The Highest Ranking Officer in the Confederate Army

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the March 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

One interesting bit of trivia about the Civil War is the identity of the highest ranking officer in the Confederate Army. It was not Robert E. Lee, although that is the answer that many people would give. Nor was it Albert Sidney Johnston; he was number two. At least he was number two until the Battle of Shiloh, where he was mortally wounded. It was also not Joseph E. Johnston, even though he famously believed that it should have been. The highest ranking officer in the Confederate Army was Samuel Cooper, which leads to the next questions. Who was Samuel Cooper, and how did he come to be the South’s highest ranking officer?

Samuel Cooper

Samuel Cooper was born on June 12, 1798 in New Hackensack, New York. This means that the Confederacy’s highest ranking officer was a Yankee. At the age of 15 Cooper entered the U.S. Military Academy and two years later graduated an unimpressive 36th out of a class of 40. He began his military career in artillery and rose to the rank of captain. In 1837, after 12 years in artillery, he was appointed chief clerk in the War Department. He continued to serve at the War Department until 1841, and then he left Washington and was a staff officer for two years in the Second Seminole War. After this he returned to the War Department, where he continued to rise through the ranks and where he remained until the Civil War.

Sidney Smith Lee

It was Cooper’s personal life more than his professional life that led him to the Confederacy. In 1829 Cooper married Sarah Maria Mason, a daughter of John Mason and a granddaughter of George Mason, who was a Founding Father and the patriarch of the prominent Mason family of Virginia. This marriage connected Cooper to Virginia aristocracy. Ann Maria Mason, the sister of Cooper’s wife, was married to Sidney Smith Lee, the older brother of Robert E. Lee. Samuel Cooper also was a close friend of Jefferson Davis from the time of Davis’ term as Secretary of War. When U.S. Army officers were choosing their loyalties just prior to the Civil War, Cooper sided with the Confederacy, and his connections to prominent Southerners factored into his decision. He resigned his commission on March 7, 1861 and went to the Confederate capital in Montgomery, Alabama to offer his services to President Jefferson Davis, who had been inaugurated less than a month earlier. Cooper was commissioned a brigadier general, and about two months later Cooper was promoted to full general, the first to attain that rank in the Confederacy and hence the highest ranking officer in the Confederate Army. The best evidence is that Cooper attained this distinction because he was the first U.S. Army officer to offer his services to Jefferson Davis.

Samuel Cooper’s tombstone

Davis was aware of Cooper’s organizational and administrative skills and therefore requested that Cooper serve in an administrative capacity, which Cooper did quite well throughout the war as the Confederate Army’s Adjutant and Inspector General. After Richmond fell, Cooper fled south with Davis and his party, but Cooper’s age and health forced him to remain in North Carolina while the others moved on. Cooper’s greatest contribution to history was removing the Confederate military documents from Richmond, preserving them, and turning them over to the U.S. government. Those documents were made part of the Official Records, and Cooper’s actions, in the words of one historian, resulted in “a priceless contribution to the history of the period.” After the war, Cooper returned to his pre-war home near Alexandria, Virginia, although his family’s house had been destroyed by Union troops to make room for a fort. Cooper and his family lived on the property in an overseer’s house and subsisted on farming. Cooper died on December 3, 1876 at age 78, and he never regained his U.S. citizenship. In spite of this, his simple tombstone notes that he served both the U.S.A. and the C.S.A.

Our history has recorded the brilliant accomplishments of many Civil War generals of both sides. But our history has recorded almost nothing about what Samuel Cooper did during the Civil War. Some might say that while Confederate officers in the field were winning renown (or notoriety, depending on their performance and on a person’s point of view), Samuel Cooper spent the war sitting at a desk pushing papers. In other words, the highest ranking officer in the Confederacy was an administrator, a military bureaucrat. As a bureaucrat, Cooper’s duties took place behind the scenes, and his specific contributions were not easily observed. Perhaps because Cooper seemed to render such seemingly unimportant and peripheral service to the Confederate cause, Jefferson Davis wrote of Cooper in 1877, “The many who measure the value of an officer’s service by the conspicuous part he played upon the fields of battle, may not properly estimate the worth of Cooper’s services in the war between the States, but those who…were in a position to know what he did, what he prevented, what he directed, will not fail to place him among those who contributed most to whatever was achieved.” If Davis was not just engaging in hyperbole when he wrote those words, then this amounts to high praise for someone whose chief function was as a bureaucrat. Rightly or wrongly, there are perhaps no more reviled professions than bureaucrats, lobbyists, and lawyers, and for some people the best that can be said about all of them is that they are a necessary evil. Some people might even go so far as to drop the descriptor “necessary.” But if we accept Davis’ assertion that Cooper made important contributions, then this provides evidence that bureaucrats can be valuable. As for lobbyists and lawyers, the reader is left to search for evidence in support of the assertion that these occupations are valuable.