The Civil War Era has bequeathed to posterity a panoply of heroes, some more prominent in the annals of our national past than others. These courageous souls dedicated their lives to the essential moral issue that plagued our country throughout the nineteenth century: slavery. I’m a Union man all the way, so Ulysses S. Grant, a flawed man who achieved great deeds as a commander and President, is one of my role models. If you read history closely, however, you will come across many lesser-known individuals whose dedication to the war effort was no less valiant. Brigadier General E. D. Townsend, who served as Adjutant General of the U.S. Army during the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, was one such person. He worked closely with President Lincoln and oversaw administrative efforts on the part of the U.S. Federal Government to protect the newfound freedom of ex-slaves after the War. Source material on Townsend is meager, but I have managed to glean the highlights of his military career from his 1893 obituary and a couple of secondary sources.
He had all the right credentials to rise in the ranks. Having graduated from West Point in 1837, he fought in the Second Seminole War and (unfortunately) participated in the removal of the Cherokee to Oklahoma Territory. Like Grant, Townsend served briefly at a remote post on the Pacific Coast in the decade leading up to the Civil War. On the eve of the War, he gave an assessment of the defense of the southern fortresses in the event of a conflict. As both executive officer of the War Department and deputy Adjutant General during the Civil War, Townsend exhibited professionalism throughout his military career. According to one source, he had “an expert knowledge of files and office work.”
Most of Townsend’s long-lasting achievements occurred during his official tenure as Adjutant General after the War, from 1869 to 1880. Under his watch, the Adjutant General branch established its insignia, a shield with thirteen red and white stripes on the bottom and a blue field containing thirteen white stars on the top. Two insignia pins with this design grace the lapels of my Army dress uniform to this day. Townsend contributed a valuable resource for future historians when he oversaw the compilation of government documents related to the Civil War. This long process culminated in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” a few years after his death. The correctional facility at Fort Leavenworth prison is also Townsend’s handiwork, as the Adjutant General, wanting to improve the military prison system, founded the institution in 1875. What I most appreciate about Townsend is his supervision of the “Freedmen’s Bureau,” essentially a military court that treated legal matters pertaining to the abolition of slavery in the South. In a way, Townsend’s work in the Reconstruction Era mirrored his responsibilities during the Civil War. As Assistant Adjutant General in 1863, he assisted in the recruitment and training of blacks in the Union Army.
What drew me to Townsend is his legacy as an Adjutant General, a branch of the Army in which I currently serve as a second lieutenant. Moreover, this dramatic period in American history has always fascinated me. With a foot in both the War Department and Adjutant General’s Department, Townsend reminds us that both moral and military victory, sometimes, is determined as much on the battlefield as behind a desk.