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Army Corps - Civil War

The term army corps is adopted into the English language from the French, and retains essentially its original meaning. It has been customary since the time of Napoleon I to organize armies of more than fifty or sixty thousand men into what the French call corps d'armte or, as we say, army corps.

It is a familiar fact that soon after the outbreak of the Rebellion Lieutenant-General Scott, who had served with great distinction in the Mexican War, found himself too old and infirm to conduct an active campaign, and so the command of the troops, that were rapidly concentrating in and around Washington, was devolved upon the late General Irvin McDowell, a good soldier withal, but, like every other officer then in the service, without extended war experience. His first work, after assuming command, would naturally have been to organize the green troops into masses that would be more cohesive and effective in action than single undisciplined regiments could be. But this he was not allowed to do. The loyal people of the North were clamoring for something else to be done, and that speedily.

Having done no more than to arrange his regiments in brigades, without giving them any discipline as such, without an organized artillery, without a commissariat, without even a staff to aid him, McDowell, dividing his force, of about 35,000 men, into five divisions, put four of them in motion from the Virginia bank of the Potomac against the enemy, and the result was - Bull Run, a battle in which brigade commanders did not know their commands and soldiers did not know their generals. In reality, the battle was one of regiments, rather than of brigades, the regiments fighting more or less independently.

All eyes seemed now to turn, by common agreement, to General George B. McClellan, to lead to victory, who was young, who had served with distinction in the Mexican War, had studied European warfare in the Crimea, and, above all, had just finished a successful campaign in West Virginia. He took command of the forces in and around Washington July 27, 1861, a command which then numbered about fifty thousand infantry, one thousand cavalry, and six hundred and fifty artillerymen, with nine field batteries, such as they were, of thirty guns. A part of these had belonged to McDowell's Bull Run army, and a part had since arrived from the North.

In organizing the Army of the Potomac McClellan first arranged the infantry in brigades of four regiments each. Then, as fast as new regiments arrived - and at that time, under a recent call of the President for five hundred thousand three years' volunteers, they were coming in very rapidly, - they were formed into temporary brigades, and placed in camp in the suburbs of the city to await their full equipment, which many of them lacked, to become more efficient in the tactics of "Scott" or "Hardee," and, in general, to acquire such discipline as would be valuable in the service before them, as soldiers of the Union. As rapidly as these conditions were fairly complied with, regiments were permanently assigned to brigades across the Potomac.

After this formation of brigades had made considerable headway, and the troops were becoming better disciplined and tolerably skilled in brigade movements, McClellan began the organization of Divisions, each comprising three brigades. Before the middle of October, 1861, eleven of these divisions had been organized, each including, besides the brigades of infantry specified, from one to four light batteries, and from a company to two regiments of cavalry which had been specially assigned to it.

The next step in the direction of organization was the formation of Army Corps; but in this matter McClellan moved slowly, not deeming it best to form them until his division commanders had, by experience in the field, shown which of them, if any, had the ability to handle so large a body of troops as a corps. This certainly seemed good judgment. The Confederate authorities appear to have been governed by this principle, for they did not adopt the system of army corps until after the battle of Antietam, in September, 1862. But months had elapsed since Bull Run.

Eighteen hundred and sixty-two had dawned. "All quiet along the Potomac" had come to be used as a by-word and reproach. That powerful moving force, Public Sentiment, was again crystallizing along its old lines, and making itself felt, and " Why don't the army move?" was the oft-repeated question which gave to the propounder no satisfactory answer, because to him, with the public pulse again at fever-beat, no answer could be satisfactory. Meanwhile all these forces propelled their energies and persuasions in one and the same direction, the White House; and President Lincoln, goaded to desperation by their persistence and insistence, issued a War Order March 8, 1862, requiring McClellan to organize his command into five Army Corps. So far, well enough ; but the order went further, and specified who the corps commanders should be, thus depriving him of doing that for which he had waited, and giving him officers in those positions not, in his opinion, the best, in all respects, that could have been selected.

The regiments when full each contained one thousand and forty-six men; four of these composed a brigade ; three brigades were taken to form a division, and three divisions constituted a corps. This system was not always rigidly adhered to. Sometimes a corps had a fourth division, but such a case would be a deviation, and not the regular plan. So, too, a division might have an extra brigade. For example, a brigade might be detached from one part of the service and sent to join an army in another part. Such a brigade would not be allowed to remain independent in that case, but would be at once assigned to some division, usually a division whose brigades were small in numbers.

McClellan made up his brigades of four regiments. The usual number of regiments for a brigade is three. That gives a system of threes throughout. But in this matter also, after the first organization, the plan was modified. As a brigade became depleted by sickness, capture, and the bullet, new regiments were added, until, as the work of addition and depletion went on, a brigade could have within it the skeletons of ten regiments, and even then its strength not half that of the original body.

There were twenty-five army corps in the service, at different times, exclusive of cavalry, engineer, and signal corps, and Hancock's veteran corps. The same causes which operated to reduce brigades and divisions naturally decimated corps, so that some of them were consolidated; as, for example, the First and Third Corps were merged in the Second, Fifth, and Sixth, in the spring of 1864. At about the same time the Eleventh and Twelfth were united to form the Twentieth.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:35:18 ZULU