The next few posts are going to focus on an Army of the Potomac regiment that seldom gets attention, the oft-ignored 3rd Delaware Volunteer Infantry. The 3rd Delaware began its life in November 1861, when Governor William Burton called up two additional infantry regiments to meet the War Department’s call for 500,000 three-year men. Throughout the winter and spring, recruits from Kent County assembled at Camp Fisher, near Camden. The 3rd Delaware did two stints with the Army of the Potomac. In the autumn of 1862, it joined the 12th Corps just in time for the Battle of Antietam, where it fielded only 120 men and five officers, losing six killed and eleven wounded. After the bloodbath in Maryland, the War Department detached it, putting it on sentry duty at Frederick and later at Relay House. In 1864, it rejoined the Army of the Potomac in the midst of the Overland Campaign and it fought with that army until the end of the war.
I find the 3rd Delaware especially interesting because it was a unit rife with feuds. Like every Union regiment ever created, its officers bickered over politics, a problem caused by the awkward mechanism of army promotion. The governors of the North—deeply partisan men themselves—appointed soldiers to the ranks of lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel. The governors’ appointing power made it certain that accusations of political impropriety arose whenever an unlikable officer received promotion. But even among feuding regiments, the 3rd Delaware stood out, as its officers besieged the state house in Dover with almost daily complaints about the governor’s commissions. More often than not, these complaints derived from blind partisan loyalty, with Democrats complaining about Republicans and Republicans complaining about Democrats. However, the 3rd Delaware’s controversies reached a heightened level, largely because Delaware politics were especially brutal. Although Delaware Republicans called themselves the “Union Party” (the moderate name for their organization), they had a higher percentage of active abolitionists than most states. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party never experienced a fracture between its War Democrats and its Copperheads. Late in the war, it still contained southern sympathizers and closet-secessionists. This unusual pairing sowed the seeds for bitter political squabbles, both in camp and back home.
For our purposes, the 3rd Delaware’s story of promotions and injustice begins in March 1863, when a cluster of calculating junior officers orchestrated a vicious smear campaign aimed at getting one of their own elevated above another junior officer, one who, by seniority, was entitled to the position of lieutenant colonel. Here is how the story goes.
The timing of the event is crucial. Two important incidents occurred simultaneously in the late-winter of 1863. First, Delaware got a new governor, and second, a handful of officers resigned from the 3rd Delaware. The exodus of resignations was led by the first commander of the 3rd Delaware, Colonel William O. Redden—a long-time Whig who joined the Republican Party prior to the war. Delaware’s first wartime governor, Democrat William Burton, appointed him to the position on May 15, 1862, but Redden commanded the regiment for only a few months until he was forced to take a leave of absence on account of physical disability. He missed Antietam—the 3rd Delaware’s only major engagement at that point—and upon his return from leave, was called to stand before a Board of Examination, an internal U.S. Army organization often used by Democratic generals to rid regiments of unpleasant Republican commanders. Rather than stand before the Board and risk having his military acumen called into question, on December 6, Redden chose to resign. Strangely, twenty days later, he changed his mind and asked for reinstatement, but the officers of the Board refused to grant it, saying that his resignation had been designed to escape examination and therefore “you are considered . . . utterly incompetent.”
Redden was not the only officer from the 3rd Delaware to lose his position. The regiment’s original major, Arthur Maginnis, had been wounded at Antietam and mustered out. Maginnis’s replacement, James Marr, also resigned, as did a handful of other officers, all apparently called before a Board of Examination or disgruntled by news of Redden’s controversial dismissal. When all was said and done, the 3rd Delaware needed a new colonel, a new major, and handful of new captains and lieutenants. In 1863, the question of promoting officers fell to the newly elected 54-year-old governor, William Cannon, who had just won his own office amid considerable controversy. Until 1862, Cannon had been a Democrat, but just prior to the November elections, he switched parties. To ensure a Republican victory, the War Department sent additional troops into Delaware during the election week, which led to widespread accusations of undemocratic military intervention. The General Assembly of Delaware even held an investigation, hoping to turn up evidence of fraud and corruption (but that is another story).
Despite the misgivings of Delaware’s Democrats, the state’s Republican soldiers were elated. Early in the war, they had to endure Burton, a politician who had only mild love for the Union and a propensity for rewarding fellow Democrats with commissions. Now, with Cannon at the helm, they had an opportunity to request that Republican officers take charge of their regiments. The hard-luck 3rd Delaware with its newly-vacant officer corps seemed the likely place for those Republicans to rise to the fore.
Cannon had barely taken office when Redden and the other recently resigned officers of the 3rd Delaware warned him that the regiment was full of Democrats. They advised that “that no more promotions be made in the 3rd Regt Del. Vols.,” and, specifically, that Cannon grant no more commissions to applicants from that regiment, especially none recommended by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Howell Jenkins, the twenty-six-year-old hardware merchant who now held command.
Amazingly, the news that the resigned officers had sent a letter to the governor reached the other officers of the 3rd Delaware, then encamped at Frederick, Maryland. On January 24, 1863, only eighteen days after Cannon’s inauguration, seventeen of the 3rd Delaware’s officers sent Governor Cannon a message, warning him not to listen to the false insinuations that came from the regiment’s former officers. “Now sir,” they wrote, “. . . We say nothing of ourselves but of Lt. Col. S. H. Jenkins we can & do say that after at least one years’ service under him as an officer that he is not only a good officer but a gentleman in every sense of the word and we therefore hope you will Commission him Colonel of the Regiment.”
Although Cannon was a Republican (albeit a newly-converted one) and had every reason to deny the claims of the seventeen officers, he nevertheless decided to take their advice. On February 5, 1863, he elevated Jenkins to colonel. Then, he decided to commission the senior captain, Frederick Hackett of Company A (an officer who had endorsed Jenkins in the petition of January 24), to fill the position of lieutenant colonel.
