Research Custer & Merritt: who ranks whom in the final reckoning...

PJO

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As many of you guys know, there was a fierce rivalry between Wesley Merritt and George Armstrong Custer, while serving side by side as general officers in the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

Both were appointed to a brigadier generalship on the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg. Following distinguished services in the Overland and Shenandoh Campaigns at brigade and division level, they moved up to brevet major general of volunteers in the wake of the spectacular victory at Cedar Creek.

On 24 April 1865, following a recommendation by Phil Sheridan, patron to both Merritt and Custer, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered the Adjutant General's Office to make out a letter of appointment, promoting Custer to full major general of volunteers, to date from 3 April 1865.

Custer, thus becoming the youngest full-fledged major general in the Union Army, did not receive notice of his elevation until 18 May 1865, the day on which he accepted his provisional appointment, pending nomination before and confirmation by the Senate.

On 17 May 1865 Sheridan also recommended his other "pet", Wesley Merritt, for a full major generalcy, to date from 9 April 1865. Stanton obliged and ordered Merritt's appointment on 18 May. But then Sheridan, or, probably rather, Merritt, realized that Custer was now the senior officer of the two. In a carefully worded letter, written 20 May 1865, Sheridan asked Stanton to change Merritt's date of rank to 1 April 1865, to "preserve" the two boy general's "former relative positions in rank". Stanton again obliged.

On 27 November 1865 Stanton, for whatever reason, gave the order to the AGO to change Custer's date of rank to 15 April 1865.

Custer, formally nominated to major general, US Volunteers, by President Andrew Johnson on 13 January 1866, was confirmed by the Senate 23 February 1866 and duly commissioned 10 March 1866.

What about Merritt?

Ten years later, 6 April 1876, Merritt reported to the AGO that "my commission as Major General of Volunteers has been lost", requesting to furnish him with a duplicate thereof.

When Merritt received a reply, dated 24 April 1876, he was in for a bad surprise, as he was informed "that no commission in the grade named was ever issued to you, for the reason that your nomination - made January 13, 1866 - was not confirmed by the Senate".

How could Merritt have missed that? Did he confuse his letter of appointment with a commission never issued? And why wasn't he confirmed in the first place?

Apart from this conundrum, which offers fodder for further research and discussion, Merritt ultimately qualifies only as a "might-have-been"-major general, as two crucial legal requirements are missing in order to consider his appointment to be a valid one: confirmation on a vote of the Senate and signing and sealing of the commission by the SoW and the POTUS.

There is some irony to the story. Despite the best efforts by Sheridan to uphold Merritt's seniority, Custer, at the end of the day, outranked his erstwhile rival as a general officer in the Volunteer Service.

Any comments?

Sources: Custer & Merritt Commission Files, RG 94, NARA.
 

jackt62

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That's an interesting story and adds to the narrative about a possible "friendly" competition between the two men. Was it true that they were both roommates at West Point? In any case, Custer had his stand at the Little Big Horn and his wife Libbie to perpetuate his memory whereas Merritt's legacy seems to be mixed in with the many other capable cavalry officers of both sides.
 

PJO

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That's an interesting story and adds to the narrative about a possible "friendly" competition between the two men. Was it true that they were both roommates at West Point? In any case, Custer had his stand at the Little Big Horn and his wife Libbie to perpetuate his memory whereas Merritt's legacy seems to be mixed in with the many other capable cavalry officeThat's an interesting story and adds to the narrative about a possible "friendly" competition between the two men. Was it true that they were both roommates at West Point? In any case, Custer had his stand at the Little Big Horn and his wife Libbie to perpetuate memory whereas Merritt's legacy seems to be mixed in with the many other capable cavalry officers of bo
Thanks for responding! AFAIK, they were not roommates at WP, belonging to different classes. These two guys were quite opposites in personality, style, and tactical philosophy!
 

Sgt. Tyree

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Custer was demoted by Grant and was barely allowed his reinstatement before he went on the fatal expedition. He may have only had a Colonel's ranking. I have not double-checked.
Lubliner.
Lieutenant Colonel Custer was the executive officer of the 7th United States Cavalry. He was usually acting commander because the official regimental commanders were frequently on detached duty.

The regimental commander from 1869 until (I think) 1881 was Colonel Sam Sturgis of Brice’s Crossroads infamy. Before that it was Colonel Andrew Jackson Smith. Sturgis was not in the field during the LBH campaign or the Black Hills expedition and Smith was not in the field during the winter campaign that culminated at Washita River.

So Custer was never the regimental commander, regardless of how often newspapers said, “Custer’s 7th.” And yet he was commander - if you are acting commander you are in command. But if Smith or Sturgis had wanted to be in the field Custer would not have commanded.

Clear as mud?
 
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Lubliner

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And I remember it took much persuasion to get Grant to let him go to fulfil his fateful day. He was confined to the post and in a lot of trouble, which may have prompted him to be rashly bold and uncaring in his final day. His legacy lives on now, and otherwise he would have not been noted so famously.
Lubliner.
 

Eric Wittenberg

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And I remember it took much persuasion to get Grant to let him go to fulfil his fateful day. He was confined to the post and in a lot of trouble, which may have prompted him to be rashly bold and uncaring in his final day. His legacy lives on now, and otherwise he would have not been noted so famously.
Lubliner.

