Thursday, May 17, 2012

Insubordination in the Civil War

U. S. Grant
In my studies of the Civil War, I am constantly amazed at the level of insubordination demonstrated by officers of various ranks in the opposing armies.   Insubordination is refusal by a subordinate to obey lawful orders from a superior commissioned or non-commissioned officer.  This also applies to orders issued by the President who is considered the Commander-in-Chief.   Insubordination is different from contempt. While insubordination deals predominately with not following the orders of a superior, contempt in the U.S. military involves the use of contemptuous words against certain appointed or elected officials. 

Albert Pike
Most of the headlines go to generals charged with insubordination.  This may be due to the greater visibility and consequences associated with their actions.  These infractions carry a variety of punishments from a reprimand to a courts martial. 

Andrew Gardner offered this comment from Joseph Glatthaar's book General Lee's Army.   In discussing insubordination in the Army of Northern Virginia, the author attributes some of this to the background of many southern aristocrats who lived in a society where they were not accustomed to being ordered or told what or how to do things. He posited that it was simply not ingrained in their culture at that time and that aristocratic men were more accustomed to having things suggested or recommended but not ordered to them. According to the author, the more industrial northern states and the more trade skill oriented individuals were less apt to take offense to receiving orders and direction from superiors. 

Joshua Chamberlain

George Davis shared ideas that came from Thomas Lowry's book Tarnished Eagles.  George comments that: "[T]here was a certain level of ego involved in the Federal officer corps, but it turned out that those most frequently prosecuted for violations were attorneys in their previous careers. Attorneys and politicians often made poor soldiers/leaders. It turned out that some of the best new leaders that emerged from the officer corps used to be TEACHERS."  The most obvious example is Joshua Chamberlain Another example is Grierson who, although he was kicked in the head by a horse and mistrusted horse, enjoyed future success as a cavalry officer and commander of the 10th US cavalry better known as the "Buffalo Soldiers."

John Fremont
George also mentions that there were certain officers who created the conditions that led to insubordination.  At his headquarters in St. Louis, General Fremont was "protected" by "Fremont's Hussars," a group composed of Hungarian and Italian emigre officers. An American-born captain was prevented from seeing Fremont by a Major Zagonyi, and the captain remarked of Zagonyi that he was a "Hungarian humbug". The captain was prosecuted for insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman, but the charge was later dismissed.



Insubordination should not be confused with contempt as so prominently displayed by George McClellan in regard to the Commander-in-Chief, Abraham Lincoln.  Arrogant, insolent, and slow footed, yes; but insubordinate?

Insubordination seems to be caused by a variety of circumstances:

  • Failure to grasp the larger strategic concept - J.E.B. Stuart before Gettysburg.  Lee's reprimand is as deadly as a courts martial.
  • Failure to understand the role of the unit relative to others on the battlefield - Dan Sickles advance into the wheat field at Gettysburg.
  • Physical and/or mental incapacity - the inability to obey orders due to a wound, drunkenness, or cowardice - Brigadier General James H. Ledlie 1st Division was forced into action at the Battle of the Crater.  Ledlie failed to provide proper orders to his men, personally see to their preparation, and was drunk during the battle.  
  • Refusal to obey an order because the order while lawful is stupid - results in an action that will cause the army to lose the battle, inflict casualties that will destroy his command, and/or is not consistent with the overall campaign strategy.
  • Personality conflicts - refusal to follow a superior's commands because of dislike, envy or other petty dispute  
  • Unclear command structure - confusion leads to inadvertent insubordination when junior officer has to choose which superior to obey. 
  • Arrogance - Some people just like to argue, like lawyers and politicians and this could lead to charges being brought by a superior officer who became frustrated with the bickering.
  • Political support - officers who won the position by virtue of pre-war elected positions (governors, senators, etc.), political friends (President, cabinet officers, congressmen), and/or wealth.  These officers know that they have a friend in high places and  
  • Communication problems - Grant and Henry Halleck after Fort Donelson.  Halleck removed Grant from command of the expedition up the Tennessee River to Corinth because Grant was not answering his telegrams and had gone to meet Buell in Nashville without permission. 
  • Escaping from arrest and trial - General Albert Pike deserted rather than face charges of mishandling money and material and charges that Indians under his command scalped soldiers during the battle of Pea Ridge. 
  • Disagreement with Superior on Campaign Strategy - Beford Forrest made death threats against Braxton Bragg because the latter refused to try to recapture Chattanooga after the battle of Chickamauga.  Bragg reassigned Forrest to  an independent command in Mississippi. 
  • Loss of Temper - Frustration and bureaucracy boil over as in the case with Fremont cited above. 
As you can see, I don't have examples for all the circumstances I listed.  Please feel free to suggest some cases to illustrate the points.  Thanks to George and Andrew for their contributions to this post.

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