The Officers of the 51st North Carolina


Sixty-six combat officers (does not include staff officers) served with the 51st North Carolina during the three years the regiment fought for Southern independence. Almost half of the men were farmers. The rest came from a variety of professions and trades. Almost all were wealthy, or they belonged to wealthy families. All but one of the men had some prior military experience, either in the army or in the militia.

The Fifty-First’s officer corps suffered a 65% attrition rate during the war. Fifteen resigned, fourteen were captured, eight were killed in combat, four were retired to the Invalid Corps, one was court-martialed and dismissed from service, and one was rejected by the examining board and later dropped from the regiment’s rolls. Of the thirty-seven officers commissioned when the regiment mustered into service, only nine served until the unit surrendered.

Longest and Shortest Service

James W. Lippitt, Company G, had the longest tenure of the captains. He received his commission on March 14, 1862. He became the regiment’s senior captain on September 17, 1863. He later served as acting major (Jun 1864 – Oct 1864) and acting colonel (Oct 1864 to the end of the war).

Lieutenant William A. Bullock served the shortest time as an officer. He enlisted as a private in Company E on May 12, 1862. On August 15, 1864, Bullock was elected third lieutenant by his peers. Unfortunately, the new lieutenant was captured at Globe Tavern four days later. He spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.


The regiment’s first commander, Colonel John L. Cantwell, resigned in October 1862 for personal reasons (he returned to service a year later as Captain of Company F, 3rd Regiment NCT). Three company commanders and one lieutenant also resigned before the end of 1862. The men were all plagued with health issues, and the War Department allowed them to leave the army. A fourth company commander, Captain Jospeh Underwood of Company K, submitted his resignation in December 1862, but the War Department denied his request. Underwood resigned again in September of the following year, and his resignation was accepted.

Lieutenant Colonel William A. Allen resigned in January 1863. Facing court martial for being drunk on duty and threatening to shoot the regiment’s major, Allen though it wiser to resign. Conversely, Second Lieutenant John W. McAllister resigned in May 1863, but withdrew his resignation when he was charged with being AWOL, disobeying orders, and conduct prejudicial to good order. McAllister feared that resigning while facing the charges would be taken as an admission of guilt. A few months later, the lieutenant was tried by court martial, found guilty of all charges, and dismissed from the service.

As the war drug on, it became increasingly difficult for officers to resign their commissions. First Lieutenant Joseph Bamberger of Company H submitted his resignation in March 1864. He did not wait for approval and immediately left the regiment. His resignation was rejected by the War Department, but Bamberger was gone. He was listed as AWOL the following month and was eventually dropped from the company’s rolls.


The Fifty-First’s officer cadre suffered 64% casualties (killed, wounded, captured) during the war.  Six of the eight officers killed or mortally wounded died during combat in Virginia in 1864. All fourteen POWs were captured during the Virginia campaigns. Thirty-nine officers were wounded, five of them twice. Three officers were allowed to resign after receiving debilitating wounds. Another four were reassigned to the Invalid Corps after being seriously wounded.

Andrew Jackson Ashley was appointed third lieutenant of Company E in March 1862. When company commander Willis P. Moore resigned in November 1862, all the company officers moved up one rank. Second Lieutenant Ashley was promoted again when First Lieutenant Giles Thompson was killed at Battery Wagner. Ashley assumed command of the company when Captain Willis H. Pope was killed at Drewry’s Bluff. Captain Ashley fared no better than his predecessors; he was mortally wounded on July 1, 1864, and he died two months later in a Richmond hospital.

Captain Andrew Jackson Ashley

Wrap Up

Serving as an officer in the 51st North Carolina proved to be a risky occupation. The percentage of officers who suffered casualties was nearly twice that of NCOs, and more than three times that of privates.

Steady attrition among the Fifty-First’s officers created a significant shortage of leadership within the regiment. By the end of 1864, Captain James Lippitt was the sole field officer, serving as acting colonel. Only nineteen company officers were on duty to fill the forty available slots. The officer ranks would be further depleted as the war wound down in the spring of 1865.

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