Seniority in the United States Armed Forces is determined by rank, date of rank, and in the case of two officers promoted to the same rank on the same date, by the last lineal number. It sounds confusing, but it isn’t. And it’s important because seniority determines assignments, tactical commands, promotions, and general courtesy. In the early days, seniority determined appropriate honors rendered to senior officers (generally, field grade and flag rank officers).
In the modern-day, seniority works on two different levels. For officers serving at different ranks, seniority is determined by rank. An Army colonel is senior to an Army captain, and the captain is senior to a lieutenant. The system extends across the armed services. An Army major is senior to an Air Force captain, and a Navy commander is senior to both. Whenever officers serve at the same rank, their seniority is determined by their date of promotion to that rank. If two officers advance to the same rank on the same day, seniority is determined by the date of promotion to their previously held rank.
Seniority in the Civil War
Officer seniority was an issue in both the United States Army and Confederate States Army. Some modern historians credibly argue that the pettiness of seniority and military etiquette did as much to damage the internal efficiency of the Confederate States Army as did any battle in which the Union won. The Union Army experienced similar problems among its senior officers, of course, but in the Confederacy, the animosity and rancor among senior officers was debilitating.
The Confederacy’s problem in this regard may have started with Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, who always had a high opinion of himself — a man who also graduated from the U. S. Military Academy (Class of 1828) and who distinguished himself in combat in the Mexican-American War.
Davis (USMA Class of 1828) (23/33) was more politician than a soldier. He resigned from the Army in 1835 to pursue plantation farming in Mississippi. In that same year, both he and his wife Susan (a daughter of Zachary Taylor) contracted either yellow fever or malaria. Susan died in 1835, and Jeff was slow to recover. From 1836-1840, a somewhat reclusive Davis confined himself to the plantation. He first entered Mississippi politics in 1840, serving as a state convention delegate through 1844. As presidential elector in 1844, he campaigned vigorously for James K. Polk. In 1844, he won a seat in the U. S. Congress.
In 1846, while still serving in the House of Representatives, Davis raised a volunteer regiment for service in the Mexican-American War and commanded it as a US Volunteer Colonel. However, he distinguished himself in combat during the war — at least sufficiently to convince President Polk to offer him a commission as a brigadier general, but Davis respectfully declined. His insistence on replacing his regiment’s muskets with the M1841 rifle caused a life-long feud with the U. S. Army’s Commanding General, Winfield Scott. He had a broader vision.
Following the war, Davis served as a U. S. Senator (1847-1851), as Secretary of War (1853-1857), and again in the Senate (1857-1861).
When Mississippi seceded from the Union on 9 January 1861, Davis sent a telegram to Governor John J. Pettus, offering his services at the pleasure of his home state. On 23 January, Pettus appointed Davis to serve as major general of the Army of Mississippi. At the constitutional convention (of southern states) in early February, delegates considered both Davis and Robert Toombs (Alabama) as a possible Confederacy president; Davis won handily, assuming his office on 18 February 1861. Davis, himself, did not believe anyone was more qualified to serve the Commander-in-Chief of the Confederacy’s armed forces.
Creating the Confederated States of America was no easy task. Established on 8 February 1861, the Confederacy initially included seven Southern states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas — soon joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland may have joined the Confederacy had it not been for the rapid occupation of those states by the Union Army. President Jefferson Davis had his hands full trying to organize an effective government. Of course, he needed an army, and he needed good men to lead it — and this is where the trouble began.
In selecting his most senior generals, the men who would lead the Confederate States Army, he chose Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard. He would eventually choose another two to serve as full-general, but these were Davis’ initial selections.
Sam Cooper (USMA Class of 1815) (36/40), whom almost no one knows anything about, was, despite his northern roots (New York), an advocate of states’ rights. His service in the U. S. Army was primarily that of a staff officer who eventually attained the rank of colonel. He briefly served as interim Secretary of War in 1857 and, in this capacity, first formed a strong friendship with Jefferson Davis. Cooper received two general officer appointments on the same day, first to brigadier general, and full general, on 16 May 1861. Davis appointed Cooper as Adjutant General and Inspector-General of the Confederate States Army.
