A Union Officer Learns That You Can’t Have It Both Ways

A militia officer is refused a commission because of divided loyalties

District of Columbia Militia

District of Columbia Militia in May, 1861

The early months of 1861 were a tough time for the officer corps of the U. S. Army. Many of those officers, especially those from the South or from border states, had to make a final and binding decision about where their loyalties lay. Would they honor the commitment they had made to “bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and … serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever,” or would they renounce that oath to cast their lot with their native state?

Apparently there were some officers who, rather than declare forthrightly to which side they would adhere, wanted to straddle the fence as long as they could. One of these was Captain Francis B. Schaeffer.

Frank Schaeffer, a native of Baltimore, had fought honorably in the Mexican War, achieving the rank of Captain in the U. S. Army. He had left the army to try his luck in California, but returned east to take a clerkship in the Department of the Interior in Washington. As the secession crisis approached, Schaeffer also became the captain of a Maryland militia company called The National Rifles.

With the storm clouds of possible civil war gathering, Schaeffer was offered a commission as a Major in the Seventh Regiment of the District of Columbia militia. Schaeffer accepted. But when he reported to General Roger Weightman, commander of the District of Columbia militia, to receive his commission, things didn’t go the way he had anticipated.

Here’s how the New York Times of February 11, 1861 reported the encounter between Schaeffer and General Weightman:

A COMMISSION WITHHELD.

Gen. WEIGHTMAN, of the District Militia, refused a commission to Capt. SCHAEFFER, yesterday, under the following circumstances: Capt. SCHAEFFER had been notified to call at Gen. WEIGHTMAN’s office and receive his commission. When he reported himself, Gen. WEIGHTMAN inquired, “If Maryland were to secede, and you were ordered by your superior to make war on her, what would you do, Captain?” Capt. SCHAEFFER frankly responded, “Maryland, Sir, is my native State, and should I ever be in the unfortunate position you have supposed, I should resign my commission.” “Then, Captain, you cannot have it,” rejoined the General. Capt. SCHAEFFER appealed to Secretary HOLT, and protested against such a test being applied to him, which, if applied to all, he claimed, would vacate four-fifths of the commissions in the District Militia. He declared that he and his company, the Crack Rifle Corps, were ready to repel any invasion of the District from any quarter whatever, but he could say no more. The usual oath he was ready to take. Mr. HOLT sustained the action of Gen. WEIGHTMAN, and the case is now pending before the President.

The “Secretary Holt” to whom Schaeffer appealed was Joseph Holt, who had become President Buchanan’s Secretary of War when the former Secretary, John B. Floyd of Virginia, resigned and defected to the Confederacy.

Secretary of War Joseph Holt

Secretary of War Joseph Holt

Holt was a staunch Union man, and anti-slavery to boot. It was probably an easy call for him to back General Weightman’s declaration that a man whose first loyalty was not to the United States was not fit to be an officer in a militia that would very likely soon be called into Federal service.

I wasn’t able to find any mention of how President Buchanan handled the case (this happened during the interval between Abraham Lincoln’s election and inauguration – Buchanan was still the President). But it seems clear that Schaeffer never got his commission.

To his chagrin, Schaeffer found that divided or unclear loyalties in officers of a nation on the brink of civil war could not be tolerated. At least he had the integrity to declare, when pressed, that he was less than fully committed to the Union.

Schaeffer then went on to confirm the absolute necessity of upholding the principle that denied him a commission in the armed forces of the United States. Less than four months after that denial, he crossed the Potomac into Virginia, taking dozens of Washington residents with him, to fight for the Confederacy.

FEATURED ARTICLE: How Ulysses S. Grant Rose From Store Clerk to General

© 2014 Ronald E. Franklin 

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About RonElFran

Ron Franklin is pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
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