Chaos in Command, Part 1: Colonel Cantwell Resigns

In an earlier post, “Feuding in the Officers’ Ranks,” I described the squabbling among the Fifty-First’s officers that left the regiment with only one field officer for almost four months. In this three-part series I add further details gleaned from documents contained in the NARA compiled service records of some of the officers involved during this chaotic period of the regiment’s history.

John Lucas Paul Cantwell, a Wilmington cotton broker, was serving as the colonel of the 30th North Carolina Militia when the war started. Cantwell wanted more than a militia command. He ran for election as colonel of the Eighth Regiment North Carolina Volunteers and lost. A few weeks later, he tried to be elected commander of the Tenth Volunteers. Once again, he was defeated.

Cantwell, frustrated in his attempts to gain a regimental command, applied for and received a captain’s commission from the state. Commission in hand, he raised an infantry company, mustered into State service as Cantwell’s Company, Wilmington and Weldon Railroad Guards.

Commanding a company of railroad guards did not satisfy Cantwell’s ambition. He and James Lippitt, a Wilmington druggist, began organizing a regiment from the companies enrolling in the Cape Fear region. Cantwell finally got his wish when, on April 30, 1862, he was elected colonel of the 51st North Carolina.

Unfortunately, Colonel Cantwell would only command the regiment for six months. While the Fifty-First was deployed around Kinston, guarding against Yankee raids out of New Bern, Cantwell unexpectedly resigned. He submitted his resignation on October 19, 1862. Cantwell immediately took leave and headed home.

The Hon the Secty of War, Richmond VA

Sir, Circumstances of an imperative and personal character, requiring my immediate attention make it necessary for me both as an act of justice to myself & the service to resign the colonelcy of this regiment. I therefore have the honor to offer this, my resignation, to be unconditional & immediate. Very Respectfully, yr obt servant &c John L. Cantwell, Col Cmdg 51 R NCT

PS I shall re enter the service.” [NOTE: Cantwell did reenter service on November 13, 1863, as captain of Company F, 3rd Regiment NCT.]

From NARA Compiled Service Record of John L. Cantwell

Colonel Catwell’s resignation began making its way up the chain of command, first to Brigadier General James G. Martin, commander of the Department of North Carolina. From Martin, the resignation was sent to Brigadier General Samuel French in Petersburg and then to Major General G. W. Smith in Richmond. Finally, Assistant Secretary of War John A. Campbell accepted the resignation, effective November 1, 1862.

From NARA Compiled Service Record of John L. Cantwell

Cantwell’s resignation was the first in a series of events that eventually left the 51st North Carolina with only one field officer. With his departure, regimental command devolved to Lt. Colonel William Allen. Allen would not command the regiment as long as his predecessor had.

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