Blowing Away the Chaff: Clearing the Incompetents from the 17th Indiana

    One of the challenges that every regiment of the Civil War ran into was getting the appropriate personnel into the right positions in the organization. Early organizations went into the field under men who had no business in charge of a company or regiment, and the weeding out process started in earnest once the men started to encounter hard service.

    In the case of the 17th Indiana Infantry (later of Wilder's Lightning Brigade notoriety), their "coming to Jesus" moment arrived at the end of 1861 when the new departmental commander Major General Don Carlos Buell let it be known that he was sending out his Examining Board to render judgment on the fitness of officers to retain their positions. As related by Private Napoleon Risinger, news of the forthcoming Board led to a mass exodus of officers in the regiment. Risinger delighted in their departure.

    "A swarm of bees appear not busier when a stick is thrust into their hive than did these officers when they found the board was coming," he wrote with scarcely disguised glee.  "Anxiety was soon depicted upon their countenances. Some suddenly became unwell and were compelled to resign on account of ill health. Others learned their business was now deranged at home that they were compelled to resign on account of their private affairs. No one resigned on account of being incompetent, yet in a few days 11 out of 30 commissioned officers left us so that the Board was saved the trouble of ousting them. The regiment has shed its dead limbs so they found none to lop off. The Indian daily cut a piece of his dog’s tail off until it was sufficiently curtailed to suit him, so our regiment was gradually freed of its honorary (some pronounced it ornery) officers."

    Napoleon Risinger was a regular correspondent with the Princeton Clarion in the early years of the war until he was discharged for disability in April 1863; his regular missives are spicy, chatty, and superb reading. This particular letter, one of his earliest published, was featured in the March 8, 1862 edition of the Clarion

 
First Lieutenant Greenberry Shields of Co. K was among the dozen officers who departed the 17th Indiana regiment over a three week period in December 1861-January 1862. Cos. D, G, and K lost two officers each while all three officers of Co. I resigned. Shields ended up returning to the 17th Indiana later in the year serving as Colonel John Wilder's adjutant but none of the other officers sought service with the regiment again. 


Camp Glenbrook, Kentucky

February 15, 1862

          In looking over the columns of that able sheet the Sullivan Democrat published at the residence of Captain Maston and Lieutenants Coulson and Silvers, I find an item so new, so novel and racy, that I wish to give it further publicity. It will be borne in mind that the Jeffersonian (joke of Jefferson) emanates from Captain Allison’s residence and was lately edited by the captain. The fox that got his tail bit off by a steel trap, as the fable goes, persuaded his companion foxes that long tails were inconvenient and short ones more beautiful. So, to excuse their action in resigning, these ex-captains and lieutenants have rushed into print. The clause above alluded to which we now give evidence emanates from one of them:

“A Regiment Busted Up: A correspondent of the Franklin Jeffersonian says that Lieutenants [Uriah] Coulson, [Thomas B.] Silvers, [Hiram J.] Daniels, [William S.] Berry, and [Greenberry F.] Shields, Captains [Robert C.] Reid, [John] Mastin, Kloene, [Peter A.] Huffman, and Allison, and Surgeon [John Y.] Hitt of the 17th, Colonel Hascall’s regiment, have resigned. These resignations we understand to be chiefly owing to the estimation in which Lieutenant Colonel John Wilder is held by the regiment. That officer is presumed to have cousins enough to officer the whole regiment in case those remaining resign.” ~ Sullivan Democrat, February 7, 1862

          This item of history in some of the backwoods districts of Indiana may excuse these ex-officers, but among the reading community at home and here in the regiment it only provokes a smile. The 17th, like all of the first Indiana regiments, was organized ex necessitate, on the spur of the moment, and little care was taken in selecting officers. Many good men were chosen who have given their whole attention to their commands and are now among the best officers in the service. Others came with the army for the pay on account of the novelty and excitement or came because others came. This latter class came not for the good of the service and have proved to be only a curse to it.

          They continue to drag their slow length along, at times on duty, and again playing sick. Now loafing about headquarters where their room was more desired than their society, and now stopping around the sutlers where whiskey is generally as plenty for officers as water. Such was their condition until General Buell a few weeks ago sent an Army Board to the different regiments of his command to sift out incompetent officers.

