Plucking and Promotion: Military Talent Management Lessons from the Past


In the past few months the challenges of talent management and the prospect of reforming the promotion and personnel systems of the U.S. armed forces have begun to percolate to the top tier of defense discussion. This has been sparked by a number of developments. In the Army, the separation boards and the anxiety surrounding them have driven suggestions to shake up the decades-old methodology of selection and promotion. In the Navy, recent concerns over the results of a lieutenant commander selection board and the prospect of the voluntary departure of talented officers have contributed to proposals for changes to the system. Defense analysts outside the uniformed ranks have also made a compelling case for reform in order to ensure that the future force has the right people.

There is a tendency in our modern military to consider the challenges we face as unique to our time. However, the American military has a long history of disaffected junior officers, concerns over the quality of our forces, and bureaucratic struggle over personnel management. As we address the complexity of bringing an industrial age personnel policy into the twenty-first century, the experience of the U.S. Navy in the nineteenth century might guide how we approach the issues.

Dead Men’s Shoes

For the first half of the U.S. Navy’s history, promotion was based on simple seniority. The date that you entered service dictated your rank. Promotion opportunity occurred each time an officer retired, a slot opened, and everyone moved up one place on the seniority list. Sometimes this hapened when an officer died, since there was no mandatory retirement and some senior officers hung on well after their operational or administrative usefulness. It was all about timing. The only way for an officer to be promoted outside of waiting for his turn was direct Congressional action, as when Lieutenant Stephen Decatur was promoted to Captain after his raid on Tripoli Harbor during the Barbary War.

Junior officers thought this system was a mess. As the Navy grew in size, the maintenance of the seniority list became an administrative burden, and more and more talented officers felt like they were slipping through the cracks. In some cases, lieutenants weren’t promoted out of the junior ranks until they were in their fifties, and some officers didn’t become captains until their seventies. This remained the foundation of the personnel system that was in place through the dawn of the twentieth century. For more than 100 years seniority and timing were the only things that mattered.

In the 1840s and 1850s a political awakening sprang up across America known as the “Young America” movement. Rolled up with the ideals of manifest destiny, accelerating technological change, and growing calls for social reform, it was stoked by the rise of the post-revolutionary generation in American politics. Writing at the start of the movement, the editor and political writer John L. O’Sullivan said that, “all history is to be re-written…all old subjects of thought and all new questions arising, connected more or less directly with human existence, have to be taken up again and re-examined.” Political leaders like future Presidents James Polk and Franklin Pierce embraced the movement and used it to reform parts of the Democratic Party.

Throughout the U.S. Navy’s first century there were a number of attempts to change how the promotion system worked. They all failed, until the burgeoning Young America movement sailed up alongside a group of naval reformers in the 1850s. Commander Samuel Du Pont became a central figure. Although he would become one of the Navy’s first admirals and a Civil War squadron commander, he was frustrated by the system. He had demonstrated his combat skill and leadership during the Mexican War, but despite his obvious fitness for senior command, he could not be promoted to captain simply because of timing.

Reform from the Inside

Corresponding with both peers and subordinates, Du Pont discovered he was not alone in his dislike of the promotion system, and his frustration only grew. Along with a number of fellow members of the Naval Lyceum, he made the case that the antiquated promotion system, designed for another age, was in desperate need of reform. It was time to challenge the senior officers who were simply dead weight.

Franklin Pierce was elected president in 1852 and Du Pont wrote to James Dobbins, the new Secretary of the Navy, who was already looking at ways to improve the service. The commander insisted on the need for reform and found that the political leaders, proponents of the Young America movement and stalwart opponents of “old fogeyism,” were open to the idea. Du Pont worked on developing a solution and personally began writing a draft of the legislation needed to implement it. After talking with others, the Secretary agreed that there was a need for promotion and personnel reform and wrote in his 1854 Annual Report to Congress, “The magic touch of reform is needed, and if skillfully applied will impart to the now drooping body of the Navy a robust health and a new life.”

In 1855 Dobbins and President Franklin Pierce pushed the measures suggested by Du Pont through Congress “to promote the efficiency of the Navy.” The program established a board made up of captains, commanders, and lieutenants, tasking them with reviewing the personnel record of every officer in the Navy. The board poured over records for more than a month before they announced that they had found over 200 officers who were “unfit for service.” Some of them were cashiered outright; others were placed on retired lists with furlough pay or with leave of absence pay.

