1863: “If Your Commanding Officer Orders You”

October 10, 1863

He began by paying a warm tribute to their gallantry, displayed on the bloody field of Chickamauga, defeating the largely superior force of the enemy, who had boasted of their ability to penetrate to the heart of Georgia, and driving them back, like sheep, into a pen, and protected by strong entrenchments, from which naught but an indisposition to sacrifice, unnecessarily, the precious lives of our brave and patriotic soldiers, prevented us from driving them. But, he said, they had given still higher evidence of courage, patriotism, and resolute determination to live freemen, or die freemen, by their patient endurance and buoyant, cheerful spirits, amid privations and suffering from half-rations, thin blankets, ragged closes, and shoeless feet, than given by baring their breasts to the enemy.

He reminded them that obedience was the first duty of a soldier, marking that when he was a youth a veteran officer said to him: “My son, remember that obedience is the soldier’s first duty. If your commanding officer orders you to burn your neighbor’s house down, and to sit on the ridge-pole till it falls in, do it.” The President said, this is an exaggerated statement of the duty, but prompt, unquestioning obedience of subordinates to their superiors could not be too highly commended. If the subordinate stops to consider the propriety of an order, the delay may derange the superior’s whole plan, and the opportune moment for achieving a success or adverting a defeat may be irretrievably lost.

He alluded to the boast of our enemy that, on the occupation of East Tennessee, they would heavily recruit their army and subjugate us with the aid of our own people, but the boast had not been fulfilled. He said the proper course to pursue towards the misguided people of East Tennessee was, not to deride and abuse them, but to employ reason and conciliation to disabuse them of their error; that all of us had once loved and revered the old flag of the Union; that he had fought under its folds, and, for fifteen years, had striven to maintain the Constitution of our fathers in its purity, but in vain. It could not be saved from the grasping ambition for power and greed of gain of the Yankees, and he had to relinquish it. The  error of the misguided among us was, that they clung longer than we to what was once a common sentiment and feeling us all, and, he repeated, they must be reasoned with and conciliated.

In closing, he expressed his deep conviction of our eventual success under the blessing of Providence, and expected the army of Tennessee, when they had should resume active operations, not to pause on the banks of the Cumberland, but to plant our banners permanently on the banks of the Ohio. – This, he believed, would be done. As the humble representative of the people he returned their grateful thanks to the army of Tennessee for what they had already accomplished, and fervently invoked the blessing of Almighty God upon all our officers and men comprising it.

Newspaper account, originally published on October 14, 1863 in Confederate in Marietta, Georgia.

General Braxton Bragg

A Command Problem

After the Battle of Chickamauga, the Confederate Army of Tennessee experienced dissension and leadership problems. The army’s commander – Braxton Bragg – wanted to replaced Generals Leonidas Polk and D.H. Hill, two of his corps commanders since he believed they had not led well in the recent battle. Meanwhile, Bragg’s subordinates – irritated that he did not pursue the defeated Union army and capture Chattanooga – wanted him removed from command; in fact, twelve of them wrote to President Jefferson Davis petitioning for Bragg’s removal.

This prompted Davis himself to travel west, arriving at Bragg’s headquarters on October 9, 1863, to attempt a resolution. The corps commanders confronted the president directly, asking for Bragg’s removal.

The following day Davis made a speech to the assembled officers and about one hundred soldiers. A newspaper correspondent recorded a summary of that address for publication.

By the time Davis left on October 14, he had decided to keep Bragg in command of the Army of Tennessee, but agreed to transfer Polk and Hill. Everyone else was apparently supposed to regain their trust in Bragg and continue their cheerful devotion to duty whether they liked the commander…or not.

Jefferson Davis

Duty of a Soldier – In Context

Davis’s anecdotal story seems odd and even morally flawed. Yes, soldiers and subordinate officers should obey commands, but should they obey blindly? It’s a dilemma that has haunted military history for centuries, long before and certainly after the Civil War.

Davis and the Confederacy had more than a handful of problems by 1863. Command dissension in the Army of Tennessee and Army of Northern Virginia and rebellious states within the Confederacy who didn’t want to obey directives from the government in Richmond – just to name a couple relative issues.

The account the president chose to preach seems to offer a solution: “Everyone obey and don’t question…or else we’ll have a culprit to blame if we lose this war.” Whether he intended it or not, it comes across as an instruction and a veiled threat.

Historical Musings

Many of Jefferson Davis’s proclamations and speeches from the Confederate era follow similar themes and principles. Here are a few examples and ironies to consider:

  • “Freemen” – meaning white free men who had freedom to keep slaves.
  • Constitution – this is always a major point for Davis and he sticks to an antebellum Southern interpretation of the Constitution with a heavy emphasis on states rights over union.
  • Explanation of the war – usually reflecting a belief that the war was forced upon the South.
  • Hopes for victory – he concluded his address with a belief that the Army of Tennessee would retake that state and drive the Yankees back to the Ohio River.

Ultimately, speeches and interpretive ideals would not save the Confederacy. Nor did it stop the problems in the Army of Tennessee’s command structure.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in 1863: In Their Words, American Civil War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 1863: “If Your Commanding Officer Orders You”

  1. It certainly has historically been an interesting conundrum. An army cannot run without people following orders – and yet some orders seem so obviously flawed (such as the Somme where the British troops were ordered to walk across No Mans Land)

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