[July 23, 2020] During the American Civil War, casualties were extraordinarily high. More than any other war in which the United States participated, the proportion of those killed and wounded is the highest. There were many factors, but incompetence among senior Army officers was the most profound. Eventually, the military used merit for promotions.
At the beginning of the war, selection for higher rank was based upon their family’s political influence, loyalty to their state, and their social status in their communities. Fundamentally, rank depended upon power, money, and influence. This system of promotion occurred on both the Union and Confederate sides of the conflict.
The result was that Army officers in leadership positions possessed little or no experience. In a battle with a determined enemy, this promotion system was a recipe for disaster. An example of this was Confederate General Braxton Bragg. As the commander of the Army of Tennessee, he quarreled with his subordinates and failed to follow-up with his victory at the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga. The battle is considered the most significant tactical Confederate victory in the Western theater but with a staggering cost when his army suffered over 18,000 casualties and his failure not to pursue retreating Union forces and crush them.1
With the introduction of merit and determination into the promotion system, later in the Civil War, the armies on both sides found more professional officers. They conducted themselves far better in combat. The effect was immediate. Exceptional officers rose to the fore and pushed aside politically-appointed officers who created chaos both on the battlefield and in the sluggish resupply system.
Those officers who obtained their positions because of powerful friends and relatives found themselves sidelined. Often pushed to less-desirable jobs, they rebelled against the new system of merit. Selection of an officer was, in their minds, based upon gentlemanly traits such as upbringing, good manners, and discriminating tastes. Now, to their great dismay, recent rabble-rousers could be their superior officers.
Merit became the new philosophy of promotions. Since the Civil War and its many hard-won lessons, Americans can now dream that any citizen, regardless of sex, race, creed, or color, can rise on their own determination and merit. All institutions can reinforce that dream and find talented and hard workers over those who are wealthy and have connections.