Albert Sidney Johnston
Albert S. Johnson (USMA Class of 1828) (8/41) had a most colorful background. Davis regarded him as the nation’s finest field commander. In addition to his service in the U. S. Army, Johnston served as a general officer in the Republic of Texas, as the Texas Republic’s Secretary of War, as a colonel in the U. S. Army during the Mexican-American War, and as a brevet brigadier general (permanent rank colonel) during the Utah War and commander of the Military Department of the Pacific. He resigned his commission at the outbreak of the Civil War, initially enlisting as a private in the Los Angeles Rifles, a secessionist group in Southern California.
Robert E. Lee
Robert E. Lee (USMA Class of 1829) (2/46) was a Virginia aristocrat and an Army engineer of some distinction who served 26 years in that capacity before transferring to the Cavalry in 1855 as a lieutenant colonel. Lee was prominent during the Mexican-American War as a staff officer and engineer. He served in command of the Army detachment sent to quell disturbances at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and he commanded Fort Brown, Texas, in 1860-61. When General David E. Twiggs surrendered U. S. forces to Texas after its secession, Lee returned to Washington, where he was appointed to command the 1st Cavalry Regiment and promoted to Colonel. Two weeks later, President Lincoln offered Lee advancement to major general. Lee declined the promotion and, upon the secession of Virginia, resigned from the U. S. Army.
Joseph E. Johnston
Joseph Eggleston Johnston (USMA Class of 1829) (13/46) was from a distinguished family of Scots whose grandfather and father both served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. With his mother being the niece of Patrick Henry and his brother and father-in-law being members of the U. S. Congress, Johnston was politically well-connected. Joe Johnston was the only Confederate general to have served as a general officer in the Union Army before his resignation to join secession. This is important because Johnston, although in the same graduating class as Lee, was Lee’s senior officer in the Union Army.
When he returned home to Virginia, the governor offered him an appointment to the Virginia State Army as a major general. Shortly after that, state officials notified him that Virginia only needed one major general, and so they decided to offer that commission to Robert E. Lee. He could have, however, an appointment as a brigadier general, serving under Lee. Given that Lee was junior to him in the Union Army, his proposal was unacceptable, and he declined the offer.
Jeff Davis thereafter offered Johnston a commission as brigadier general in the CSA, which he accepted. Initially, Johnston’s assignment was command of the CSA forces at Harper’s Ferry. Shortly thereafter, he assumed command of the Army of Shenandoah.
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard
P. G. T. Beauregard (USMA Class of 1838) (2/45) was an Army engineer, brevetted to Captain in 1847 for excellence as a staff officer (planning officer) under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War. He served as an engineer for the next 13 years, repairing old forts and building new ones in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana. Beauregard was born in Louisiana to an aristocratic French-Creole family. Well-educated in private schools, Beauregard was brought up speaking French, never learning English until he was twelve years old.
Beauregard’s brother-in-law was John Slidell, a prominent attorney, politician, and former United States Minister to Mexico (1844-46). In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy. Before assuming office, however, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department canceled his appointment. Incensed, Beauregard promptly resigned his commission and returned home to Louisiana.
With his political connections, Beauregard expected the Governor of Louisiana to appoint him as the general officer commanding Louisiana state militia. The appointment, instead, went to Braxton Bragg, who in turn offered Beauregard a colonelcy. Instead, Beauregard enlisted as a private in the New Orleans Guards but at the same time wrote to Jeff Davis offering his services as a general officer in the CSA. A common rumor was that Davis was considering him as the Commanding General of the CSA — which infuriated Bragg to no end. On 1 March 1861, Davis appointed Beauregard a brigadier general, the first general appointee in the CSA. His first assignment was the command of Charleston harbor.
