In the mid-1800s there was no retirement pay and no retired list. This led to slow promotion and a heap of discontent among the ranks. Officers advanced strictly by seniority in their regiments. Repeated administrations tried to persuade the cost-conscious Congress to allow compensated retirement but always met with stiff resistance. To establish a retirement system, most congressmen felt, would set a dangerous precedent and would, heaven forbid, “eventually lead to retirement for civil service.”
Thus, the ranks of the Army was burdened with ancient and worn out officers unable to perform their duties. Of the nineteen regimental commanders in 1860, eleven were veterans of the War of 1812. This absence of a retired list blocked junior officers from field grades until they were past their prime. It was common for an officer to spend twenty to thirty years before reaching the rank of major. Finally, in 1861, the retirement issue was won. In 1870 the Army was cut to 30,000 men and provided for retirement after 30 years. In 1882 it was raised to 40 years but made retirement mandatory at age sixty-four. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century before the first cracks began to appear in the seniority system.