Civil War Army Organization

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Civil War Army Organization of the Union and Confederate Armies
Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery

To the non-military buff, the organization and terminology used for American Civil War armies can be very confusing. The "Army of the Potomac" was the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war and the "Army of Northern Virginia" was the main Confederate force. Remarkably, both of the armies that fought the Battle of Gettysburg were organized in a similar fashion including a structure of corps, divisions, and brigades. But what were these different organizations and how did they all fit in to one huge force? (See Union and Confederate Army Organizations at the Beginning of the American Civil War.)

The Federal government and the Confederate government both had war departments, which oversaw the organization, supply, and movements of their respective armies. Civil War-era armies were organized according to military manuals including those adopted by the Federal War Department prior to 1861. Because the war had to be fought over a large area of the South, the Union and the Confederacy both had several armies, each fighting in different "theaters" or sections of the country. Each army was a structured organization that included a general headquarters, infantry, artillery, cavalry, signalmen, engineers, quartermaster and commissary departments. The largest single organization of an army was a corps (pronounced "core"). The Union Army at Gettysburg had seven infantry corps and a cavalry corps, each commanded by a major general. The Confederate Army had three infantry corps, each commanded by a lieutenant general. Typically, a Confederate corps was much larger than a Union corps. A corps included three infantry divisions and an artillery brigade in the Union army or an artillery battalion in the Confederate Army. The Army of the Potomac had distinguishing symbols called corps badges to signify one corps from another. The badges were actually small cloth cut-outs shaped like crosses, spheres, stars, and quarter moons, and made in three different colors- red, white, and blue, each color specific to a division of the corps. Confederates had no corps badges or particular symbols for their organizations. (See Organization of Union and Confederate Armies.)

Organization of the Union and Confederate Armies

Civil War Army Organization and Strength of Armies
Organization of Union and Confederate Armies.jpg
Chart of Organization of Union and Confederate Armies shows merely identical Structures


The infantry division was commanded by a major or a brigadier general and composed of two to four infantry brigades. The brigade, commanded by a brigadier general, was composed of four to six regiments, and was the primary organization used by commanders in battle (see American Civil War Infantry Organization). A brigade with good officers and good training was a formidable fighting force and often advanced or defended positions in cooperation with fellow brigades. It was common practice for a brigade commander to send forward most of his regiments and hold one in reserve. The Confederate War Department made attempts to have brigades composed of regiments from one singular state or state affiliation, such as General Joseph Kershaw's brigade composed of all South Carolina regiments. The Union Army did not always make such conscious choices, though there were some brigades which acquired interesting nick names due to their ethnic origin or locality from which they hailed.

For the infantryman, the regiment was the most important unit. Led by a colonel, lt. colonel and major, a full strength regiment numbered over 1,000 officers and men. Attrition due to disease and battle losses meant considerably lower personnel in each regiment by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, where some regiments mustered only about two-hundred. A regiment was divided into ten companies of 100 men each at full strength. One company was divided in half as two platoons. One company was led by a captain with two lieutenants who each commanded a platoon. Platoons were divided into squads, led by a sergeant or corporal. Regiments fought in a "battle line" or in some cases a "skirmish line", which was a general open rank tactic used to feel out the strength of an enemy force.

War Departments in the North and South issued regulations for how the army was to be organized in the field though commanders were also given the luxury of making changes in the organization as they saw fit. Thus there were often variances from the chart seen here especially in the Army of the Potomac, which lost regiments due to the expiration of their term of service or consolidated organizations due to battle-related attrition. Though the Union army's corps were each designated to have three divisions, the Third Corps and Twelfth Corps only had two divisions apiece at Gettysburg. Likewise, the Eleventh Corps' organization varied from the regulations having only two brigades in each of its three divisions.