That was because Custer had foolishly and naively testified against Grant's Secretary of War, William Belknap, which infuriated Grant. Custer evidently didn't expect repercussions for testifying against Belknap, which is where the naïveté comes into play. Custer went to the White House to see Grant and try to make amends, and Grant left him sitting there for an entire day before refusing to see him. Had Custer not been killed, he likely would have resigned his commission because there was no real chance of his being promoted.
 

Eric Wittenberg

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Merritt's legacy seems to be mixed in with the many other capable cavalry officers of both sides.

Merritt was very much John Buford's protege, and that made a huge difference.

Plus, Custer had never served in a regiment prior to the war and had no clue about regimental politics and the like. Merritt did--serving in Buford's company in Utah--and was much better at playing politics.
 

Eric Wittenberg

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The first volume of my good friend Adolfo Ovies' two volume study of the relationship of Custer and Merritt will be published later this year. I wrote the foreword to volume one, and I have read every word of both volumes. This is some really ground breaking work that is extremely well researched. I commend them to you.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1611215358/?tag=civilwartalkc-20
 

PJO

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That was because Custer had foolishly and naively testified against Grant's Secretary of War, William Belknap, which infuriated Grant. Custer evidently didn't expect repercussions for testifying against Belknap, which is where the naïveté comes into play. Custer went to the White House to see Grant and try to make amends, and Grant left him sitting there for an entire day before refusing to see him. Had Custer not been killed, he likely would have resigned his commission because there was no real chance of his being promoted.
For field-grade officers, promotion up to full colonel was strictly based on seniority within the arm of the service. As I said above, Custer, at the time of his death, was number two on the list of LTCs of cavalry. Merritt, first on the list, was promoted to full colonel, 5th Cavalry, on 1 July 1876. Custer would have been next in line for promotion, whether he was chasing Indians on the Great Plains, or chasing women in the parlors of NYC. As he got killed, Tom Devin, 8th Cavalry, moved up to the top spot, being promoted to colonel, 3rd Cavalry, as of 25 June 1877, to the day one year after Custer's demise. It was quite different with the elevation to general officer status. Theoretically, the President could appoint/nominate any officer he deemed qualified, regardless of grade or rank, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate... James W. Forsyth, a member of Sheridan's staff, wrote 1876 to SoW Belknap: ".... Hazen, and Custer, are now working to make capital with the Democratic party - they want stars."
 
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rpkennedy

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A stupid person ? Not really. He was impetuous and definitely a show-off....a pain in the neck at times, but definitely not stupid.
His impetuosity nearly cost him his life several times during the war. He had a tendency to bite off more than he could chew and was extremely lucky to work his way out of those spots. At the Little Big Horn, his luck ran out.

Ryan
 

Gettysburg Guide #154

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As noted above, Merritt and Custer were in different classes at the Academy. Merritt graduated 22d out of 41 in the class of 1860. Many will already know that Custer graduated last in his class. However, to be fair, it was the class of JUNE 1861. The true class of 1861 graduated in May. The June class of 1861 was actually part of the class of 1862, many of whom were begging to be graduated early. My understanding is that the compromise was that if they could pass the senior finals, they could be graduated a year early. So while Custer was last in his class of 34, it may be said that he graduated ahead of the 28 cadets who did not graduate until 1862.
 

rpkennedy

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As noted above, Merritt and Custer were in different classes at the Academy. Merritt graduated 22d out of 41 in the class of 1860. Many will already know that Custer graduated last in his class. However, to be fair, it was the class of JUNE 1861. The true class of 1861 graduated in May. The June class of 1861 was actually part of the class of 1862, many of whom were begging to be graduated early. My understanding is that the compromise was that if they could pass the senior finals, they could be graduated a year early. So while Custer was last in his class of 34, it may be said that he graduated ahead of the 28 cadets who did not graduate until 1862.

Some of whom were pretty notable:

Ranald S. McKenzie (1)
George L. Gillespie (2) - Medal of Honor
Samuel M. Mansfield (6) - colonel, 24th Connecticut
Tully McCrea (14)
John Egan (16)
James A. Sanderson (18) - mortally wounded at Pleasant Hill, LA
John H. Calef (22)
Samuel B. McIntire (23)
James H. Lord (26)
Charles N. Warner (28)

Ryan
 

PJO

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Some of whom were pretty notable:

Ranald S. McKenzie (1)
George L. Gillespie (2) - Medal of Honor
Samuel M. Mansfield (6) - colonel, 24th Connecticut
Tully McCrea (14)
John Egan (16)
James A. Sanderson (18) - mortally wounded at Pleasant Hill, LA
John H. Calef (22)
Samuel B. McIntire (23)
James H. Lord (26)
Charles N. Warner (28)

Ryan

Mackenzie rose to brigadier & brevet major general of volunteers, sponsored by Warren, Sheridan, and Grant. Mansfield was a son of General Joseph K. F. Mansfield, mortally wounded in the Battle of Antietam....
 
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Lubliner

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As noted above, Merritt and Custer were in different classes at the Academy. Merritt graduated 22d out of 41 in the class of 1860. Many will already know that Custer graduated last in his class. However, to be fair, it was the class of JUNE 1861. The true class of 1861 graduated in May. The June class of 1861 was actually part of the class of 1862, many of whom were begging to be graduated early. My understanding is that the compromise was that if they could pass the senior finals, they could be graduated a year early. So while Custer was last in his class of 34, it may be said that he graduated ahead of the 28 cadets who did not graduate until 1862.
I had not heard that. Thank you for pointing out. Big difference.
Lubliner.
 
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