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Leaves and Furloughs

Leaves and Furloughs, long a benefit reserved for officers, were not a right for enlisted men until the mid‐twentieth century, when some of the links between rank and privilege slowly dissolved in the American military. After the Revolutionary War, the American military incorporated British principles on leaves into the Articles of War. A commanding officer exercised wide discretion over how to maintain discipline within his command, ranging from the reward of a leave to punishment with a court‐martial. The only restrictions placed on officers granting furloughs limited leaves to no more than thirty days for 5 percent of the unit at one time. The statute authorizing conscription during the Civil War reiterated this principle. By 1890, however, the continually high desertion rate in the regular army led to calls for a new approach in using leaves to improve morale among enlisted troops. Over a period of seven years, an enlisted man was entitled to a three‐month annual furlough after serving three years of his five‐year enlistment. Officers' complaints about constant unit disruption caused Congress to end this experiment in 1897. A simultaneous reform impulse was evident among naval officers who argued that punishing sailors by restricting liberty caused, rather than prevented, desertion. It remained up to the naval commander, whether or not to give half the crew liberty during a port call (three‐quarters if anchored in a navy yard).

In marked contrast to the enlisted man or sailor, officers enjoyed a legal right to request and take paid leaves and furloughs. In 1835, the secretary of the navy lost his ability to save money by furloughing officers waiting for a new posting. Naval officers could still request a paid three‐month leave to attend to domestic business or an indefinite furlough to leave the nation's borders. Army officers took advantage of their more extensive privileges to work for civilian engineering companies, lobby in Washington on their unit's behalf, or enjoy eastern urban attractions. In addition to the possibility of a personal leave of up to eighteen months, a doctor's certificate was all an army officer needed for a year of sick leave in the nineteenth century.

The creation of a conscripted army of citizen‐soldiers during World War I brought the nation's attention to the problem of fighting a war for democracy with an army that maintained a sharp distinction between the privileges enjoyed by commissioned officers and enlisted troops. After World War II, Congress reacted to a similar public outcry by giving enlisted men the legal right to a paid thirty‐day leave each year. The Armed Forces Leave Act of 1946 continued to democratize military leaves by giving officers and troops equal amounts of annual leave and paying them for up to sixty days' accumulated leave when their term of service ended. in 1975, Congress rejected a General Accounting Office proposal to eliminate the financial incentive this second benefit gave to save rather than take leave after the Department of Defense argued that servicemen would lose an advantage still enjoyed by civilian federal employees.
[See also Army, U.S.; Citizen‐Soldier; Class and the Military; Navy, U.S.]

Jennifer D. Keene

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