Army Organization Comparison Chart

1 Corps = 3 Divisions 1 Corps = 3 Divisions
1 Division = 3 Brigades 1 Division = 4 to 5 Brigades
1 Brigade = 4 to 5 Regiments 1 Brigade = 4 to 6 Regiments
1 Regiment = 10 Companies (1,100 officers and men) 1 Regiment = 10 Companies (1,100 officers and men)
1 Company = 2 to 3 Platoons* (100 officers and men)
(* depending on military organization manual)
1 Company = 2 to 3 Platoons* (100 officers and men)
(* depending on military organization manual)
1 Platoon = 5 Squads (1 officer & 50 men) 1 Platoon = 5 Squads (1 officer & 50 men)

At the outbreak of the Civil War, there was a standing force of "regular" units in the United States Army. State militias were called into service, but there was a need to Federalize these units so that they could muster pay from the United States government and serve outside of state borders. Each state was given a quota of "volunteer regiments" to be raised for service lasting from three months to three years. The South faced a similar dilemma. Southern states raised and supplied the Confederate armies with volunteer regiments. By 1863, many of the regiments in both armies had been in service since 1861 and were still composed of mostly volunteer soldiers, though the first "conscripts" or men required by state law to serve in the military defense of a state, had begun to appear in Southern units. A regiment's flag, or "regimental colors", were painted with the regiment's number and state affiliation, usually followed by "VOLUNTEER INFANTRY". The term volunteer was a symbol of pride for soldiers on both sides.

The most widely used manual for small units (regiments) was Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics For The Exercise and Maneuvers of Troops When Acting As Light Infantry Or Riflemen, written by William J. Hardee. The manual specified the proper placement of officers, the rank and file, the manual of arms, basic marching orders, and other requirements. His manual was re-written for Confederate use in 1861 when Hardee resigned his commission from the United States Army and joined the Confederacy. Other manuals of organization and drill were used, but "Hardee's Tactics" continued to be the most popular and widely used manual throughout the war.

Civil War Army Organization
Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery.jpg
Total Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery by state

Organization of the Union Army
Organization of the Civil War Union Army.jpg
Total Union infantry, cavalry, and artillery units


The artillery was usually organized by regiments as well, except that each company was called a battery (see American Civil War Artillery Organization). A battery consisted of over 100 soldiers, armed with six cannon per battery. Confederate batteries were smaller, some having only four cannon. Batteries were assigned independently from their regiments to specific artillery brigades (Union) or battalions (Confederate) or to the artillery reserve of an army. Both of the armies had an artillery reserve which was an organization of extra batteries to be placed where needed. The Union army had one large artillery reserve force. The Confederate army had one reserve group per corps, but the number of guns was still smaller than the number of Union cannon. (See Civil War Artillery.)


A cavalry regiment was organized in a similar fashion to the infantry and artillery. Ten to twelve companies or "troops", made up one regiment. The regiment was divided into three battalions, each composed of four companies (see American Civil War Cavalry Organization). A company was divided into "squadrons" for easy maneuvering on the field. The cavalry regiment was much more expensive to sustain while in service due to the amount of equipment carried by each cavalryman (carbine, saber, pistol, belt set, and equipment for the soldier's mount) and the requirement for horses and their care. (See Civil War Cavalry.)

Both armies also had a compliment of quartermaster, engineer, and signal units as well as supply wagons organized as "trains". An army on the march was usually followed by miles and miles of wagons loaded with the equipments of war including food, ammunition, and medical supplies. At the top of the organizational list was the Army Headquarters. The commanding general required a personal staff to dictate orders and keep records of army movement. There were also clerks and assistants. The commanders of armies also had the privilege of a headquarters cook. Every army headquarters usually had a large compliment of staff officers, couriers, and a headquarters guard, which included an infantry battalion and a cavalry escort. (See Organization of Union and Confederate Armies: Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery.)

(Related reading below.)


Sources: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; National Park Service; National Archives; Library of Congress; The Union Army; Fox, William F. Regimental Losses in the American Civil War; United States Army Center of Military History; Hardesty, Jesse. Killed and died of wounds in the Union army during the Civil War (1915) Wright-Eley Co.

Recommended Reading: Hardtack & Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life. Description: Most histories of the Civil War focus on battles and top brass. Hardtack and Coffee is one of the few to give a vivid, detailed picture of what ordinary soldiers endured every day—in camp, on the march, at the edge of a booming, smoking hell. John D. Billings of Massachusetts enlisted in the Army of the Potomac and survived the hellish conditions as a “common foot soldier” of the American Civil War. "Billings describes an insightful account of the conflict – the experiences of every day life as a common foot-soldier – and a view of the war that is sure to score with every buff." Continued below...

