Training the Civil War Soldier

This entry is part 3 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Training during the Civil WarThe antebellum United States Army numbered no more than 16,000 officers and men. The army was organised into ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted rifles. These regiments were mostly posted in small forts of company-sized detachments, the majority posted West of the Mississippi River.

With secession many of the officers and men resigned to return to their home states where they joined the Confederate States Army or state militias. As trained soldiers they became the core of the Confederate Army.

On April 15, 1861, after the surrender of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers militia to serve for three months. However, there were restrictions on the number of men and the length of time they could serve that the President of the United States, as opposed to a State Governor, could summon. Lincoln by calling for 75,000 men to serve for three months was at the constitutionally-mandated limit.

Until Congress returned to session, that was the most that he was allowed to call for. On July 22, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men. Between April 1861 and April 1865, at least two and a half million men served in the Union Army, of whom the majority were volunteers.

On the southern side of the fight, the Confederate government formed their army in much the same way. Initially, most of the officers were former officers in the United States Army.

The Confederate Congress provided for a Confederate Army patterned after the United States Army. It was to consist of a large provisional force to exist only in time of war and a small permanent regular army. The provisional, volunteer army was established by an act of the Confederate Congress passed February 28, 1861, one week before the act which established the permanent regular army organization, passed March 6, 1861.

Although the two forces were to exist concurrently, very little was done to organize the Confederate regular army and in fact it only existed on paper. Supplementing the Confederate States Army were the various state militias of the Confederate States.

Because of the destruction of records in Richmond in 1865 and the comparatively poor record-keeping of the time, there can be no definitive number that represents the strength of the Confederate States Army. Estimates range from 500,000 to 2,000,000 men who were involved at any time during the war. Reports from the War Department began at the end of 1861 (326,768 men), 1862 (449,439), 1863 (464,646), 1864 (400,787), and “last reports” (358,692). Estimates of enlistments throughout the war were 1,227,890 to 1,406,180.

Soldiers in both armies were organized according to their military specialty. The combat arms included infantry, cavalry and artillery. Different types of training were carried out for the different specialties.

Infantry soldiers drilled as squads and in company formations, each man getting accustomed to orders and formations such as marching in column and in a “company front”, how to face properly, dress the line, and interact with his fellow soldiers. After an hour of drill on that level, the company moved onto regimental level drills and parades.

The soldier practiced guard mount and other procedures such as the Manual of Arms, which infantrymen learned for the rifle-musket. Veterans of the war often remarked how they could recite the steps of loading and priming for many years after the war, thanks to the continual drill.

By the time of the Gettysburg Campaign, the rifle musket made up the majority of infantry weapons in both the Union and Confederate armies though it took much longer for the tactics to change. Even with the advance of the rifle musket, the weapons were still muzzle loaders and officers believed that the old-fashioned drill formations were still useful to insure a massing of continuous firepower. The result of this slow change was a much higher than anticipated rate of casualties on the battlefield.

Cavalrymen drilled with their sabers, both on foot and horseback. As the war progressed the use of cavalry changed. At the start of the war most cavalry was used for reconnaissance and skirmishing with the other side’s forward elements. In the case of the need to retreat, cavalry was used as the rear-guard.

Later in the war, cavalry tactics changed dramatically with large-scale cavalry engagements taking place at Brandy Station, Gettysburg and Yellow Tavern. Cavalry was also used for long range raids behind enemy lines. J.E.B. Stuart was a skilled practitioner of this tactic but he was soon joined by Union commanders like John Buford, George Stoneman and Benjamin Grierson.

With these new tactics, new training methods were needed. Cavalry depended less on the saber and more on the repeating revolvers and rifles. Cavalry in the latter part of the war acted more like mounted riflemen with their horses bringing them to the battlefield and swiftly taking them away. Both sides prized horsemanship and marksmanship.

Each detachment had to learn to act and move as a team in order to maintain an acceptable rate of fire. An artillery detachment was one gun and its crew. The Chief of the piece was a sergeant, in charge of the gun; there was a corporal in charge of the caisson, and another who was the gunner that aimed the piece. The “spare men” of the Battery were those who were unassigned, and took care of the horses and equipment.

Those who were assigned to the “numbered positions” had a bit of status within the Battery, at least in terms of their own pride. The cannoneers were: #1, who swabbed the bore and rammed the load; #2, inserted the charge and projectile into the muzzle; #3, tended the vent; #4 primed and fired the piece at the command of the sergeant; #5, carried the round to #2; #6 had charge of the limber; and #7 carried the round to #5.


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