The board became known as “the Plucking Board.” When they reviewed records they considered everything from officers’ performance during the Mexican War to their drinking habits and personal reputations. Following the “plucking” there was a rash of promotions, as men on the seniority list moved up into the now vacant positions. Junior officers whose career progression had been stagnant for a decade assumed greater responsibility and opportunities for command expanded.

The Plucking Board had some positive results. Officers who would become critical leaders in the future Navy like David Farragut and Andrew Hull Foote were moved up in seniority. David Dixon Porter, who had taken a leave of absence to pursue a merchant career, returned. These leaders and many others assumed positions of responsibility and prominence on the eve of the American Civil War. However, the story didn’t stop there.

The Plucking Board was dissolved after its work was complete, but not everyone agreed with the results or the choices made by the board. The officer corps squabbled and argued over the fairness and wisdom of the decisions, and schisms quickly broke out within the Navy. The officers suddenly promoted up the navy list became known as the “jackass promotions.” Some of the men who were dismissed had served in combat in the Mexican War and many asked how the government could fire officers who had risked their lives for their country. Others questioned how an officer’s family, personal, or moral issues could be used to judge them instead of purely combat performance and experience.

The dismissed officers began to plead their case to their elected representatives. Congress became involved. An elaborate appeals process was established, and a third of the officers “plucked” were ultimately re-instated at their previous rank. It swelled the officer corps and created an even bigger number on the seniority list in the midgrade ranks. This ensured that those who didn’t receive “jackass promotions” were stuck as junior officers even longer. The schisms in the naval culture remained, a function of the way officers were pitted against one another. There wasn’t another attempt to reform the system for more than sixty years, and the initial introduction of promotion by selection didn’t happen for another eight decades.

Past, Present, & Future

Carl Von Clausewitz wrote in On War, “the critic must naturally refer to military history.” This is as true when we talk about the organizational and administrative aspects of military affairs as it is when discussing strategy and tactics. In order to help chart a course toward reforming the twenty-first century military personnel system, today’s advocates ought to consider the places that we have been before. The experience of Samuel Du Pont and the U.S. Navy in the 1850s offers three possible lessons that could help reform-minded officers today.

First, we must remember that when it comes to personnel and promotion systems, there is unlikely to be a simple solution. A “one time fix” may appear to solve the immediately apparent symptoms, but true solutions aren’t actually that easy. Du Pont and his fellow reformers certainly had a solution, but it really only solved their problem, leaving later generations of officers to fend for themselves. Just having an idea is not enough. It must be executable and address root problems.

This leads to the second lesson. A solution that might be the right answer in the near-term can also be the wrong answer in the long-term. The second- and third-order effects of changes must be studied and understood. We may be willing to accept some negative effects if the change is good on the whole. However, that decision must be made consciously and by looking out toward a distant horizon. What a solution does in the next promotion cycle matters, but so do potential unintended consequences that may make things even worse five or ten years down the line. The unexpected schisms that emerged in the Navy’s officer corps in the 1850s were very real, and they introduced numerous leadership challenges into the fleet. Additionally, the re-instatement of plucked officers didn’t just set back the attempt at reform; it actually made things worse than before by expanding the glut of officers in the middle ranks. For any contemporary effort to reform personnel systems to succeed, foresight will be critical.

Third, reform requires the involvement of many powerful stakeholders with deeply vested interests. In Du Pont’s day the Navy and the Army ran their own personnel systems. This decentralization could create conflicts between the services, but it also allowed them to try new things individually and develop best practices. Today our system lacks the same kind of flexibility and most reforms will have to be considered within a joint context. The Plucking Board also demonstrated, as the Chief of Naval Personnel recently pointed out, that a key element of any attempt to improve or modernize the system is Congressional support and engagement. This is more than just an Army problem, or a Navy and Marine Corps problem, or an Air Force problem. Bringing the personnel system into the twenty-first century is an American problem.

From Samuel Du Pont’s Plucking Board, to the introduction of promotion by selection with the Naval Personnel Act of 1916, to today’s calls for reform, there is a long military history involving the issues of promotion, retention, and maintaining a quality fighting force. This history won’t provide exact answers for how to handle the complex issues faced today, but it will provide guideposts. By avoiding quick fixes, working hard to determine second- and third-order effects, and making sure it engages with all relevant parties, today’s reform movement can help introduce a modern personnel system for our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines.


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He has served as a search and rescue pilot and led a helicopter gunship detachment in Operation Unified Protector and in counter-piracy and counter-terror support missions on the Middle East. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute and editor of the book 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.


Photo credit: NAVFAC