As the staff of our army is that portion by which the annual appropriations for the support of the army are expended, a description of its duties, with some discussion of the manner in which these duties should be performed, would seem to be a matter not only of grave political importance, at this time especially, but of much personal interest to any one who pays taxes, or who, as a voter, has a voice in the selection of the different members of the government. Each voter or taxpayer in the country has an interest in requiring the efficiency of the staff to be raised to the highest degree, for by such efficiency only can the duties of the army be performed in the most economical manner.
By such efficiency on the part of the staff, it is believed that our army might, if necessity should require it, be largely increased without additional cost to the country,
The annual estimates for the support of the army are prepared solely by the staff, presumed to be experts, under the direction of the secretary of war, and the appropriations are, under his supervision, expended by it. If the officers composing it are ignorant of their duties, or negligent in the discharge of them, not only will the country be forced to pay excessive prices for the supplies required by the army, but the army itself will be crippled in its action by the indifferent material furnished it. As the proficiency of the staff is increased, so will the annual estimates for the support of the army approach accuracy; and the greater this proficiency, the more judiciously and economically will the annual appropriations be expended. The employment of inefficient staff officers is precisely similar to that of ignorant agents for the conduct of any large business interest in private life. In such business, if an agent is unskillful or from any cause incompetent, he is immediately discharged. If, on the other hand, he is attentive and skillful in the transaction of the business intrusted to him, his promotion is assured. His business tact and enterprise, combined with his good character as a man, alone determine his position, and if he is wanting in either of these, few opportunities for advancement are left him. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the army. However ignorant of his duties an officer may be, or incompetent in their discharge, his position and promotion are assured so long as he is guilty of no serious violation of law; and should his longevity be sufficient, he is promoted to the higher grades with the same certainty as are those who are most skillful and competent. By law he holds his commission during good behavior, and he is entitled to his promotion in the same manner and upon the same terms as the best. If he is gifted with a good constitution, and can by avoidance of exposure prolong his life so as to outlive those who are above him in rank, he reaches the higher and more important grades with equal certainty.
Our army presents the only known example of a business or profession, either public or private, in which incompetency and want of zeal bring the same substantial rewards as energy, capacity, and active attention to duty. Such a system of promotion is in violation of all the rules of common sense by which men are governed, as well as of those by which they are incited to strive for superior excellence, and the condition of our army at the outbreak of the rebellion affords an excellent example of its inevitable result. At that time the superior grades of the army were filled by old men, who, having outlived all above them, had been regularly promoted, in accordance with this system, to the positions which they occupied, regardless of the well-known fact that in the majority of instances they were unfitted, both by age and infirmity, to perform any military duty whatever. The spectacle was so pitiable, and the lesson it taught so apparent, that it might be supposed the government would have profited by such crushing experience, and been led by it to the adoption of wiser measures. Such, however, was not the case. Our system of army promotion is the same to-day as before the rebellion, and we are slowly, but surely, approaching the same result, from which the same experience, disastrous as it was to the country, must necessarily follow. At the close of the rebellion, and with the sad experience it had taught still before us, some effort at a change was made. The army was reorganized, and many young officers who had acquired experience, both of the regular and volunteer force, and who had especially distinguished themselves, were deservedly placed in high positions; but this spasmodic effort at reform was deemed sufficient, and we have again fallen back into the system of promotion by seniority, which, unless some dire necessity forces a change, must render the condition of our army equally as deplorable as when the rebellion commenced, by filling its superior grades by worn-out and superannuated old men. It seems needless to describe the effect which this system must produce upon the subordinate and junior officers of the army. In most instances it is deadening to all effort at improvement or professional skill, and suggests the natural conclusion: that, as superior rank is obtained only by longevity, each should strive to avoid all exposure, hardships, or dangers by which health may be impaired or life risked. But few years in our service are necessary to teach the young officer that the glowing enthusiasm for his profession with which he entered it is wasted, and that the only reward he can hope to obtain is the satisfaction a sense of having faithfully performed his duty brings him. This feeling, by which the large majority of our officers is governed, certainly leads to a kind of efficiency, but it is not sufficient to cause men to Undergo with alacrity and cheerfulness the hardships and dangers incident to a military life, and which in a campaign, if not met with enthusiasm, usually result in disaster or partial success only.
Ruinous as the system is to the efficiency of the line, it is even more so to the staff of the army. Under ordinary circumstances the individual responsibility of the line officer is by no means so great as that of the staff officer, nor are his duties so complicated. The duties of the line are generally performed by bodies of troops of greater or less size, and in accordance with specific orders or well-known custom and regulations. Its officers are usually under direct military supervision; so that not only can prompt and efficient discharge of duty be exacted, but, if necessary, the punishment required by law for any neglect can be inflicted. Besides, serving as the line officer ordinarily does, under the eye of a military superior and in the presence of his brother officers, he is naturally led to increased exertion. On the other hand, the officers of the staff are frequently posted at places remote from superior authority, where their duties are special, and necessarily left largely to their own discretion. If at bead-quarters, the commanding general can do little more than exercise a general supervision over them; for their duties are such as can be properly performed only by men who have had previous training therein, and it is rarely the case that the general either is or can be familiar with the details of such duties, or that he has the time to study them.
In other armies a certain number of vacancies as they occur are filled by selection, and this should be done in ours. The reason usually assigned in opposition to this is, that in the United States the officers thus chosen would not be always the most deserving, and that political influence rather than personal merit would determine the selection. Granted that this is true, and. that such a system would work evil to the service, yet it is contended that the evil would be temporary, for no reason is known why the deserving officer should not stand upon the same ground with such influence as the undeserving; and certainly that course which forces officers to familiarize themselves with the politics of the country, which brings them into closer contact with its representative men than is now the case, cannot fail to be of benefit, not only to each individual officer, but to the public service.