Essentially, General Beauregard was the officer who initiated hostilities with the United States on 12 April 1861. After negotiations failed to convince the Commanding Officer, Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, to surrender to Confederate authority, Beauregard ordered his artillery to bombard the fort — an assault lasting 34 hours. Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on 14 April.
A short time later, Davis ordered Beauregard to assume command of the Alexandria Line at Manassas. In July, Davis promoted Beauregard to full general, with seniority behind Joseph E. Johnston.
Back to Joe Johnston
Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) came from a distinguished family of Scots. Both his grandfather and father fought in the American Revolution. His mother was a niece of Patrick Henry. His brother, Charles, served as a Congressman from Virginia. He married Lydia McLane, whose father was a Congressman from Delaware. He was politically well-connected, an aristocrat of sorts and perhaps, full of himself.
Despite Johnston’s promotion to full general in August 1861, he stewed over his lack of seniority. On 12 September 1861, Johnston wrote a letter to President Davis to explain his point of view:
“It (the ranking of senior generals) seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service. I had but this, the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father’s Revolutionary sword. It was delivered to me from his venerated hand, without a stain of dishonor. Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine. I drew it in the war, not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women, and children — aye, and the men of my mother Virginia, my native South.”
Johnston additionally complained to Davis that the president’s rankings were “in violation of my rights as an officer, of the plighted faith of the Confederacy and the Constitution and the laws of the land. […] I now and here declare my claim that I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy.” President Davis responded to Johnston’s letter, accusing the general of being “one-sided” whose complaints were “as unfounded as they are unbecoming.” President Davis did nothing to resolve this problem, and, to be honest, I’m not sure why Davis kept him on the payroll.
The long-held system of seniority and etiquette explains why Johnston refused to subordinate himself to Robert E. Lee and others. At the time he resigned from the U. S. Army, Johnston was a regular Army brigadier general. Lee, upon his resignation, was a colonel. Ultimately, however, both Lee and Johnston ended up as generals in the Confederate States Army — and Lee ended up being senior to Johnson because he had served, albeit briefly, as a Confederate major general.
As for trying to understand Johnston’s pettiness, there are several possibilities to consider. Johnston was obviously a prideful man and mindful (possibly obsessed) with his prerogatives as a senior military commander. There are no small egos among high-ranking military officers. The concept of teamwork probably didn’t apply as much during the Civil War as it does today. Still, there were other issues, such as Johnston’s unwillingness to listen to the advice and recommendations of his subordinate commanders, his ability to admit to or take responsibility for serious errors in planning, judgment, and his inability to acknowledge that in some cases, he was out of his depth.
However, commanding a field army — and commanding it well, is a gargantuan task. It’s more than directing maneuver elements; there is also the question of logistics, which along with weather, is a war-stopper. On the one hand, our field commander must win the battles and do it with whatever manpower he has available to him. Excessive battlefield casualties limit his next moves. He has to control the battlespace, which means choosing the time and place to fight as much as he is able. During the Civil War period, rural Virginia was still a wilderness. Having only one plan up his sleeve simply won’t do.
A series of small battles took place in Virginia following the First Battle of Bull Run (also, First Battle of Manassas), many of which resulted in inconclusive outcomes: Greenbrier River, Camp Allegheny, Cockpit Point, Hampton Roads, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, and Seven Pines.
Command and control were quite difficult in 1862. At Seven Pines on 31 May – 1 June 1862, General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to overwhelm two Federal corps that he thought were isolated south of the Chickahominy River. Although Johnston’s Confederates did succeed in driving General McClellan’s forces back, as well as inflicting heavy casualties, his assaults were not well-coordinated.
On 1 June 1862, Johnston was seriously wounded and evacuated from the field, relinquishing command to Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith. President Davis rushed Robert E. Lee to assume command of Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia within a day.
