In the two previous posts, I examined controversies concerning promotions in the 3rd Delaware, a regiment that had a tough time getting its junior officers to play nicely. In this post, I’m going to profile one more controversy, one that got the whole regiment stirred up.
In the spring of 1864, the 3rd Delaware was encamped a Relay House, Maryland, an important stopping point along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. According to the regimental commander, all feuds between the Republicans and Democrats had finally ceased. On April 4, 1864, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Dorrell wrote to Governor Cannon asking for help to fill the regiment’s ranks. Knowing that his regiment had acquired a reputation for bickering, Dorrell tried to assuage any fears Cannon might still have. He wrote, “All strife existing between the officers heretofore I am happy to say has been entirely ceased—they seeming anxious to rebuild the regiment.”
Before the 3rd Delaware could get any new recruits, the War Department redeployed it. In late-May, in response to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s request for more men, the 3rd Delaware rejoined the Army of the Potomac, becoming part of Colonel William Hofmman’s Brigade (2nd Brigade, 4th Division, 5th Corps). The 3rd Delaware fought its second major battle at Cold Harbor and then its third major battle two weeks later at Petersburg.
The fight at Petersburg was devastating. That day, June 18, the entirety of the 5th Corps participated in a disastrous frontal attack against Confederate lines. At 3:00 P.M., Colonel Hofmann’s brigade of seven regiments assaulted Confederate trenches near Rives’s Salient, losing heavily and yet failing to break the enemy position. the 3rd Delaware took about 170 officers and men into the fight. It lost eight killed and forty-eight wounded. Importantly, the 3rd Delaware lost its popular commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dorrell, who was mortally wounded leading his regiment across Poor Creek. He was so badly hit that he died before his soldiers could remove him from the field.
The death of Lieutenant Colonel Dorrell unhinged the stability of the regiment. Once more, factions arose among the junior officers and it fell to Governor Cannon to promote from the captains and lieutenants who had survived the battle to fill out a new field and staff. The most logical decision was to elevate the senior captain to the position of colonel. As of June 19, that man was Captain William J. McKaig of Company F, one of the few captains who had been at his position since 1861. However, a set of officers wanted Captain James E. Stewart of Company I to become commander of the regiment. Stewart was the second-most-senior captain, but he had acquired a reputation for scheming, having been central in concocting the lies against Captain Hackett in 1863. In reality, however, most of the officers wanted Captain James Baily of Company E to assume command. Baily was the most respected officer, but not the most senior, having joined the regiment as a sergeant.
As always happened with the 3rd Delaware, the officers began to gossip even before Governor Cannon rendered his decision. Most of the gossip revolved around the regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant Manuel Eyre, Jr., who had begun the war as a private. Shortly after the Battle of Rives’s Salient, Eyre acquired a leave of absence to return Dorrell’s body to Delaware. Eyre’s well-known support of Captain Stewart led some of from McKaig’s faction (there were about eight of them) to worry that while Eyre was visiting home, he would use his leave as an opportunity to get Stewart promoted to colonel over McKaig. On June 21, the regimental quartermaster, Lieutenant Edmund Townsend, wrote to Governor Cannon, warning him against the scheme.
I understand that Lt. Eyre has gon home with the boddy of Lt. Col. Dorrell it is rumored that he is to try to get Capt. J. E. Stewart promoted over McKaig which would be very rong for two reasons. First, Capt. McKaig is the senior officer in the Reg’t., a man of good morrell caracter and a brave and good soldier, and on the other hand Capt. Stewart is a man giving to drink at times and first in them intrigues which caused the Reg’t. a great deal of trouble. I could give you a histry but it is not worth while for you know already.
Making sure that Governor Cannon got the point, that Eyre was not to be trusted, Townsend added, “Lt. Eyre is a man of the worst Morrell caracter in our Regt. . . . I do not care about exposing him in any particular thing but he is known all through our Regt to be a thief, gambler, and lier.”
As so often happened with these controversies, Lieutenant Eyre told a different story. He argued that McKaig was an abysmal officer, utterly incapable of executing the simplest maneuvers. He wrote to Governor Cannon too, saying, “We have had many things to contend against. Our regiment has worked up hill nearly all the time because we have had mostly incompetent field officers, and now when we are acquiring a name must we be sent back again to become the laughing stock of all because we have an officer at our head [McKaig] who positively cannot break the regiment into column by Division? I hope and pray we may be aided by you to keep a good name, for we are now acquiring a name.”
Eyre recommended that the Governor adopt a new policy when it came to promoting officers. He advised Cannon to avoid seniority. Eyre believed it would be better if the regiment could be commanded by the most competent men, not those most senior. He implored Cannon to gather up “all the officers of this regiment” for examination, “and the most competent officer recommended as Colonel, without regard to Seniority.” Meanwhile, those who passed their examination could retain their positions and those found incompetent would be discharged. This would, Eyre argued, “secure to our little state a regiment commanded by those who knew their duty, it would make a battalion which would become an honor to itself and to the State from which it came.”
