“… serious defects in our military system.”: Hindman reflects after a lost campaign

With nightfall at Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862, fighting ebbed and eventually ceased. Major General Thomas Hindman faced a dire situation. Low on supplies and lacking substantial reinforcements to continue battle, he could not hold the position fought over during that day’s battle. Taking stock of the situation, Hindman opted to retire back into the Boston Mountains towards his base of supply. This withdrawal was a strategic setback for the Confederacy, relinquishing a substantial portion of Arkansas to the Federals and a launching point for operations into Missouri.

As expected for a commander in the wake of such defeat, Hindman sought out reasons he was marching south instead of north. In his lengthy post-battle report, he wrote:

After a battle the mind naturally passes in review all the circumstances connected with it. I hope the expression here of such reflections as now present themselves to me will not be deemed improper. Undoubtedly there are serious defects in our military system. Chief among these is the rule of electing to the lowest commissioned office and promoting to those above in companies and regiments. It combines mobocracy and primogeniture in such proportions that it seems almost a miracle that anything of discipline or efficiency survives. As a substitute, I would propose this, that whenever a vacancy does occur in a company or regiment, an examining board of three capable officers be appointed by the division or corps commanders; that, without regard to rank or restriction to the command, all persons desiring the vacant place be invited to appear before the board within a given time to be examined as to character and qualification, and that the board recommend and the division or corps commander immediately assign to duty the one found best qualified and most meritorious, conditioned that he shall not draw pay till the assignment be approved by the War Department.

Hindman stopped short of direct criticism of the company grade officer. But clearly he found some fault and had it at the fore of his mind when writing these words in the days before Christmas.

The proposal was not, at least from 150 years perspective, very radical. Indeed it is not far removed from the system used by the U.S. Army and several foreign armies at other times. The practical problem with Hindman’s proposal is that it would likely lead to a semi-permanent board to review a steady stream of candidates for an army’s worth of vacancies.

But Hindman continued to suggest more changes with respect to management of junior officers:

As auxiliary to this, division or corps commanders should be authorized to order before a similar board any regimental or company officer deemed incapable, neglectful, or otherwise unfit, and, on the report of the board against him, to suspend him from duty and cause the place to be immediately filled, as in the case of any other vacancy, and on the approval of the proceedings by the War Department. The delinquent officer should invariably be put in the ranks as a private soldier. I would apply these provisions to all the staff officers of corps, divisions, brigades, and regiments, with the further regulation that persons assigned to staff duty, where bond is required by law, may execute the same before the commander of the division or corps. Great delays and detriment to the service result from the existing arrangements as to that matter.

Hindman felt the need to purge not only failing junior leadership, but also staff officers. Put a musket in their hands and have them fill a spot in the line.  I’d submit the issue ran deeper than Hindman expressed in his report – into the noncommissioned officer ranks – but either he was less concerned with that health metric or just didn’t “get down to the troops” enough to sense it.

The deficiencies Hindman alluded to, without naming names or providing specifics, were a function of a rapidly built army using both volunteers and conscripts.  Certainly we might discuss the American military experience in the World Wars, Korea, or Vietnam and see some of the same issues.  Nor, back to the Civil War context, was the Federal army immune to the issue of junior leadership.  And on the reverse side of the coin, in more recent American wars fought mainly with smaller, all-volunteer ranks, the problem is not so much weeding out the poor performers but rather retaining the talent.

Yet, I do wonder if the Confederate army had more “surface area” with respect to the selection of company-level and staff officers.  In a society which enforced patronage and fealty within a hierarchy system, the selection of leaders could be somewhat predictable.  I might be generalizing in that regard.  But it would make for an interesting study.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 22, Part I, Serial 32, pages 144-5.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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