Once a man joined the army, he had little opportunity to get out. If he was an enlisted man, he could be discharged for some medical ailment, or possibly because he was too young or too old. And of course, death would get a man out of the army.
Officers were given a choice. They were allowed to resign their commissions. (We could have a whole discussion about the origins of commissions, and how in other armies commissions could be purchased and sold, but we will leave that for another time.)
An officer wanting out of his commission had to simply write a letter. William Y. Farthing, captain of Co. E, 37th NCT, wrote on November 12, 1862: “In 1861 I brought into service my Co. and enlisted it for twelve months. Last April I re-enlisted ‘for the war’ and induced most of my company to follow me. I am fifty years old and have two sons; one of my sons is now a member of my Co. and the other is about to enter the army being subject to the Conscription law. I own no slaves, therefore my wife and daughter are left without any male assistance on the plantation.” Farthing’s letter then went up the chain of command – his colonel, William Barber, approved it; Brig. Gen. James H. Lane approved; A. P. Hill approved it; Stonewall Jackson approved it; and, finally, the adjutant general’s office approved it. Farthing had his answer on November 28: his resignation had been accepted and he was free from his responsibilities in the army. We don’t know if Farthing ever learned that news or not. He died that same day in a hospital in Winchester of “pleuritis.”
Officers submitted letters of resignation for every conceivable reason. The most obvious was due to wounds. Lt. Samuel J. Helper , Co. B, 14th NCT, was wounded in the left arm during the battle of Sharpsburg (September 17, 1862). He submitted his resignation on May 15, 1863, citing his wound as the reason, and his resignation was accepted on June 1. Lt. William W. Hall of Thomas’s Legion resigned on July 25, 1863, due to an attack of typhoid fever. The same reason, “a severe case of typhoid fever,” was the cause of the resignation of Lt. Col. James M. Lowry of the 29th NCT. Lt. George W. Thompson of Company A, 31st NCT, submitted his resignation on March 28, 1863, citing “chronic rheumatism of the feet & ankles” as his reason. Lt. Col. John C. Keener of the 58th NCT submitted his resignation on June 16, 1863, stating that was “near fifty years of age… [and] now consider it my duty to retire from the [service] for the purpose of going home to attend to the wants &c., of my family.” Keener’s case was helped by his commanding officer, Col. John B. Palmer, who wrote that Keener “is not competent to perform the duties of the office he holds…” Keener’s resignation was accepted on or about that same date.
Not all resignations were accepted. Probably the most famous would be when on August 8, 1863, Robert E. Lee, following the battle of Gettysburg, offered to resign. Of course, Davis refused. Other resignations were also refused. Lt. Col. Samuel Silver, 58th NCT, tendered his resignation on March 16, 1865, stating that he did not feel qualified to perform his duties as commanding officer of the 58th North Carolina Troops, and was concerned about his family back in Mitchell County. Silver’s resignation was originally rejected. Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart writes that “The first reason assigned should have been [tested] by the Examining Board. The second is no reason. “ Stewart is saying that when Silver went before the examining board, they found him competent for the position assigned to him by his promotion, and his reason of incompetency will not stand. Stewart’s second remark needs no explanation. (Gen. Johnston also disapproved the resignation.)
So why was Keener’s accepted and Silver’s (initially) not? Possibly the point of the war (1863 vs. 1865). Age was probably the defining point. Keener was 50, Silver just 32. Had Silver’s resignation been accepted sooner, he would have been liable for service under the conscription law, and would have been put back in service. The same was true of William Blalock of the 26th NCT. He was given a medical discharge, but once the local enrolling officer saw that he was well, he attempted to get him back in service. Another case would be that of Lt. John Tipton of Co. G, 58th NCT. He submitted his resignation on March 26, 1862, considering himself to be “wholly incompetent for the duties and responsibilities of the office through a want of education.” His resignation was accepted on May 15, 1863, and he later served as a private in this same company.
These are just a few examples – there are hundreds from North Carolina alone.