The authenticity of his book is heightened by the many drawings that a comrade, Charles W. Reed, made while in the field. This is the story of how the Civil War soldier was recruited, provisioned, and disciplined. Described here are the types of men found in any outfit; their not very uniform uniforms; crowded tents and makeshift shelters; difficulties in keeping clean, warm, and dry; their pleasure in a cup of coffee; food rations, dominated by salt pork and the versatile cracker or hardtack; their brave pastimes in the face of death; punishments for various offenses; treatment in sick bay; firearms and signals and modes of transportation. Comprehensive and anecdotal, Hardtack and Coffee is striking for the pulse of life that runs through it.

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FIVE STARS! Recommended Reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote (3 Volumes Set) [BOX SET] (2960 pages) (9.2 pounds). Review: This beautifully written trilogy of books on the American Civil War is not only a piece of first-rate history, but also a marvelous work of literature. Shelby Foote brings a skilled novelist's narrative power to this great epic. Many know Foote for his prominent role as a commentator on Ken Burns's PBS series about the Civil War. These three books, however, are his legacy. His southern sympathies are apparent: the first volume opens by introducing Confederate President Jefferson Davis, rather than Abraham Lincoln. But they hardly get in the way of the great story Foote tells. This hefty three volume set should be on the bookshelf of any Civil War buff. --John Miller. Continued below…

Product Description:

Foote's comprehensive history of the Civil War includes three compelling volumes: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian, and Red River to Appomattox. Collected together in a handsome boxed set, this is the perfect gift for any Civil War buff.

Fort Sumter to Perryville

"Here, for a certainty, is one of the great historical narratives of our century, a unique and brilliant achievement, one that must be firmly placed in the ranks of the masters." —Van Allen Bradley, Chicago Daily News

"Anyone who wants to relive the Civil War, as thousands of Americans apparently do, will go through this volume with pleasure.... Years from now, Foote's monumental narrative most likely will continue to be read and remembered as a classic of its kind." —New York Herald Tribune Book Review

Fredericksburg to Meridian

"This, then, is narrative history—a kind of history that goes back to an older literary tradition.... The writing is of the historical and literary achievements of our time." —The Washington Post Book World

" described with such meticulous attention to action, terrain, time, and the characters of the various commanders that I understand, at last, what happened in that battle.... Mr. Foote has an acute sense of the relative importance of events and a novelist's skill in directing the reader's attention to the men and the episodes that will influence the course of the whole war, without omitting items which are of momentary interest. His organization of facts could hardly be bettered." —Atlantic

Red River to Appomattox

"An unparalleled achievement, an American Iliad, a unique work uniting the scholarship of the historian and the high readability of the first-class novelist." —Walker Percy

"I have never read a better, more vivid, more understandable account of the savage battling between Grant's and Lee's armies.... Foote stays with the human strife and suffering, and unlike most Southern commentators, he does not take sides. In objectivity, in range, in mastery of detail in beauty of language and feeling for the people involved, this work surpasses anything else on the subject.... It stands alongside the work of the best of them." —New Republic

Recommended Viewing! The American Civil War (DVD Megaset) (2009) (A&E Television Networks-The History Channel) (14 DVDs) (1697 minutes) (28 Hours 17 Minutes + extras). Experience for yourself the historical and personal impact of the Civil War in a way that only HISTORY can present in this moving megaset™, filled with over 28 hours of American Civil War content. This MEGASET is the most comprehensive American Civil War compilation to date and is the mother of all Civil War documentaries. A multifaceted look at “The War Between the States,” this definitive collection brings the most legendary Civil War battles, and the soldiers and leaders who fought them, vividly to life. From Gettysburg and Antietam to Shiloh, and led by the likes of Sherman, McClellan, Grant, Beauregard, Lee, Davis, and Jackson, delve into the full military and political contexts of these men, their armies, and the clashes between them. Continued below...
Almost 150 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, the unexpected secrets and little-known stories from Civil War history are divulged with fascinating detail. Cutting-edge CGI and accurate dramatizations illustrate archival letters and original diary entries, and the country’s most renowned historians describe the less familiar incidents that add perspective and depth to the war that divided a nation. If the DVDs in this Megaset were purchased separately, it could cost hundreds of dollars. This one-of-a-kind compilation belongs on the shelf of every Civil War buff, and if you know anyone that is interested in the most costliest and bloodiest war in American history, buy this, they will love it.
THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR contains the following programs:
* The Most Daring Mission Of The Civil War
* April 1865
* Battlefield Detectives: The Civil War (3 Episodes): Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh
* Secret Missions Of The Civil War
* The Lost Battle Of The Civil War
* Tales Of The Gun: Guns Of The Civil War
* Eighty Acres Of Hell
* Lincoln
* Investigating History: Lincoln: Man Or Myth
* Man, Moment, Machine: Lincoln & The Flying, Spying Machine
* Conspiracy?: Lincoln Assassination
* High Tech Lincoln
* Sherman’s March
* The Hunt For John Wilkes Booth
* Civil War Combat (4 Episodes): The Hornets’ Nest At Shiloh, The Bloody Lane At Antietam, The Wheatfield At Gettysburg, The Tragedy At Cold Harbor
* Civil War Journal (8 Episodes): John Brown's War, Destiny At Fort Sumter, The Battle of 1st Bull Run, The 54th Massachusetts, West Point Classmates—Civil War Enemies, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Sherman And The March To The Sea
* Full-Length Documentary “Save Our History: Sherman’s Total War Tactics”
* Behind the Scenes Featurettes for “Sherman’s March” and “Lincoln”

