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Divisions - Civil War

The Civil War brought about the first large armies in the nation's history, and both Union and Confederate leaders used brigades, divisions, and army corps as command and control units. After rebel troops fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 militiamen to assist the Regular Army in quelling the rebellion. Shortly thereafter Congress began to expand the Regular Army and call for volunteers. Following the rout of the Union forces at Manassas in July 1861 Congress authorized the first large call for men, 500,000 volunteers to serve three years.

To train the new Army Lincoln selected George B. McClellan, a former West Point officer and president of the Eastern Division of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad Company. As the volunteer regiments arrived in the Washington, DC, area, McClellan began to organize them into what became known as the Army of the Potomac. McClellan planned to organize the volunteers into brigades, divisions, and army corps. Each army corps, about 25,000 men, was to consist of two or more divisions.

In January 1863, the Army of the Potomac received a new commander named General Joseph Hooker - a hard fighting and flamboyant general, whose nickname was "Fighting Joe". At this time, General Hooker was handed an army so beaten and so severely demoralized that men were deserting by the hundreds every day. The soldiers were willing to serve the Union as long as they were well led, but numerous setbacks and poor generalship had finally done many of them in. Disgusted, many many refused to perform assigned duties or they just wandered away from the army altogether. General Hooker was not blind to this dilemma and immediately set about rebuilding the army with better food, new equipment, additional training, and discipline.

Initially each Union army corps was designated within an army - ie., I Army Corps, Army of the Potomac - but later the practice of numbering them consecutively without any reference to the army to which they were assigned was adopted. Divisions within army corps were numbered consecutively, as were brigades within divisions. General Hooker also ordered a special badge to be designed for each infantry corps (pronounced "core") of the army, which would be a special symbol of that corps.

An army corps was a large organization of infantry brigades and divisions with an artillery brigade, commanded by a major general. Each corps was divided into three divisions, each division having three brigades. To designate each of the three divisions of a corps, General Hooker decided that the badges should be made in three distinctive colors similar to the US flag- red, white and blue with red for the First Division of the corps, white for the second, and blue for the third. The badges were meant to not only give each corps a symbol of pride, but they would also make each one easily identifiable to the generals in charge. The generals in command of each corps chose shapes of the badges they wanted for their organization. Soon after, the Quartermaster Department handed out the corps badges which were made of wool cloth and were small enough to fit on top of a soldier's cap.

As General Hooker had ordered, the different shaped badges were made in three distinct colors for each division of the corps. For example, the maltese cross shown here is the badge of the Fifth Corps. The red color stands for the First Division, Fifth Corps. A white cross stood for the Second Division, Fifth Corps, and a blue cross specified the Third Division, Fifth Corps.

The soldiers rapidly took to wearing the new corps badges and most of them enjoyed having the distinctive symbol. Corps badges were initially worn on the top of the cap, though many also sewed one on their uniform coats. Army sutlers began to offer a line of more elaborate corps badges bordered with brass edging, or made of stamped brass and painted in the proper color for each division. These also became widely popular in the Army of the Potomac. They proved to work so well that the U.S. War Department ordered all army corps to have badges made, even for those in the Union armies serving in Tennessee and Mississippi. Though the "westerners" adopted corps badges, they were not as popular among those men and they were with the Union armies in Virginia. Confederates did not have corps badges and never adopted anything like it. Some Confederates wrote to their home folks about the colorful badges the "Yankees" took to wearing and wondered how much more elaborate they could get.

Every corps in the Army of the Potomac had a corps badge. Years after the end of the war when veterans of that army returned to Gettysburg to erect their monuments, they included their old corps symbols in their stone memorials at Gettysburg. The US Army still has specific symbols for its organizations today, which are known as shoulder patches and worn on the left sleeve of the uniform. The patches of today's army are much more elaborate and designate all sorts of units, divisions, corps and armies.

Regimental badges had sometimes been worn before the Civil War, but there had never been a similar system on the corps level. The Confederacy never initiated a badge system for identifying their soldiers' units. On several occasions Confederate units attached distinctive strips to their uniforms, but only so that they could distinguish their soldiers from the enemy.

Following the Civil War the War Department disbanded the field armies, along with their army corps, divisions, and brigades. Militia units returned to their states, the volunteers left service, and most of the Regular Army troops returned to scattered posts throughout the South and West. Congress in 1869 set the peacetime Regular establishment at 25 infantry, 10 cavalry, and 5 artillery regiments, but few were ever able to assemble their far-flung companies, troops, and batteries in one place until the end of the century. Field operations usually involved less than a regiment or were conducted by gathering the geographically closest elements of several regiments on a temporary basis. Army Regulations, nevertheless, continued to repeat the ideas for organizing army corps, divisions, and brigades, with the division described as "the fundamental element and basis of organization of every active army."

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:35:30 ZULU