George W. Dyer
July 28, 1861
George Dyer, of Calais, was in Washington, D.C., serving as Assistant Quartermaster General for Maine troops in the summer of 1861. He was in a position to observe and to evaluate the men who in the first months of the Civil War had been commissioned as officers.
Governors such as Maine's Israel Washburn were bedeviled by prominent politicians and other well-known personalities who demanded Army Commissions. Even President Abraham Lincoln fielded such requests. They could be refused, but at the risk of political repercussions, or censure from the public.
Dyer finds fault, in particular, with the Colonel of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment. The Colonel, Mark H. Dunnell, of Norway, had been a member of the Maine House and Senate, had been a delegate to two Republican Conventions, and had been State Superintendant of Public Schools. At the time the War broke out, he was U.S. Consul in Vera Cruz, in Mexico.
Even early in the war, Dunnell is in trouble, according to Dyer. "The officers and men have no confidence in their Colonel, and do not feel like going again into battle under him. I have advised him to resign, but he does not seem inclined to do so."
Not all incompetents who obtained commissions were prominent or well-known civilians. In earlier letters Dyer criticizes them, no matter who they were. He observes of one that "he is dogmatic, immodest, pretentious, obstinate and willful." Another, he says, "is inert, fat, intemperate, harsh and already knows so much of military matters that he would not hesitate to correct General Scott to his face about the details of an order."
Most of the inadequate officers were gone by the end of the year. In his Annual Report for 1861 Adjutant General John Hodsdon comments, "Not less than fifty of the eight hundred officers who have been commissioned for regiments within this State, have been discharged for unfitness arising doubtless from having mistaken their vocation. Had these officers been as faithful in the discharge of their duties as they were zealous in obtaining commissions, we might have presented a more favorable record of our common misfortune."
Governors tried to find experienced officers, but many were elderly veterans of the Mexican War. Equally challenging, if they were good officers, they were apt to be quickly promoted by the President. In time, the Governors when awarding commissions were able to draw upon a man’s proven record, or upon recommendations from serving officers.
- Why did so many men want to be officers?
- What were the benefits?
- What was the highest rank a State Governor could bestow upon an officer?
- Who was General Scott?
- Who was Mr. Seward?