Recommended Reading: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War, by Edwin C. Bearss (Author), James McPherson (Introduction). Description: Bearss, a former chief historian of the National Parks Service and internationally recognized American Civil War historian, chronicles 14 crucial battles, including Fort Sumter, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Sherman's march through the Carolinas, and Appomattox--the battles ranging between 1861 and 1865; included is an introductory chapter describing John Brown's raid in October 1859. Bearss describes the terrain, tactics, strategies, personalities, the soldiers and the commanders. (He personalizes the generals and politicians, sergeants and privates.) Continued below...

The text is augmented by 80 black-and-white photographs and 19 maps. It is like touring the battlefields without leaving home. A must for every one of America's countless Civil War buffs, this major work will stand as an important reference and enduring legacy of a great historian for generations to come. "This stout volume covers not only the pivotal American Civil War battles, but also the bloodiest and costliest battles."  Few historians have ever captured the drama, excitement, and tragedy of the Civil War with the headlong elan of Edwin Bearss, who has won a huge, devoted following with his extraordinary battlefield tours and eloquent soliloquies about the heroes, scoundrels, and little-known moments of a conflict that still fascinates America. Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg: these hallowed battles and more than a dozen more come alive as never before, rich with human interest and colorful detail culled from a lifetime of study. Illustrated with detailed maps and archival images, this 448-page volume presents a unique narrative of the Civil War's most critical battles, translating Bearss' inimitable delivery into print. As he guides readers from the first shots at Fort Sumter to Gettysburg's bloody fields to the dignified surrender at Appomattox, his engagingly plainspoken but expert account demonstrates why he stands beside Shelby Foote, James McPherson, and Ken Burns in the front rank of modern chroniclers of the Civil War, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning McPherson himself points out in his admiring Introduction. A must for every one of America's countless Civil War buffs, this major work will stand as an important reference and enduring legacy of a great historian for generations to come. About the Author: Edwin C. Bearss is legendary among serious scholars and Civil War buffs alike. The former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and its current historian emeritus, Bearss' renowned tours of America's battlefields feature a uniquely engaging panache that has inspired a legion of fans. He has consulted on numerous books, documentaries, and films, including Gods and Generals and Ken Burns' The Civil War. The author of 13 books, he has been honored many times for his tireless advocacy of the historical preservation of Civil War battlefield sites. Also available in hardcover: Fields of Honor: Pivotal Battles of the Civil War.

Recommended Reading: The Civil War Battlefield Guide: The Definitive Guide, Completely Revised, with New Maps and More Than 300 Additional Battles (Second Edition) (Hardcover). Description: This new edition of the definitive guide to Civil War battlefields is really a completely new book. While the first edition covered 60 major battlefields, from Fort Sumter to Appomattox, the second covers all of the 384 designated as the "principal battlefields" in the American Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report. Continued below...

As in the first edition, the essays are authoritative and concise, written by such leading Civil War historians as James M. McPherson, Stephen W. Sears, Edwin C. Bearss, James I. Robinson, Jr., and Gary W. Gallager. The second edition also features 83 new four-color maps covering the most important battles. The Civil War Battlefield Guide is an essential reference for anyone interested in the Civil War. "Reading this book is like being at the bloodiest battles of the war..."

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