, not a regular army – it was a volunteer army. And volunteers had ideas about authority that, in many cases, were incompatible with army regulations.

Lt. Col. Nathan Goff

Take, for example, the officers of the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry. In February 1863, their well-regarded Colonel Nelson Viall resigned because of an ongoing conflict with the state’s governor. Viall had been the regiment’s lieutenant colonel and became colonel when the former colonel, Frank Wheaton, was promoted to Brigadier General. Now everyone expected the current lieutenant colonel, Nathan Goff, Jr., to be promoted to the vacant position. To the officers’ suprise, a men from outside the regiment arrived to take command: Col. Horatio Rogers, former commander of the 11th Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry.

The officers were angry and told Rogers that they were “opposed to having him come to us as Colonel”. [1] This could be construed as a clear case of insubordination – the officers did not accept the authority of Rogers, who had been promoted by the Governor of Rhode Island, as was his prerogative in his state’s volunteer regiment.

Col. Horatio Rogers

What did Rogers do? It may be surprising to learn that he did not invoke his authority as bestowed upon him by his rank and his lawful appointment. On the contrary: he called all the officers into his tent and told them that, if they did not want him, he would send Lt. Col. Goff back to the governor with a request that he be made colonel and that Rogers would return to his old regiment. Every officer of the 2nd Rhode Island signed the request.

Was this weak leadership? Did Rogers undermine his own authority by bowing to the whims of his subordinates and allowing each and every officer of the regiment to state in writing that he was not liked here?

Interestingly, the opposite was the case. The officers immediately seemed to have changed their opinion of Rogers:

Colonel Rogers is a splendid fellow, and we like him already. If Goff cannot be our Colonel I had rather have Rogers than any other outside man I know. His generous conduct towards Lt. Col. Goff has made him many friends among the officers already. Instead of making a great show of authority, he was very mild in his manners and it has had a good effect.


It is tempting to see Rogers’ “surprise” over the unpopularity of his promotion as play-acting and his request to the governor as a trick – as the regiment’s quarrel with the governor was well known, it is not unlikely that Rogers was informed about the situation before he joined the 2nd Rhode Island. Perhaps he also knew or suspected that the governor would not grant his request to promote Goff. Because this is what happened: The Governor declined the wish of the officers and Rogers stayed in command of the regiment. But the men now accepted him, especially after he showed conspicious bravery at the Battle of Salem Church two months later.

However, the important thing is why exactely this strategy worked so well for him. And the reason is that Rogers’ actions directly referred to the tradition of officer elections.

For the political ideology of the American citizen-soldier, electing military officers was a key concept. [3] As citizen-soldiers served temporarily and voluntarily, they wanted to base their submissison to authority on a democratic procedure. Elections, so the thinking went, would provide a mutual contract between officers and subordinates: it would keep tyrannical inclinations among the superiors in check while, at the same time, make sure the soldiers followed the officers as they themselves had voluntarily put them into their position of authority.

At the beginning of the war, most of the companies and regiments elected their officers. Soon drawbacks of this system became appearant: Often, not the most competent, but the most popular men were elected, and officers were reluctant to order their men to do unpleasant tasks so as not to lose their consent. From 1862 on, there was what Andrew Bledsoe has called an increasing “regularization” of the citizen army and its methods as well as its culture were brought closer into line with the regular army. However, the ideology of the citizen-soldier never completely vanished. Promotion by election became rarer, but some regiments kept the procedure until the end of the war.

Men from the 2nd RI Infantry

While the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry did not hold a proper election in February 1863, it is clear that Col. Rogers signaled his intent to bow to the will of his subordinates as if the army was a democratic institution. No matter that this did not change the situation – it seems that the important thing was the show of intent. This, in the eyes of his subordinates, made him one of them, a citizen that served voluntarily in an army of equals and who denounced all tyrannical pretensions.

Of course, not all officers were as skilled as Col. Rogers in navigating the complicated social and cultural challenges of leading politically astute citizens to war. Civil War officers North and South used a variety of methods to assert authority, among them coercion, conspicious courage, a show of competence and personal bonds to their men. At the same time, subordinates used different ways to resist their superiors’ authority, such as arguments and complaints, petitions to army headquarters or civic authorities, refusal to work, violence and resignation (in the case of officers) or desertion (in the case of common soldiers). [4] In the citizen armies of the American Civil War, authority was always contested.

[1] Rhodes, Robert Hunt (ed.): All for the Union. The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. New York: Random House 1992, p. 91.

[2] Rhodes: All for the Union, p. 92.

[3] Bledsoe, Andrew S.: Citizen-Officers. The Union and Confederate Volunteer Junior Officer Corps in the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 2015, p. 13.

[4] For the Union army, the variety of struggles about authority has been masterfully analysed by Foote, Lorien: The Gentlemen and the Roughs. Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army. New York: New York University Press 2010.

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