In 1862, field commanders did not have deputies. When Johnston was wounded, the next senior general below him assumed command of the army. The problem was that before Smith became a major general, he was a U. S. Army captain. No general can effectively lead an army that has not led or fought a division — which goes a long way in explaining General Smith’s nervous breakdown on 1 June 1862. President Davis’ decision was a good one. General Lee retained command of the Army of Northern Virginia until the war’s end.
But Johnston’s problem wasn’t only with President Davis and General Lee; he had little regard for Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, as well.
In the spring of 1864, while in command of the Army of Tennessee, Johnston engaged William T. Sherman between Chattanooga and Atlanta. By this time, John Bell Hood had lost two of his limbs and yet could ride twenty miles a day while strapped to his saddle. General Hood was a fire-eater and had little patience with Johnston’s apparent timidity. He may have wondered why a senior general needed so much encouragement to act. It wasn’t that Johnston was afraid of being injured; he had more than a few scars from battle wounds — it was, instead, that Johnston was afraid to fail. It made Johnston, in Hood’s view, far too cautious. Ironically, on one of the rare occasions when Johnston acted decisively at the Battle of Cassville, General Hood demurred on the battlefield.
Johnston’s strategy involved a series of delaying withdrawals. Force withdrawal is, on occasion, a worthwhile strategy if its purpose is to maneuver the enemy into a position of disadvantage. Johnston, however, seemed to focus his efforts on avoiding battle rather than engaging the enemy. Over several weeks, General Hood sent messages to Richmond that criticized Johnston’s behavior. The issue came to a head when President Davis ordered General Bragg to travel to Atlanta to investigate Hood’s claims.
After meeting with Johnston, Bragg interviewed Hood and General Joseph Wheeler, who testified that they had urged Johnston to attack rather than withdraw. Hood claimed that Johnston was ineffective, timid, and weak-willed, saying, “I have, general, so often urged that we should force the enemy to give us battle as to almost be regarded reckless by the officers high in rank in this army [Johnston and Corps commander, William J. Hardee] since their views have been so directly opposite.”
Of course, Hood’s letters were insubordinate and subversive, but at least in Hood’s mind, necessary if the purpose of the war was to win important battles. Historians today claim that Hood’s letters were self-serving and not entirely honest.
But Hood was not alone in his criticism. General Hardee reported to Bragg, “If the present system continues, we may find ourselves at Atlanta before a serious battle is fought.” Presented with the facts of Johnston’s behavior, nearly every Confederate general agreed with Hood, Wheeler, and Hardee.
On 17 July 1864, President Davis relieved Johnston of his command. Davis initially planned to replace Johnston with Hardee, but Bragg urged that he give control of the Army of Tennessee to Hood. While it was true that Hood had impressed Bragg, it was also accurate that Bragg harbored ill feelings toward Johnston from bitter disagreements during earlier campaigns.
Davis temporarily promoted Hood to full general and gave him command of the army just outside Atlanta. The Confederate Senate never confirmed hood’s appointment. The 33-year old John Bell Hood was the youngest man on either side to command an army. In Lee’s opinion, Hood was “a bold fighter on the field, but careless off.” But Hood was well known by his Yankee classmates as temperamentally reckless and rash; they would use that knowledge to their advantage. Davis’ decision to relieve Johnston was controversial and unpopular — besides which, Hood could no more hold Atlanta than Johnston.
In Johnston’s letter to Davis after his relief, he remarked of Hood, “Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.” Of this incident, Mary Chestnut recorded, “We thought this was a struggle for independence. Now it seems it is only a fight between Joe Johnston and Jeff Davis.” Even though eventually restored to command, Johnston could never forget the perfidy of Davis, Bragg, and Hood. Johnston later wrote, “I know Mr. Davis thinks he can do a great many things other men would hesitate to attempt. For instance, he tried to do what God failed to do — make a soldier out of Braxton Bragg.”