It must have caught Cannon by surprise, but his decision to promote Hackett led to another snide letter of protest from the officers of the 3rd Delaware. Now, a cluster of eight officers (Captain Richard E. Smith, Captain James E. Stewart, Captain William B. Dorrell, Captain Levin B. Day, First Lieutenant Benjamin F. Butler, First Lieutenant Dagworthy D. Joseph, Second Lieutenant Charles H. Muncey, and Second Lieutenant William S. Main) sent Governor Cannon a letter of protest, listing reasons why Hackett was unfit for command. The eight officers complained that Hackett had been tried by general court martial on charges “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” According to the eight officers, Hackett had defrauded an enlisted man belonging to his company out of money the soldier had placed in his charge. Although the eight officers did not know the results of the trial, they thought it “reasonable to suppose that he has been sentenced and that his sentence has been transmitted for the action of the President.”
Next, the officers pointed to an incident that occurred at Front Royal on August 11, 1862, when Hackett was in command of the regimental pickets. On that day, Confederate forces came in sight of Union sentries and fired a volley at them. Unaccountably, so they claimed, Captain Hackett “fled disgracefully from the field causing confusion and disorder among the men for the time being, while he, as their commander, should have remained with them and shared any danger to which they might have come become exposed.” To validate this charge of cowardice, the eight officers listed four witnesses (two lieutenants, a sergeant, and a corporal) who could testify to Hackett’s misbehavior. Due to the two incidents, the eight officers stated, the “promotion of Captain Hackett would not be justified by any merit on his part and . . . he has no just claim upon such distinction.”
Clearly, the eight officers leveled severe accusations against Captain Hackett, but in reality, all they did was narrate gross distortions of the truth. Hackett had, indeed, been tried by a court martial in October 1862, but it was not because he had defrauded an enlisted man. Just before the Battle of Antietam, Hackett fell ill with typhoid fever, and on the advice of the chief surgeon of his division, he went home on leave to recuperate. Due to miscue in paperwork, the Army filed charges against him and fourteen other officers for being absent without leave at the time of the battle. After examining the evidence, the court acquitted Hackett, as he said, the charges “being so groundless and the papers in my possession so strong in my favor that the court cast it a side and thus ended that shameful proceeding.” As for the accusation of cowardice, Hackett argued that he was not present with the regiment at Front Royal on August 11. Between June 3 and August 28, Hackett acted as brigade commissary, and again, he had the paperwork to prove it. Perhaps someone had abandoned the pickets during the Confederate raid, but it was not him. Hackett wrote, “at no time during that period did I have command of my own or any company and consequently could not have been guilty of the charges aledged against me.”
Why, then, did the eight officers misrepresent Hackett’s capabilities to the governor? Hackett believed he knew the answer. He wrote, “It is a well-known fact that the object was to defeat my promotion and elevate one of themselves.” Was Hackett correct? Maybe. The evidence is fragmentary, but his assertion makes sense. With a newly-elected Republican governor taking charge of Delaware, Democratic officers found it necessary to guard the 3rd Regiment’s promotions jealously, such that they impugned a brother officer in the process.
Hackett eventually discovered the charges leveled against him, and in March 1863, he confronted his accusers. In what must have been an incredible meeting, Hackett convinced all eight men to see the error of their ways and offer him “suitable apologies.” They immediately wrote another letter to Governor Cannon withdrawing their earlier protest against him. They wrote, “After calm and deliberate consideration, and consultation with Capt. Hackett in regard to his conduct, we fear that we may have done him injustice.”
What did Governor Cannon do about all this? Well, the situation did not get easier because another officer from the 3rd Delaware, Captain Thomas Draper, argued that he held a commission signed by Cannon’s predecessor, Governor Burton, one that elevated him to lieutenant colonel. Since Draper was not the senior captain, another disruption arose in the regiment. To satisfy the will of the majority, Colonel Jenkins asked the officers to vote for their favorite candidate. When all was said and done, thirty-one officers had voted and twenty-three of them endorsed Captain William B. Dorrell for the rank of lieutenant colonel. This came as little surprise, since Dorrell had been one of the officers who protested Hackett’s promotion and may have been the officer that the cluster of eight had conspired to endorse.
Colonel Jenkins made his opinion clear. He wanted Dorrell promoted to lieutenant colonel and then he wanted Governor Cannon to render a decision about Hackett. Jenkins believed Hackett to be innocent of the charges and was therefore entitled to the rank of major. However, if the charges were “true or even if believed to be true” it rendered his advancement detrimental to the service. If Hackett were to be promoted, then “the fact of his innocence of the charges should be clear and unquestionable.” In short, Hackett could not be merely innocent. His innocence had to be so obvious to all that his promotion would not cause morale to plummet among the contingent of officers who sincerely believed him to be incompetent.
In the end, Governor Cannon elevated Dorrell to lieutenant colonel and Hackett to major. This satisfied the unruly officers of the 3rd Delaware, at least for a time. As my future posts will show, it didn’t take long for another controversy to erupt. As one officer later wrote, his regiment was often filled with schemes “hatched in secrecy and reared in the dark.” That officer, the heretofore mentioned Captain Draper, who had himself schemed to get a promotion, complained, “I could not for a moment entertain an idea that . . . [the governor] would recognize such reckless and designing letters as being worthy of notice or of more value than the blank paper upon which they were written.”
Sometimes I think to myself that it must have been easy to be the Governor of Delaware. After all, it is only three counties. But the story of the 3rd Delaware proves to me what a headache it must have been to manage promotions in a small state where politics were so factious and personal. There was nothing easy about it.