Union Army Regimental Organization

This entry is part 1 of 10 in the series The Organization of the Armies

61st New York InfantryBefore the Union Army became the mighty juggernaut of the post-1863 years, it started as nothing more than an armed mob. The antebellum United States Army was no more than 16,000 strong, scattered across the vast continent in forts and installations with mere companies or at the most regiments posted there.

The antebellum United States was in many respects anti-militaristic and dependent on state militias for national defense. The War of 1812 illustrated the need for a professional army but Congress ignored the needs. The Mexican War was another example of the need for a larger army but Congress had other needs. Most of the skilled combat officers who were blooded in the Mexican War resigned rather than face the boredom and isolation of the peacetime army.

The pre-Civil War U.S. Army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canadian border and on the Atlantic coast.

Once the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months. Each state was assigned a quota of troops. Four of the so-called border states decided to side with their Southern brethren and the Confederacy grew to eleven states.

It is a misconception that the South held an advantage because of the large percentage of professional officers who resigned to join the Confederate States Army. At the start of the war, there were 824 graduates of the U.S. Military Academy on the active list; of these, 296 resigned or were dismissed, and 184 of those became Confederate officers. Of the approximately 900 West Point graduates who were then civilians, 400 returned to the Union Army and 99 to the Confederate. Therefore, the ratio of Union to Confederate professional officers was 642 to 283.

The early Union Army was based on the regimental system with each of the northern regiments supplying volunteer regiments that were recruitedthe 6th Wisconsin at the Railroad Cut at Gettysburg locally, trained and equipped by each state. Regiments were known by their number and state; hence we have the 20th Maine, the 61st New York, the 6th Wisconsin.

Regiments began with 1,000 men each. It was based on the Roman system of tens. Each regiment had ten companies with 100 men in each company. A company consisted of one captain, one first lieutenant, one second lieutenant, one first sergeant, four additional sergeants, eight corporals, two musicians, one wagoner and eighty-two privates.

A regiment was commanded by a colonel assisted by a lieutenant colonel with one major, an adjutant (a lieutenant), a quartermaster (also a lieutenant), a surgeon and an assistant surgeon. There was also a sergeant major, a regimental quartermaster sergeant, a regimental commissary sergeant, a hospital steward, two principal musicians and twenty-four bandsmen who would also serve as stretcher-bearers. The regimental musicians were later done away with when the manpower was needed to man the fighting lines.

The above organization strength seldom lasted longer than several months. Sickness, desertions and battle casualties thinned the ranks considerably. My own second great grandfather’s unit, the 61st New York, left New York City in the late summer of 1861 with a nominal strength of 1,000 men.

By the Battle of Antietam, they were down to mere 100 men. He started as a fifth sergeant of Company D and ended up as the only sergeant left standing. Even with just 100 men, the veterans of the 61st New York combined with other New York regiments to flank the Southern line at the Sunken Road. They suffered an additional 44 casualties in the battle, the majority wounded. His observation in a later affidavit was simple and eloquent, “We had it hot for some time.”

The Sunken Road after the Battle of AntietamThe situation that the 61st New York faced as the war went on was the rule rather than the exception. Union regiments were allowed to dwindle gradually to company-size before they were broken up or combined with other shattered regiments. The average Union regiment in the spring of 1863 could only muster an average of 425 effectives.

This demoralizing system was said to have been perpetuated by northern governors because it allowed them to appoint more colonels. This form of patronage wreaked havoc with the management of the war. Many of the appointed colonels were political hacks and knew nothing about leading troops in battle. Despite this system, men like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain managed to move up the chain of command.

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