Military Procedures & Events--Commission Resignation



A resignation is the formal act of leaving, or quitting, a position. During the nineteenth century, military officers typically could resign from service if they had fulfilled the conditions of their commission (or contract). Enlisted soldiers were not permitted to resign.

Resignations were relatively common before the American Civil War, by officers who saw little chance for promotion in the small, highly competitive officer corps, or by those who sought to find their fortune outside the military. There was little stigma attached to resigning, and numerous officers returned to military service in times of war. For instance, George McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant—two of the Union’s most prominent generals—had resigned their military commissions in the 1850s, yet returned to service in 1861.

Southern secession and the beginning of the Civil War sparked a wave of resignations from the U.S. Army. Of 1,080 officers on active duty in the regular army in 1861, 286 resigned (or were dismissed) to enter Confederate service. Most famous among these was Robert E. Lee, who submitted his resignation to the Secretary of War on April 20, 1861, three days after his home state of Virginia seceded. Some other officers in the U.S. Army in 1861 resigned not to switch political sides, but to better their chances of promotion. The overwhelming majority of Union soldiers during the Civil War were part of the state-based volunteer force. Since promotion was slow in the small permanent army, these ambitious officers resigned to accept positions with the volunteers, and frequently found themselves advancing rapidly in rank.

Resignations continued to occur among Confederate and Union officers during the war. Reasons ranged from health problems, to distaste of military service, to seeking opportunities elsewhere, to leaving the military out of shame or a sense of responsibility for a battlefield defeat. Sometimes resignations were more symbolic than sincere, and military officials were not required to accept a resignation. Robert E. Lee offered his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis following the loss at Gettysburg. Davis rejected the resignation and Lee continued to command his Army of Northern Virginia for nearly two more years. (Wikipedia; American Military History, 188-192)

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