The staff of our army may properly be divided into two classes, namely the general staff, which is the adjutant-general's department, and the special staff, comprising the quartermaster's, the commissary, the medical, and the ordnance departments, ordinarily called the supply departments, the inspector-general's and the engineer departments, the signal bureau, and the bureau of military justice. The classification is based upon the nature of the duties, whether general or special, to be performed by the officers of each branch. This division of staff labor, with the rank and number of officers composing the various branches, is the result of long experience and many experiments; and though the trial to which it was subjected by the war of the rebellion was severe, it was clearly demonstrated that, with all its imperfections, the system was a good one, and afforded every facility required by the sudden calling into service of so many men to meet the emergency. The supply departments especially, gave the best evidence that their organization and methods of work were good, as modern history affords no example in which the difficulties of supplying such large bodies of troops, over so wide a field of operations and at such distances from the centres of supply, were so great; or in which an army, either large or small, has been better fed, better clothed, received better medical attendance, or been better armed than ours during the war of the rebellion. Indeed, the successful manner in which it was equipped and cared for at that time, notwithstanding the almost insurmountable obstacles to be overcome, has challenged the admiration of the world, and furnished examples which the military nations of Europe have not been slow to adopt, with such modifications as are readily suggested by good judgment and economy. Necessity developed originality of both thought and action, and ingenuity accomplished success; but this success was at an extravagant cost, which could have been avoided had the government, previous to the war, taken measures to educate its staff officers in all the duties pertaining to their profession. It may be said that the portion of the staff which had charge of the organization and mustering into service, as well as of the disbandment of our volunteer army, was equally fortunate in its work. The accurate enrollment of so many men, their prompt transportation to the distant places where their services were required, their successful muster out when the war closed, at their places of residence, without confusion, and in such manner that each man was enabled to receive without delay all due him from the government, may certainly challenge criticism, and is without a parallel. But the same extravagance attended this as did the supply of our armies, and as with the latter this unnecessary cost was the result of the short-sighted policy previously pursued towards the staff of our army. Whatever success attended the efforts of our staff during the rebellion was due solely to the lavish and wasteful use of the public credit, combined with the energetic and natural, but by no means educated, ingenuity of the younger staff officers.
In the absence of experience and practical understanding of the enlarged duties forced upon these officers by the war, an expenditure far beyond what was really required for the support of the army was a necessity. Without this expenditure, extravagant as it was, we should have been unable to keep in the field armies of sufficient size to overcome the rebellion; but it is claimed, and is susceptible of proof, that this extravagance could have been avoided had the administration of army affairs been conducted by the government in accordance with the rules by which any private business is carried on. It was not the fault of the officers that business qualification and knowledge had not previously been required of them, and that they had in reality been to a great extent deprived of any opportunity of acquiring such knowledge. With what justice, for example, could an officer who had for years been solely engaged in the staff duties of a frontier post, garrisoned rarely by more than a hundred men, be expected to assume similar duties pertaining to an army, without some mismanagement and wasteful extravagance? To hope for any other result was simply to expect an impossibility; and yet, singular as it may appear, both our government and people were of opinion that staff officers, who as boys had received theoretically a military education at West Point, and who as officers had been trained in the experience of small frontier posts, and in no other, were capable, in every sense, of conducting staff duty on the largest scale.
A thorough knowledge of the general rules of business is as necessary for the proper administration of army affairs as it is in any civil pursuit. No staff officer can perform his duties advantageously for the government who does not apply these rules in every transaction. Besides possessing this general business capacity, he should, if belonging to a supply department, understand and be familiar with the rules by which special trade in each of the articles he is required to supply is governed. The duties of the officers of the commissary department, for example, are to purchase and distribute in bulk the various articles of subsistence required by the different portions of the army. It is impossible that the officers of this department can judiciously purchase, or even distribute, the various articles, some of domestic, others of foreign growth or manufacture, which they are called on to furnish, if they do not welt understand and apply the rules which govern trade in such articles. Or, to cite another and even stronger example: the quartermaster's department is charged with supplying the army its clothing, quarters, transportation, cavalry horses and mules, forage, fuel, stationery, tentage, horse medicines, and all authorized articles not furnished by any other portion of the staff. It is evident that for the performance of this duty there is required on the part of its officers a good business knowledge of the lumber and building trades, the grain trade, the trade in horses and mules, of the railroad and shipping business, of freighting over the Western prairies, of the prices of skilled and unskilled labor, as well as of the trades pertaining to many other branches of industry. If these officers do not possess this information, or, in other words, if they are not practical business men, it is not possible that they can properly estimate for the amount required to supply the army with these articles, or that they can judiciously expend the appropriations made by Congress for their purchase, and, as is easily understood, they will be more than liable to purchase poor material at an extravagant cost. It was the want of this business knowledge on the part of some of our staff officers which caused portions of our army to be supplied with shoddy clothing, indifferent arms, worthless ammunition, etc., at the beginning of the rebellion, and which even now, in spite of the experience it gave us, causes in some instances such discharge of staff duty as would, if applied to the transaction of any private business, lead to its bankruptcy in a few months.
The medical and engineer departments and the bureau of military justice approximate most closely to the similar professions in civil life. As the improvements, discoveries, and practice in these departments are of much service to the corresponding civil professions, so their officers should be required to familiarize themselves with the progress made by these professions, and with the business rules by which they are governed, in order that the government may receive the benefit which such professional progress must work by increasing the capacity and efficiency of its officers.