History remembers Joe Johnston kindly. His battle history is second to none: Manassas, Seven Pines, Vicksburg, Dalton, Resaca, Adairsville, New Hope Church, Dallas, Picket’s Mill, Kolb Farm, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Averasboro, Bentonville, Morrisville Station, and the Bennett Place. For him, it was a long war. He afterward published his memoirs in Narrative of Military Operations, which was highly critical of Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, and Braxton Bragg.
He also built a life-long friendship with his former enemy, William T. Sherman — the officer to whom he surrendered in 1865. Sherman once opined, “No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston. His retreats were timely, in good order, and he left nothing behind.” Afterward, because of Johnston’s gentlemanly behavior, he would not tolerate anyone speaking ill of Sherman in his presence. When Sherman passed away on 14 February 1891, Johnston served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, keeping his hat off during the burial rites to show his respect. The weather was cold and rainy, and Johnston caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia. Joseph E. Johnston died ten days later. He was 84 years old.
- Bonds, R. S. War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta. Westholme Publishing, 2009.
- Bowman, S. M., and R. B. Irwin: Sherman and His Campaigns: A military biography. Richardson Publishing, 1865.
- Davis, S. Texas Brigadier to the fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood. Mercer University Press, 2019.
- Johnston, J. E. Narrative of Military Operations: Directed, During the Late War between the States. Appleton & Co., 1874.
- Jones, W. L. Generals in Blue and Gray: Davis’s Generals. Stackpole Books, 2006.
- Miller, W. J. The Battles for Richmond, 1862. National Park Service Civil War Series, 1996.
- Symonds, C. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography. Norton, 1992.
- Woodworth, S. Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: A Failure of Confederate Command in the West. University of Kansas Press, 1990.
 All senior officers in both the Union and Confederacy attended the same school, used the same textbooks, had the same teachers, and graduated within a few years of each other. They served together in the various military departments, in the Indian wars, and in one capacity or another, in the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Later, as senior field commanders, they all knew what their opponents were likely to do. With few exceptions, they all had inflated egos.
 Prior to the Civil War, the senior rank of the Army (discounting George Washington) was Major General, although the position was often filled by brigadier generals. With the expansion of the military during the Civil War, as massive number of combat commands, both Union and Confederate armies expanded their command structure to accommodate much larger units. Depending on circumstances and the availability of general officers, Brigadier Generals commanded brigades (consisting of from three to five regiments); major generals commanded divisions (three or four brigades); lieutenant generals commanded corps (three to four divisions), and generals command armies (three to four corps).
 What we know about the internal workings of the Confederacy today we owe in large measure to Sam Cooper, who maintained concise records and later turned these documents over to the U. S. government at war’s end.
 Robert E. Lee was an intellectual, a gentleman, and a pro-Union southerner whose final decision to resign his commission and join with his state was prompted by his loyalty to his home state. His last US Army rank was colonel, and that is the insignia he wore on his uniform throughout the Civil War, rather than the insignia of a full general. In Lee’s opinion, he had done nothing to warrant his full-general rank.
 Braxton Bragg may have been the worst general officer on either side of the Civil War. He lost nearly every engagement, shifted responsibility for his failures to junior officers, excessively disciplined subordinates. He detested LtGen Leonidas Polk, a subordinate, who had a close relationship with President Jefferson Davis. Bragg’s failures as a field general are among the primary reasons for the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.
 Joseph and Lydia Johnston had no children. Lydia passed away in 1887; Johnston passed away of a heart attack on 21 March 1891.
 Craig L. Symonds book, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, W. W. Norton, 1992.
 Union armies were named after rivers; Confederate armies were named after the places where they fought. Earlier, however, both the Union and Confederates has an “Army of the Potomac.” The confusion of this forced the Confederates to adopt a different naming convention.
 Steven E. Woodworth wrote that Hood had, more than General Hardee, urged Johnston to withdraw his force.
 Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, A Diary from Dixie.