Reenacting has gone from a pastime where participants were only expected to “act” like soldiers for a few hours over the course of a weekend to one where living history opportunities are encouraged and fostered throughout the course of the event. In this atmosphere it is essential that each “soldier” is aware of and practicing the basic military courtesies of the period and how commissioned officers and enlisted men were expected to conduct themselves. Military manuals and personal accounts provide great insight into this topic.
How was extending courtesies to officers viewed by the military and why was it important?
“One of the first things a soldier has to learn on entering the army, is a proper military deportment towards his superiors in rank: this is nothing more than the military way of performing the courtesies required from a well-bred man in civil life, and a punctual performance of them is as much to his credit as the observances of the ordinary rules of common politeness.”
“Courtesy among military men is indispensable to discipline. Respect to superiors will not be confined to obedience on duty, but will be extended to all occasions. It is always the duty of the inferior to accost or to offer first the customary salutation, and of the superior to return such complimentary notice.”
What were some of the parameters for extending courtesy to officers? How was this done? When was saluting required or not required?
“When a soldier without arms, or with side-arms only, meets an officer, he is to raise his hand to the right side of the visor of his cap, palm to the front, elbow raised as high as the shoulder, looking at the same time in a respectful and soldier-like manner at the officer, who will return the compliment thus offered.”
“A non-commissioned officer or soldier being seated, and without particular occupation, wil rise on the approach of an officer, and make the customary salutation. If standing, he will turn toward the officer for the same purpose. If the parties remain in the same place or on the same ground, such compliments need not be repeated.”
“The following customs are equally binding, though not provided for in Regulations:- When soldiers are marching in the ranks, they do not salute, unless ordered at the time. If employed at any work, they are not expected to discontinue their employment to salute.”
“A soldier or non-commissioned officer, when he addresses an officer, or is spoken to by one, salutes; on receiving the answer or communication from the officer, he again salutes before turning to go away.”
“When a soldier enters an officer’s quarters without arms, or with side-arms only, he takes off his cap and stands in the position of a soldier, and delivers his message or communicates what he came for in as few words as possible and to the point.”
“When a soldier enters an officer’s quarters, he remains standing in the position of a soldier until invited to sit down. When soldiers are in a room and an officer enters, they should rise and remain standing until invited to sit down.”
What about non-commissioned officers? What qualities were they expected to possess? Were non-commissioned officers entitled to explicit obedience from the men under their supervision? How were they expected to handle themselves?
“Non-commissioned officers are entitled to implicit obedience from the soldieries, and they should be obeyed and respected by the men; and when a non-commissioned officer fails in obtaining this regard and obedience from the men, he fails in his most essential qualification.”
“The confidence of the soldiers in the integrity of a non-commissioned officer can only be obtained by his being rigidly just and impartial to those under him, and by keeping his temper on all occasions, and discharging his duty without passion or feeling. A non-commissioned officer who cannot control himself will find difficulty in controlling those over whom he is placed.”
“Confidence and energy are the progressive traits of the non-commissioned officer who would be successful. Let him first feel he is right, and acting in obedience to orders and instructions, and then do his duty with decision and firmness; and success will be more certain, and failure much less discreditable.”
What were some of the day to day duties of Corporals? What was expected of them?
“The duties of a corporal are simple, and depend for their successful performance mainly upon his capacity to control and direct soldiers in the performance of their duty. They take charge of the smaller details for fatigue and police duty in camp and garrison duty: their most important duty if that of corporal of the Guard. They frequently succeed to the responsibilities of Sergeant in his absence, and should therefore be familiar with his duties.”
“Corporals should be living examples for their soldiers in the neatness and cleanliness of their clothing, arms, and accoutrements. They should be the first to fall into ranks at roll-calls, and should have their tents or bunks, wherever their quarters, always systematically in order.”
“Corporals should bear in mind that they are entitled to implicit obedience from the men placed under them; and, whilst they are not usually authorized to confine soldiers on their own judgment, they should always be sustained by their superiors in the performance of their duties, and in the execution of their office.”
“When a soldier neglects his duty towards a corporal, the corporal should at once report the fact to the first sergeant, whose duty it is either to decide in the matter, or to report it to his company commander.”
What about recently promoted Corporals, what advice do the manuals impart to them?
“The corporal should insist upon obedience, without being arbitrary, and should maintain his position as a non-commissioned officer firmly, but without arrogance. When he first receives his appointment, his calibre meets with the severest tests. Soldiers, for a time, will be apt to try the material he is made of, which they do in many ways, and by progressive steps, and, if not checked, will increase to a complete disregard, and terminate in an entire inefficiency of the corporal.”
What were some of the duties of Sergeants? What were the differences/similarities between the duties of Corporals and Sergeants?
“Sergeants generally have a more general supervision of the men, whilst corporals have more of the detail to attend to. The company should be divided into a number of squads proportionate to the number of duty-sergeants in the company, with a proportionate number of corporals, who should have charge when the sergeants are absent.”
“It is difficult to draw the line between the duties of the corporal and those of the sergeant. There is really no great difference in their duties. Sergeants generally have larger details under their charge, and have corporals under their direction to assist them. They are usually intrusted with more responsible duties, and they are supposed to have greater experience, and to approach nearer the commissioned officer in a knowledge of all military matters.”
Did the armies really expect NCOs to handle themselves in the manner previously described? Was it that important that they did so?
“Corpls. Ball & Coleman will be reduced to the ranks to morrow for long continued neglect & ignorance of duty. They have done no one very serious thing but have been deficient in a number of small ones. They could not desist from talking & laughing in the ranks had to spoken to every day or two about standing at attention at roll call. These things are not allowed in a private, & in a non-commissioned officer, who is expected to be perfection itself in all the minutiae of military affairs, it cannot be endured. Again they had no control over their squads. They were rolled & tumbled about at the will of the men. Disobedience to Corpls. Is the germ and fountainhead of insubordination in the whole army.”
As this article illustrates military deportment and courtesy were considered absolutely vital to the health, discipline and daily routine of army life. A close adherence to these guidelines will prove beneficial to today’s living historians wishing to accurately portray life in the army.
Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officers & Soldiers by August V. Kautz
The Military Handbook & Soldiers Manual by Louis LeGrand
For country, Cause & Leader: The Civil War Journal of Charles B. Hayden