On cue, Eyre pointed out that he had already been passed by the Silas Casey Board in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Army board that recommended officers to command in the U.S.C.T. Eyre was third on the list of officers soon to be promoted to command a U.S.C. infantry regiment—as soon as vacancy opened up—and he contended, “I have not, therefore, long to remain with this regiment, but I am interested in it and as its Adjutant hope to use every exertion to render it what from the material of its enlisted men, it deserves to be.” But Eyre not-so-subtly pointed out, that if Cannon saw fit to promote him to field command of the 3rd Delaware, it would make perfect sense. Eyre wrote, “I may say, without egotism, that at present, I virtually am in command—on the day of our awful charge on the 18th ultimo, I was really so and no one disputed my assuming the reigns, until all danger was past.”
The situation with the 3rd Delaware did not get any easier as the summer progressed. The two leading contenders for command left the front lines at Petersburg. On June 26, Captain Stewart was wounded and sent to a hospital in Washington. Then, one month later, Captain McKaig was discharged. Believing that he could now promote the most senior officer and the most popular officer in one move, Cannon offered a lieutenant-colonelcy to Captain James E. Baily. Unfortunately for Cannon, Baily unexpectedly turned it down, saying that he did not feel right about taking the lieutenant-colonelcy away from Stewart while he was recovering from his battlefield injury. However, Baily promised to accept a position as the 3rd Delaware’s major.
Cannon believed it unwise to keep the lieutenant-colonelcy vacant for too long, especially when Eyre was barking at his door. With no one else except Eyre asking for the lieutenant-colonelcy, Cannon directed Acting Adjutant General Nathaniel B. Smithers to promote Eyre to that rank. In one fell swoop, the young lieutenant bounced ahead of all the captains and ahead of Major Baily, becoming commander of the regiment. As the officers had done several times before, when they learned the news, they protested. Thirteen of them signed a petition asking Cannon to revoke Eyre’s lieutenant-colonelcy.
We the undersigned commissioned officers of the 3rd Regt. Del. Vols. do most earnestly pray that you will revoke the commission as Lieut. Col. of 1st Lieut. & Adjt. Manuel Eyre, Jr. We believe that your Excellency has labored under some misapprehension in giving this commission. Soldiers cannot be expected to suffer so gross an act of injustice as to allow one so much our junior to be promoted over us. It would be considered by all military men, as conclusive evidence of our utter incapability to command, which we are not prepared to acknowledge. Captain James E. Baily whom we have recommended, and is now commissioned as Major, has repeatedly been asked by some of us to accept the position of Lieut. Col. and has uniformly refused in favor of Captain James E. Stewart, his comrade in arms and senior officer now lying a wounded man in Washington. This we consider highly honorable in Captain Baily, and in strong contrast with the action of 1st Lieut. Eyre whom we consider to have obtained his commission by chicanery and forced himself upon us in utter disregard of the honor to be observed between soldiers. We consider Captain Baily to be capable of filling the office of Major and commanding the Regiment as such.
With all of his fellow officers united against him, Adjutant Eyre backed down. Two weeks after they registered their complaint against him, he wrote to the governor: “Since receiving from you [a]commission as Lieut. Colonel of this regiment, I have learned that a majority of the officers present have sent to you a petition opposing my muster, there being so many senior to me.” Undoubtedly, Eyre was disappointed. His promotion into the U.S.C.T. never came through, and all he could do was remain as adjutant of a regiment that castigated him for being too ambitious. Unsurprisingly, Eyre hoped to use the situation to act out vengeance against those who stood against him. He again requested that Governor Cannon institute an examination of the regimental officers. He wrote, “No one who is competent can dread this and those who are not will be sifted out.”
Eyre’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration ended the matter. The 3rd Delaware never had another colonel or lieutenant colonel to command it. Major Baily directed the regiment for the rest of the war. On February 5, 1865, Eyre was wounded at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run. He recovered, and after the war, he made a career in the army, rising to the rank of brevet colonel of the 14th U.S. Infantry.
About here is where I usually insert my personal opinion about this story. Was Eyre deserving of the 3rd Delaware’s lieutenant-colonelcy? Perhaps he was. Clearly, the War Department saw fit to elevate him to that rank after the war. But in another sense, the officers of the 3rd Delaware were correct in their criticism of him. Eyre was not worthy because he was not senior. Further, they said, he attempted to achieve his rank through “chicanery.” I wonder, though, if it could have been any other way. Throughout the war, the officers in the 3rd Delaware acquired their rank through mischief, deceit, and trickery. Perhaps it made sense to castigate Eyre for what he did, but he only followed the example set by many other ambitious officers who had gone ahead of him.
The 3rd Delaware was a troubled regiment.