Nelson Appleton Miles served as Commander-in-Chief of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion from 1919 to1925. His brilliance as a military commander who found himself at the center of American history for over half a century made him a major figure in the story of the United States. A man of little formal education when compared to his peers his natural ability in the field of military operations and real genius as a leader of men made of him an individual whose destiny could not be denied.
Nelson Miles was born in Westminster, Massachusetts on August 8, 1839, the son of Daniel Miles and Mary Curtis. He attended the local public schools and at age sixteen went to Boston where he became a clerk in John Collamore's crockery store. With the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion young Miles, a popular figure with the local clerks and employees in the stores and markets of Boston, raised what became Company "E" of the 22nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Miles was elected captain, however Governor John A. Andrew felt he was too young and asked him to exchange his captaincy for a commission as a first lieutenant. Nelson was not pleased with this arrangement but he agreed and accompanied the regiment to Washington D.C. There he was temporarily assigned to the staff of Brigadier General Silas Casey. While on Casey's staff he came to the notice of Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard who requested that he be permanently assigned to his staff as an aide de camp.
Well over six feet in height and with a soldierly bearing that set him apart even from veteran West Pointers he made an immediate impression on those who met him. On meeting him on the western plains after the war, the artist Frederic Remington wrote of Miles, " I felt his presence before conscious of his identity, a good style of man. His personal looks I shall never forget." But it was not his looks but his determination and unflinching courage that was to make him, as one soldier put it, "the pride of the volunteer soldiers of the Union."
At the battle of Fair Oaks Lt. Miles led some reinforcements to the support of Col. James Miller's 81st Pennsylvania. Seeing Miller's body being carried to the rear, Miles assumed command of the regiment and led it in two brigade bayonet charges which drove the rebel forces from the field. During the close of the Peninsula Campaign while serving as a staff officer to Brigadier General John C. Caldwell, at Malvern Hill, Miles led the 81st to support Col. Francis Barlow's 61st New York. This resulted in his commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the 61st. During the Battle of Antietam, when Barlow was wounded at the Sunken Road, Miles assumed command. Barlow was promoted to Brigadier General and Miles was promoted to command of the 61st New York. General Caldwell wrote of Miles, that he had "added to the laurels he has acquired on every battlefield where he has been present."
This was only the beginning of a career in the Army of the Potomac that saw Nelson Miles participate in every major battle in the eastern theatre except Gettysburg. He was still recovering from a serious wound received at Chancellorsville while commanding a successful rearguard action. (It was for this action that he later received the Medal of Honor). He was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down and was furloughed home to Massachusetts where he soon made a complete recovery. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock said of Miles at Chancellorsville, "he was one of the bravest men in the army, a soldier by nature. Had we all such men in command of our troops we should never suffer disaster. He is one of that class of commanders who seeks the enemy and fights him-never hides his troops when the cannon sounds in his ears." Miles was successively promoted Brigadier General of Volunteers on May 12, 1864, and Brevet Major General USV on August 25, 1864. He participated in every major engagement, leading troops at Bristow Station, Mine Run, Wilderness, Poe River, Spottsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Deep Bottoms, Hatcher's Run, Ream's Station, Fort Stedman, Five Forks, Welden Railroad, Farmville, and Appomattox Court House. Bvt Major General Miles ended his Civil War career as commander of the First Division, Second Army Corps. He was promoted to Major General of Volunteers on October 21, 1865; he was just 26 years of age.
Nelson Miles post Civil War career began with the unenviable task of serving for almost a year as Jefferson Davis's jailer at Fort Monroe, Virginia. As a young officer, he was bound to obey the directives of Secretary of War Stanton and Assistant Secretary of War, Charles A. Dana. One of the directives, carried out only briefly, was putting leg irons on the ex President of the Confederacy and for this Miles was criticized, particularly in the Southern press. Davis called the young Major General "a heartless vulgarian" and also, "a damned ass." But, recalling the deaths suffered by Union soldiers in Andersonville, Miles was not too concerned about the opinion of his lone prisoner. Miles actually took a number of measures to ease Mr. Davis's situation, including getting him transferred from the damp casemate in the fort to a much more comfortable location in the officers quarters at Carroll Hall. On July 28, 1866 Miles was appointed Colonel of the 40th Infantry in the Regular Army. On March 15, 1869 he was transferred as Colonel to the 5th Infantry and began his fifteen-year career as an Indian fighter on the Great Plains.
