In my previous post, I examined the curious case of Captain Frederick Hackett, an officer in the feud-ridden 3rd Delaware. As a refresher, by virtue of his seniority, Hackett was entitled to promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel; however, a cluster of scheming officers denied him. They wanted to place another officer in that position and they accomplished it by lying to the governor and then retracting their lies at the last minute. Hackett never got the lieutenant-colonelcy, although the governor generously elevated him to the rank of major, the grade immediately below lieutenant colonel. Today, I’m going to examine another feud in the 3rd Delaware, one that erupted between two lieutenants who each wanted the same vacant captaincy.
This dispute arose on the heels of Captain Hackett’s controversy. When Governor William Cannon commissioned him as major, that left the captaincy of Company A vacant. Immediately, two ambitious contenders vied for that position. One of them was Company A’s first lieutenant, 30-year-old Alfred DuPont Vandever. The other was the senior first lieutenant in the regiment, 21-year-old Mahlon Henry Preston. Both candidates had a claim to the position. Vandever argued that because he belonged to Company A and had served with it since the beginning of the war, he should assume the captaincy. He wrote, “I, as first Lieut. of co A, concider that I should be promoted to captaincy of co A.” Meanwhile, Preston argued that he was entitled to the position because he had served as first lieutenant longer than Vandever. Although Preston came from a different company, he believed he was entitled to the first vacant captaincy. He wrote, “I am . . . senior first Lt. & justly should have the position.”
Now, if the two lieutenants had presented their cases to Governor Cannon with just these two sentences, it would have been a simple thing for him to adjudicate. All Cannon had to do was choose a policy. He could promote officers from within or he could promote men based on seniority. It was that simple. However, the two lieutenants complicated the picture. Rather than merely state their cases as a choice between length of service with the company or length of service as a first lieutenant, each went further by arguing that their opponent did not deserve command due to personal malfeasance. Moreover, each accused the other of using political favoritism to acquire Company A’s captaincy. Problematically, both officers came from opposite political parties. Vandever was a Republican, Preston was a Democrat.
When it came to complaining to the governor, Vandever went first. On March 16, 1863, he discovered that Colonel Samuel H. Jenkins had recommended Preston to the captaincy. The decision smacked of bias because Jenkins was a Democrat and it appeared that he wanted to elevate a political friend without consulting Vandever. Later that day, Vandever wrote his letter of complaint. He pointed out that he had been associated with Company A ever since it mustered in, which dated back to the summer of 1861. (In fact, Company A had once been Company M, 2nd Delaware, a curiosity that poked holes in Preston’s theory that he was, in fact, the longest-serving first lieutenant in the regiment.) Vandever argued that he had held de facto command of Company A ever since the 3rd Delaware embarked on its first campaign back in May 1862. Captain Hackett left the company in June to serve as brigade commissary and First Lieutenant William R. Aldred left the company to serve as regimental adjutant. Vandever contended, “I was really in charge of comp[any A] as first Lieut. and through the exertions of myself and Sergt. [William H.] Lancashire our comp[any] was rendered efficient.” Vandever served as commander of Company A until August 9, 1862, when he was sent home with the body of Adjutant Aldred, who died of disease in Front Royal. While returning to his company later that month, Vandever was captured by Confederate forces and held in Libby Prison until paroled in October.
In addition to clarifying his service history, Vandever pointed out that Preston’s recommendation came from the colonel’s a desire to elevate a fellow Democrat. Speaking for his troops, Vandever wrote, “The men of my company don’t want any one over them but their old officers but Colonel Jenkins has friends he would like to put up.” Interestingly, even though he castigated Jenkins for bringing politics into the picture, Vandever used his own political influences to win the promotion. He wrote to the Secretary of State, Nathaniel Smithers (who doubled as Delaware’s adjutant general), listing four important Republican contacts. He wrote, “I can refer you to . . . any influential republican or union [man] of Wilmington as to my character.” Further, Vandever reminded Smithers that he had done important work on behalf of the Republican Party at election time. He wrote, “I helped to give Mr. Cannon his [office] for I worked hard for him as I was at home on parole at the time.” Finally, in what may have been the most impassioned line in his whole plea, Vandever penned a sentence that would have caught off-guard any caustic white supremacist in Delaware (and there were many in Delaware at the time): “All I want is justice and I will fight with the poorest negroe to break down this rebellion.”
