Unsettled questions of officer seniority rankled in Washington's army during the winter of 1778-1779. It was not simply a matter of injured pride and self importance. There had been few vacancies caused in battle since the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777-1778, and therefore few opportunities to advance within the same regiment. Seniority mattered in such cases, yet there were inconsistencies in the dates of commissions. Some commissions seem to have carried forward with the original date while other officers were reappointed with a later one.
According to Heitman, this was the case for then 1st Lieutenant Isaac Morrison of the 1st New Jersey, whose commission terminated on November 10th, 1776 until his reappointment with the same rank on November 20th, 1776 in the 2nd establishment of the battalion. His brother officer John Van Angeln had his lieutenancy terminated on November 20th, 1776 until his reappointment on November 29th of that year. Morrison, it will be recalled from prior posts in this series, brought his commander Col. Matthias Ogden up on court martial charges during this period of heightened sensitivity to rank and seniority, and Van Anglen was called as a supporting witness.
The difference in dates mattered because seniority was not only the basis for preferment but also came into play when regiments were reduced or combined and surplus officers declared supernumerary. Reorganization of the Continental battalions was in the wind that winter, and in fact Congress declared in March, 1779 that it only required three of New Jersey's four regiments as that state's quota in the coming year. Consequently, the 4th New Jersey battalion under Col. Ephraim Martin was disbanded.
Even before reaching that decision - one based on the inability to support at its current size a standing army that had been engaged for three years service - Congress was well aware of the confusion created by the lack of any consistent standard for determining relative rank among the various branches of services and battalions of the different states. On November 24th, 1778, Congress passed a number of resolutions in an effort to provide uniformity. As is often the case with bureaucracies, the legislation only served to make an already confused situation more contentious:
" 1. For determining rank in the continental line between all colonels and inferior officers of different states, between like officers of infantry and those of horse and artillery, appointed under the authority of Congress, by virtue of a resolve of the 16 September, 1776, or by virtue of any
subsequent resolution prior to the 1 January, 1777; all such officers shall be deemed to have their commissions dated on the day last mentioned and their relative rank with respect to each other, in the continental line of the army shall be determined by their rank prior to the 16 day of September, 1776. This rule shall not be considered to affect the rank of the line within any State or within the corps of artillery, horse, or among the sixteen additional battalions, where the rank hath been settled; but shall be the rule to determine the relative rank within the particular line of artillery so far as the rank remains unsettled.
2. In the second instance preference shall be given to commissions in the new levies and flying camp.
3. In determining rank between continental officers, in other respects equal, proper respect shall be had to their commissions in the militia, where they have served in the continental army for the space of one month.
4. All colonels and inferior officers appointed to vacancies since the 5th day of January 1777, shall take rank from the right of succession to such vacancies.
5. In all cases where the rank between two officers of different states is equal, between an officer of state troops and one of cavalry, artillery, or of the additional battalions, the precedence is to be determined by lot.
6. All officers who have been prisoners with the enemy, being appointed by their State, and again enter into the service, shall do it agreeably to the above rule, that is to say: All of the rank of captain, and under, shall enter into the same regiment to which they formerly belonged; and if the Regiment is dissolved or otherwise reduced, they shall be intitled (sic) to the first vacancy in any regiment of the State in their proper rank, after the officers belonging to such regiment have been provided for.
7. The rules of rank above laid down between officers of different states, are to govern between officers of the same State, except in cases where the State may have laid down a different rule or already settled their rank."
There was a good deal more in this line, but the result was that officers who were already feeling unsupported by their respective states in their material wants had even more cause for resentment when attempting to establish their relative seniority based on dates of commission. On February 7th, 1779, Washington wrote to William Maxwell, the commander of the New Jersey Brigade, attaching a report from a Congressional committee with its understanding of the dates of commissions in the New Jersey Line:
"Inclosed (sic) you have a copy of the arrangement of the New Jersey Regiments as made out by the committee of arrangement appointed by Congress. You will observe that all the officers, subordinate to a Major have the respective dates of
their commissions regularly ascertained, but that the dates of the superior officers are left open.In case the relative rank of these officers cannot be amicably settled among themselves, it will be proper to have their claims discussed by a board of field officers, or, such as are totally disinterested in the matter. As Colonel Martin has declined the service it may make the arrangement easier should it be found necessary to recur to the determination of a board of field or General officers."
If Washington held out hope that this matter would indeed be resolved amicably, his confidence was sadly misplaced. Two weeks later, in the very letter in which he informes Maxwell that colonel Matthias Ogden would stand before a court martial for "charges of a very high nature", he acknowledges receipt of a conflicting report regarding the seniority of 15 officers in the Brigade that had been transmitted to him by Col. Ogden.
The conflict over seniority affected the lower ranks of the officer corps as well as senior commanders. Resentment boiled over on February 2nd, 1779 in the 1st New Jersey with the appointment to Captain of Aaron Ogden, the younger brother of its Colonel Matthias Ogden (and my direct ancestor). Aaron Ogden had a long record of service with the regiment. He held a lieutenant's commission dating from November 29th, 1776, but had been regimental paymaster from December, 1775 in the first establishment until he resigned that post. Heitman gives the date of this resignation as February 1, 1779, but Stryker says he resigned as paymaster on April 1st, 1778. Stryker also says that he was appointed Captain-Lieutenant, the senior lieutenant commanding the "Colonel's Company", but gives no date for this commission. Another source indicates that his promotion to Captain-Lieutenant came in January, 1779.
Furthermore, Aaron Ogden was addressed as "Major" following his appointment as Brigade Major in March, 1778 on Maxwell's staff, where he also acted as Aide de Camp. As a staff officer at the brigade level he was no longer a line commander, but his promotion to Captain in his brother's battalion at a time when tensions over seniority were high and there was every likelihood that others would soon be declared supernumerary was too much for some of the other officers in the regiment to bear.
In April, 1779, just after the conclusion of the court martial of Colonel Matthias Ogden, at least two Lieutenants made a formal complaint to General Washington that their seniority had been disregarded and they had been "injured in rank" by the promotions of Aaron Ogden and the man who succeeded him as Captain-Lieutenant in the 1st New Jersey. One of these petitioners, Lt. Jonathan Snowden of the 1st New Jersey, appears to have felt so aggrieved that "he had reason to consider himself exempted from duty 'till his claim of rank was settled." His commanders did not agree, and he was brought before a brigade court martial on charges of "disobedience of orders and neglect of duty." Although Snowden was acquitted of the charges, Washington took issue with the findings in his General Orders of April 14th, 1779:
"The General is sorry he cannot agree with the Court in opinion: General Maxwell's reply related by Captain Voorhees is susceptible of different interpretations and it appears by Ensign Bishop's evidence that Lieutenant Snowden did not found his refusal to do duty upon General Maxwell's exemption, but declared that " He intended to exempt himself "; Lieutent. Snowden's conceiving himself agrieved (sic)in rank was no justification for disobeying a regular order and refusing his tour of duty: He should have represented his case and applied for redress to the Commander in Chief and in the mean time continued to perform the duties of his station."
All of these matters of rank arose in the months and weeks prior and subsequent to the court martial of Colonel Matthias Ogden on charges of misconduct brought forward and supported by several of his officers. Whether his younger brother received preferential treatment or advanced on his own merits was certainly cause for resentment, though in fairness to my ancestor he served with evident distinction. But were other factors at work besides inconsistencies in dates of commission and suspicion of nepotism? Was there a geographic and social hierarchy within the officer corps of the 1st New Jersey? We shall examine this hypothesis in the next post in this series.