Nelson Miles career involved conflicts with the Cheyenne's, Kiowas, Comanches, Sioux, and Apaches. In 1877, while in command of the Department of the Yellowstone Colonel Miles in one of the great struggles in United States history he succeeded in capturing Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce'. In 1880 Miles was promoted to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army. He successively commanded the Departments of the Columbia, the Missouri, Arizona and the Pacific. On April 15, 1890 he was promoted to Major General in the U.S. Army. It was while he was in command of an expedition to pacify an outbreak by the Sioux in 1890-91 that the battle of Wounded Knee occurred. Miles was outraged by the conduct of the troops under Colonel Forsyth, and termed it "about the worst I have ever known." It was, he said, the result of "either blind indifference or criminal stupidity."
In 1894 he was in command of the troops ordered into Chicago to suppress the riots occasioned by the Pullman Strike which did not endear him to the rising labor movement. From 1894 to 1895 General Miles commanded the Department of the East with headquarters at Governor's Island, New York. Following the retirement of John M. Schofield, Nelson A. Miles, then the senior Major General became the commander-in-chief of the Army, effective October 2, 1895. The Spanish-American War found him in charge of the organization and training of the volunteer forces with Major General William Shafter getting command of the expeditionary force. Miles was in at the finish in Cuba, however, and also in Puerto Rico. On February 11, 1901 President William McKinley promoted him to Lieutenant General. General Miles tendency to speak out on subjects without following military protocol got him into hot water, especially with the new President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt viewed Miles as a possible presidential rival and Miles felt that Roosevelt interfered in military matters about which he had no real understanding. Miles pointed out, somewhat indelicately, that Roosevelt had never charged up San Juan Hill, but up the neighboring Kettle Hill. While Miles was technically correct Roosevelt felt that the Lt. General had humiliated him and was insubordinate.
President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Elihu Root felt the easiest way to silence Miles's statements to the press was to send him on a tour of the Philippines and the Far East. This strategy backfired when Miles criticized the relations between the U.S. Army and the Filipinos, but it did keep him out of the country. General Miles was mustered out of the Army on August 8, 1903 when he had reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-four. Instead of the usual laudatory statement from the White House issued on such occasions, Miles was sent off with a perfunctory statement of his retirement signed by order of the Secretary of War. There was a considerable amount of criticism of Roosevelt and Root in the press for what was seen as shabby treatment of the nation's greatest soldier.
General Miles was an enthusiastic Companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion. He was elected a Companion of the 1st Class through the Commandery of Massachusetts on May 1, 1878, and was assigned Insignia No. 1818. During his lifetime he was very careful to transfer to the Commandery nearest to where he was stationed so that he could attend meetings as a member of that Commandery. He was a charter member of the Oregon Commandery on May 6, 1885 and that of Kansas on April 22, 1886 and that of California on July 26, 1887. He was elected Commander of the California Commandery on May 31, 1889. He transferred back to Massachusetts when he was appointed Adjutant General of the State Militia in 1903 by Governor William A. Douglas. After his tour of duty during the Douglas Administration in Massachusetts, General Miles returned to Washington D.C. (and that Commandery) where he lived the remainder of his life. In 1919 General Miles was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion serving in that capacity until his death in 1925.
Nelson Miles wrote a number of articles and two autobiographies, Personal Recollections and Observations of General Nelson A. Miles published in 1896 and Serving the Republic: Memoirs of the Civil and Military Life of Nelson A. Miles, Lieutenant General published in 1911. No less than six biographies of Miles have been written the most recent being A Hero to His Fighting Men: Nelson A. Miles 1839-1925 by Peter R. DeMontravel published in 1998.
On June 30, 1868, Nelson A. Miles married Mary Hoyt Sherman, daughter of Judge Charles Sherman and niece of General William T. Sherman. Mary Miles died on August 2, 1904 while the Miles and their daughter, Cecilia Sherman Miles, were spending the summer at West Point, New York, where their son, Sherman was a first classman at the U.S. Military Academy. General Miles died of a heart attack on May 15, 1925, while attending a circus in Washington D.C. with several of his grandchildren. His full military funeral with his casket draped in a flag provided by the Loyal Legion was from St. John's Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square, in Washington D.C. with internment in Arlington National Cemetery. His son, Colonel Sherman Appleton Miles, was a Hereditary Companion of the Commandery of the District of Columbia with Insignia No. 14443. General Miles was succeeded as Commander-in-Chief by the Senior Vice Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Purnell Frederick Harrington.
Return to Top of Document
Return to MOLLUS Index of Commanders-in-Chief
Return to MOLLUS Home Page
Return to MOLLUS Web Site Index Page