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

1863: “The Boys Were Lying In Line Of Battle”

Sept. 20th [1863]

Before daylight, the division moved to take position in line of battle. After we had stopped for the night, the field band had been sent to the rear with the horses of the field and staff, and were not back in time, so the Col., etc., had to “foot it.” The Col. left me at the fire to tell the musicians where to bring the horses. Daylight came and a heavy frost was on the ground. I waited until long after sunup, yet the drummers did not come, so I shouldered a long bundle of blankets intended to be put on the horses, and started for the regiment.

I had to pass over the ground where Cleburn had fought the evening before. The dead of both sides were lying thick over the ground. I saw where six Federal soldiers had been killed from behind one small tress, and where eight horses were lying dead, harnessed to a Napoleon gun. Men and horses were lying so thick over the field, one could hardly walk for them. I even saw a large black dog lying mangled by a grape [shot]. In the rear of our brigade, I found our ambulance, and put the blankets in it, then went on to the regiment. Continue reading

1863: “Bullets Plowed Little Furrows”

The comfort of warming chilled fingers and toes and drinking a grateful cup of hot coffee outweighed for the moment any consideration of danger…. As all was so quiet, not a shot having been fired, I…walked out until the enemy’s breastworks were in view and there, sure enough,…a succession of long lines of Gray were swarming over the Confederate breastworks and sweeping towards us but not yet within gun shot range.  Continue reading