General Don Carlos Buell

A swarm of bees appear not busier when a stick is thrust into their hive than did these officers when they found the board was coming. Anxiety was soon depicted upon their countenances. Some suddenly became unwell and were compelled to resign on account of ill health. Others learned their business was now deranged at home that they were compelled to resign on account of their private affairs. No one resigned on account of being incompetent, yet in a few days 12 out of 30 commissioned officers left us so that the Board was saved the trouble of ousting them. The regiment has shed its dead limbs so they found none to lop off. The Indian daily cut a piece of his dog’s tail off until it was sufficiently curtailed to suit him, so our regiment was gradually freed of its honorary (some pronounced it ornery) officers.

          Two or three of the officers alluded to were compelled to resign as they knew they had to quit the regiment and preferred resigning to be cashiered and mustered out of service, as by so doing they could save the mortification and disgrace of such a procedure. The philosopher who said that an army of jackasses with a lion for a leader was more effective than an army of lions with a jackass in command expressed a military truism that General Buell appreciated. He well knew that our intelligent citizen soldiery now in the field are truly an army of lions and he determined that lions shall lead them and that jackass officers should no longer be a curse to the service.

          As the wicked flee when no man pursues, so these incompetent officers were out of the service before the Board visited the regiment. These fellows may be brave enough but perhaps they think that he who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day. But he who is in battle slain, will never live to fight again.

          The vacancies made by the exit of these fellows have generally been filled by a much superior class of men. Every company has a captain who is able to transact the business of his company as well as to drill it correctly. Before the changes, the officers were continually being arrested for ignorance or neglect of duty and those who were efficient suffered from the misdoings of the incompetents. Since the changes, the commanding general has been well pleased with the regiment and has complimented it frequently. Instead of the regiment being busted up, it is now in the most flourishing condition and can muster as many men for duty and has few sick nor has lost a man to death since November.

Colonel John T. Wilder, 17th Indiana

          To know the estimation in which Lieutenant Colonel Wilder is held by the regiment, you have only to ask any officer or soldier belonging to the regiment and you will learn that a kinder and better officer is not in the service. When he finds a vacancy in the regiment, he spares no pains to have it filled by the best man that can be procured. He has a father’s care over the men and every soldier knows that if he is wronged, he has only to let Wilder know it and it will be righted.

          The effort of these ex-officers in creating such impressions as that the 17th Indiana is “busted up” will only recoil on their own silly heads. We have been now eight months in the service and have the same colonel, lieutenant colonel, major, and adjutant we started with yet with us. Our regiment has seen hard service- went through the hardships of the campaign in western Virginia and when winter came, instead of going into winter quarters, we were transported to Kentucky. The regiment is still in the tented field and while I write it is doing duty at camp and has pickets as much as four miles from camp on duty day and night without fire, although the weather is extremely cold and the ground covered with snow three inches deep. It is cold comfort for soldiers and officers in such times as these amid such hardships to receive a paper from home announcing our regiment as “busted up.”

The "Dirty" Dozen

Captain Robert C. Reid, Co. G             December 23, 1861

First Lt. Robert S. Kane, Co. D            December 27, 1861

Second Lt. Hiram J. Daniels, Co. G      January 1, 1862

Captain John Mastin, Co. I                   January 3, 1862

Captain Julius C. Kloenne, Co. K         January 5, 1862*

Captain George W. Allison, Co. D        January 9, 1862

Second Lt. William S. Berry, Co. H       January 14, 1862

First Lt. Uriah Coulson, Co. I               January 14, 1862

Second Lt. Thomas B. Silvers, Co. I      January 14, 1862

First Lt. Greenberry F. Shields, Co. K    January 14, 1862

Surgeon John Y. Hitt                           January 17, 1862

Captain Peter A. Huffman, Co. B         January 17, 1862

*Cashiered

Source:

Letter from Private Napoleon B. Risinger, Co. H, 17th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Princeton Clarion (Indiana), March 8, 1862, pg. 1

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