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Army of the United States

The Regular Army of the United States on the eve of the Civil War was essentially a frontier constabulary whose 16,000 officers and men were organized into 198 companies scattered across the nation at 79 different posts. At the start of the war, 183 of these companies were either on frontier duty or in transit, while the remaining 15, mostly coastal artillery batteries, guarded the Canadian border and Atlantic coast or 1 of the 23 arsenals. In 1861, this Army was under the command of Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the 75-year-old hero of the Mexican-American War. His position as general in chief was traditional, not statutory, because secretaries of war since 1821 had designated a general to be in charge of the field forces without formal congressional approval. The field forces themselves were controlled through a series of geographic departments, whose commanders reported directly to the general in chief. This department system, frequently modified, would be used by both sides throughout the Civil War for administering regions under Army control.

Army administration was handled by a system of bureaus whose senior officers were, by 1860, in the twilight of long careers in their technical fields. Six of the ten bureau chiefs were over seventy years old. These bureaus, modeled after the British system, answered directly to the War Department and were not subject to the orders of the general in chief.

With the outbreak of war in April 1861, both sides faced the monumental task of organizing and equipping armies that far exceeded the prewar structure in size and complexity. The Federals maintained control of the Regular Army, and the Confederates initially created a regular force, mostly on paper. Almost immediately, the North lost many of its officers to the South, including some of exceptional quality. Of 1,108 Regular officers serving as of 1 January 1861, 270 ultimately resigned to join the South. Only a few hundred of 15,135 enlisted men, however, left the ranks.

The Federal government had two basic options for the use of the Regular Army. It could be divided into training and leadership cadre for newly formed volunteer regiments or be retained in units to provide a reliable nucleus for the Federal Army in coming battles. At the start, Scott envisioned a relatively small force to defeat the rebellion and therefore insisted that the Regulars fight as units. Although some Regular units fought well at the First Battle of Bull Run and in other battles, Scott's decision ultimately limited the impact of Regular units on the war. Battle losses and disease soon thinned the ranks of Regulars, and officials could never recruit sufficient replacements in the face of stiff competition from the states that were forming volunteer regiments. By November 1864, many Regular units had been so depleted that they were withdrawn from frontline service. The war, therefore, was fought primarily with volunteer officers and men, the vast majority of whom had no previous military training or experience.

Neither side had difficulty in recruiting the numbers initially required to fill the expanding ranks. In April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 men from the states' militias for a 3-month period. This figure probably represented Lincoln's informed guess as to how many troops would be needed to quell the rebellion quickly. Almost 92,000 men responded, as the states recruited their "organized," but untrained, militia companies. At the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, these ill-trained and poorly equipped soldiers generally fought much better than they were led. Later, as the war began to require more manpower, the Federal government set enlistment quotas through various "calls," which local districts struggled to fill. Similarly, the Confederate Congress authorized the acceptance of 100,000 one-year volunteers in March 1861, One-third of these men were under arms within a month. The Southern spirit of voluntarism was so strong that possibly twice that number could have been enlisted, but sufficient arms and equipment were not then available.

As the war continued and casualty lists grew, the glory of volunteering faded, and both sides ultimately resorted to conscription to help fill the ranks. The Confederates enacted the first conscription law in American history in April 1862, followed by the Federal government's own law in March 1863. Throughout these first experiments in American conscription, both sides administered the programs in less than a fair and efficient way. Conscription laws tended to exempt wealthier citizens, and initially, draftees could hire substitutes or pay commutation fees. As a result, the health, capability, and morale of the average conscript was poor. Many eligible men, particularly in the South, enlisted to avoid the onus of being considered a conscript. Still, conscription or the threat of conscription ultimately helped provide a sufficient quantity of soldiers for both sides.

Conscription was never a popular program, and the North, in particular, tried several approaches to limit conscription requirements. These efforts included offering lucrative bounties, or required quotas. In addition, the fees paid to induce volunteers to fight Federals offered a series of reenlistment bonuses, including money, thirty-day furloughs, and the opportunity for veteran regiments to maintain their colors and be designated as "veteran" volunteer infantry regiments. The Federals also created an Invalid Corps (later renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps) of men unfit for frontline service who performed essential rear-area duties. The Union also recruited almost 179,000 blacks, mostly in federally organized volunteer regiments. By February 1864, blacks were being conscripted in the North as well. In the South, recruiting or conscripting slaves was so politically sensitive that it was not attempted until March 1865, far too late to influence the war.

Whatever the faults of the manpower mobilization, it was an impressive achievement, particularly as a first effort on that scale. Various enlistment figures exist, but the best estimates are that approximately 2 million men enlisted in the Federal Army during 1961-65. Of that number, 1 million were under arms at the end of the war.

The unit structure into which the expanding armies were organized was generally the same for Federals and Confederates, reflecting the common roots for both armies. The Federals began the war with a Regular Army organized into an essentially Napoleonic, musket-equipped structure. Each of the 10 prewar infantry regiments consisted of ten 87-man companies with a maximum authorized strength of 978. At the beginning of the war, the Federals added nine Regular infantry regiments with a newer "French model" organizational structure. The new regiments contained 3 battalions, with a maximum authorized strength of 2,452. The new Regular battalion, with eight 100-man companies, was in effect equivalent to the prewar regiment. Essentially an effort to reduce staff officer slots, the new structure was unfamiliar to most leaders, and both sides used a variant of the old structure for newly formed volunteer regiments. The Federal War Department established a volunteer infantry regimental organization with a strength that could range from 866 to 1,046 (varying in authorized strength by up to 180 infantry privates).

The battery remained the basic artillery unit, although battalion and larger formal groupings of artillery emerged later in the war in the eastern theater. Four understrength Regular regiments existed in the U.S. Army at the start of the war, and one Regular regiment was added in 1861, for a total of sixty batteries. Nevertheless, most batteries were volunteer organizations. A Federal battery usually consisted of 6 guns and had an authorized strength of 80 to 156 men. A battery of six 12-pounder Napoleons could include 130 horses. If organized as "horse" or flying artillery, cannoneers were provided individual mounts, and more horses than men could be assigned to the battery.

Prewar Federal mounted units were organized into five Regular regiments (two dragoon, two cavalry, and one mounted rifle), and one Regular cavalry regiment was added in May 1861. Originally, ten companies comprised a regiment, but congressional legislation in July 1862 officially reorganized the Regular mounted units into standard regiments of twelve "companies or troops" of seventy-nine to ninetyfive men each. Although the term "troop" was officially introduced, most cavalrymen continued to use the more familiar term "company" to describe their units throughout the war. The Federals grouped two companies or troops into squadrons, with four to six squadrons comprising a regiment.

The Federal Army, with no rank higher than major general until 1864, often had colonels commanding brigades and brigadier generals commanding divisions. Brevets that had formerly been exclusively granted solely in the regular service, were also granted in the volunteer service after 3 March 1863. The first brevet brigadier-general of volunteers was appointed in June 1864. A Regular Army officer could, therefore, hold four grades in the Civil War-his substantive regular grade, a brevet regular grade, a substantive volunteer grade, and a brevet volunteer grade. At Appomattox, for example, the famous George Custer was a regular army captain, 5th Cavalry, a brevet major-general in the regular army, a brigadier-general of volunteers, and a brevet major general of volunteers. Two weeks later, he was promoted to the substantive rank of major-general of volunteers. In 1866 when the volunteer force went away, he was a captain in the Regular Army again.

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Page last modified: 05-02-2018 13:19:26 ZULU