Vandever didn’t stop with the governor. As soon as he heard that Preston was trying to take the captaincy from him, he went to his enlisted men and told them about the scheme. In response, twenty-two soldiers from Company A (presumably the Republicans) sent a petition to Governor Cannon, asking him to honor Vandever’s application.
May 6th 1863
To his Excellency ,
We the undersigned members of Co. A, 3rd Regt, Del. Vols. do most respectfully ask the appointment of 1st Lieut. A. D. Vandever as captain of our company, he being the only commissioned officer in our company who started with us, and has stuck by us through weal and woe, we enlisted under him, and we earnestly solicit that you appoint him to fill the vacancy now existing.
As happened with other controversies in the 3rd Delaware, the rival for the position, Lieutenant Preston, learned about Vandever’s letter to the governor through camp gossip. Preston tried to head-off Vandever’s scheme, but he had to hurry. For much of this time, Preston had been absent from the regiment. In late-September 1862, he had gone home to Delaware to recuperate from a wound received at Antietam. Preston returned to duty on May 9, 1863, reaching the regimental encampment at Frederick, Maryland. There, he learned that his promotion had been hung up by Vandever’s interference. He immediately wrote to Secretary of State Smithers, telling him to ignore Vandever’s aspersions. He wrote:
I was somewhat surprised to hear that Lieut. A. Vandever of Co. A had written to either you or the Governor derogatory to my efficiency of ability to have command of Co. A. I also understand he has endeavored to ruin my character and good standing. Allow me to state that Lt. V. and myself have never been intimate, moreover there has always existed a personal enmity between us, and he not wishing to have one promoted over him, he rather wanting the position for himself, has taken this method of injuring me.
Preston went on to state that he deserved a chance to command. He pointed out that although he was a Democrat, he was not politically connected like Vandever. Further, if Vandever took the captaincy, that promotion would commit a great injustice upon the regiment, proving that seniority and merit would not count within the ranks of the army. Preston went on to say, “If I am not competent or my efficiency, actions, or misconduct makes me unworthy [of] the position, I will not complain, but [will] humbly submit to what would be right. . . . I think I have always conducted myself with propriety, which I think has deserved me respect of my brother officers. . . . I have no friends at home to intercede for me so I must submit to all wrongs imposed however unjust. First prove my unworthyness, then I will not complain.”
By now, you may be wondering how Cannon solved this riddle. It’s a tricky one, right? Both officers made valid points, yet both also made wild accusations against the other. Undoubtedly, the correspondence had to have annoyed him. No sooner had Cannon fixed the problem stemming from Captain Hackett’s promotion to major when the position that Hackett vacated also became a bone of contention.
So what did Governor Cannon do? In the end, he acted as so many politicians have done before or since. He did nothing. Cannon elevated neither of the two officers. Vandever remained first lieutenant for the rest of his career. He held command of Company A, which was what he wanted, but he never got those additional bars on his shoulders. No doubt, this greatly disappointed him. Meanwhile, Preston remained first lieutenant in Company I. He never held company command because his company contained a captain who did not vacate the position until the summer of 1864.
Neither officer finished out the war with the 3rd Delaware. Vandever mustered out before its conclusion. Afterward, he lived a full, public life, becoming New Castle County’s coroner. He died in 1916 at age 83. Preston’s life was much shorter. In 1864, he was captured by Confederate forces and sent to Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland. In August, he donned civilian clothes and broke out of the camp. Union authorities caught him, arrested him, and charged him with being absent without leave, and with that, he was summarily dismissed. He died in 1867 at age 25.
My initial reaction to this whole incident was to blame Cannon for doing nothing and angering two competent officers. However, on reflection, his decision to deny both officers the promotion they claimed might have formed something of an object lesson. To get the captaincy of Company A, both Vandever and Preston appealed to the lowest common denominator—running down their opponent. That Cannon selected neither says plenty about his ability to judge their character.
This is Delaware's Civil War governor, William Cannon, the man tasked with promoting every junior officer assigned to a Delaware regiment. At some point, or so I suppose, he must have uttered, "What the hell is wrong with the 3rd Delaware?"