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The War Between The States ~ The American Civil War

By Dave Frederick

"The best basic resource for military research is at most libraries, but also available through Amazon.com, etc. It is: "Historical Register of the United States Army - from it's Organization on September 29, 1789 to March 2, 1900" by Major Francis B. Heitman, (et al); US Gov't Printing Office 1904. It gives the basic structure of every regular army regiment. It only takes a little reading to grasp the basic command structure used by most militaries."

General, Colonel, Major, Captain, Surgeon, Lieutenant, Corporal, Private


  1. Militia: The ancestor of today's National Guard. It was usually a single company (60 men maximum) for a town. It was drafted or appointed by the state or territory governor. It met once a month or so to train, and stand as a reserve army military. Originally, every man over 21 yrs and below 50 years had to serve.
  2. Regular (Army, Navy, etc.): The federal force. They answered only to the President, their commander in chief and still do.
  3. Volunteers: In the Civil War and Spanish-American War state regiments were recruited directly from public volunteers. The first gathering of the entire regiment at a single spot was the muster. They usually trained for a short time after mustering, then went directly into battle-related service.

    All confederate enlisted men were volunteers. More than 90% of the union forces were also.


Here are the "basics" of how regiments were formed and what they did in the Civil War.

On the Union side of the Civil War, the first calls for regiments of volunteers were in the early spring of 1862. Congress passed "enabling acts" calling upon the states named in the act to create and fill regiments. Typically there might be a call for four regiments included in one state portion of one enabling act. The purpose of each regiment was specified, being either:
  1. Infantry: The walking/marching soldiers
  2. Cavalry: Soldiers on horseback with swords
  3. Artillery: Soldiers firing cannons
  4. Heavy Artillery: Usually ended up as an infantry regiment
  5. Light artillery or Mounted Infantry: A slower, heavier cavalry
  6. Grenadiers, Fusiliers, Zouaves, etc.: Usually Infantry
  7. Sharpshooters: A single company of a larger regiment of Infantry. Crack shots with a rifle used primarily to protect cavalry charges. It was a very honorable and very dangerous position to fill.


The governor of the state would formally ask his legislature for a state bill creating the regiments called for by Congress, but would immediately start jawboning local political men to start recruiting enlisted men, on the promise that the recruiters would be appointed as officers of the company by the Governor. The most typical regimental organization was:

One Colonel Commanding the regiment
One Lieutenant Colonel: Second in command of the regiment, and commanding a battalion or wing of the regiment
One Major: Commanding a battalion or wing of the regiment
One Regimental Surgeon: A medical doctor, equal to a captain
Assistant Surgeon(s): Usually more like a physician's assistant (number, pay and importance varied)
Ten Captains: Commanding one of ten companies (usually A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,J & K)
Ten Lieutenants or 1st Lieutenants: Second in command of the company
Ten Second Lieutenants: Third in command of the company

The companies were usually authorized at a strength of sixty enlisted men, but rarely were that large. In general a company was considered full at forty or so men. Typically it was divided into five squads, each with:
One Sergeant
One Corporal
Ten Privates



The structure literally never worked exactly that way. Someone was always absent, and replaced by the next in command. If the regiment was whole, there was no reason for duplication of command, so the separations blurred.


In the very first week of the declared insurrection, Lt. J.N.G. Whistler of the 8th US Infantry was taken prisoner of war at Matamoros, Texas. He was paroled (released back to the Union with the provision that he not participate in the war, under penalty of death). He was assigned to be an instructor of Infantry tactics at West Point Military Academy. In early 1863 Whistler (who had been promoted to Captain but was still at West Point) was exchanged for a Confederate Officer who was a Union prisoner. Both could return to battle. Although a Captain of the 8th US Infantry (regulars) the regiment did not need him. The Governor of New York State appointed Whistler as Colonel of the 2nd New York Regiment of Heavy Artillery., and gave him the responsibility of organizing it. The regiment was trained as infantry, and pressed into service prematurely to police New York City during and after the draft riots. It then joined the Union campaign on Richmond. In the battle of Cold Harbor, Whistler was wounded leading his regiment in battle across a large bridge and taken to a hospital in Washington, DC. The very next morning he was brevetted (battlefield promotion) to the rank of Brigadier General and placed in command a brigade (about ten regiments) of the troops defending Washington's eastern edges. Several officers of the 2nd New York Heavy Arts were wounded following Whistler's removal. As they left the regiment in ambulances, brevet promotions left a man who was a captain at the start of the day a Brevet Colonel commanding the regiment. In 1866, the military was completely reorganized. Whistler was offered the rank of Major in a new infantry regiment, and was soon promoted to Lt. Colonel. At age 59, he was promoted to Colonel, retiring at the mandatory age of 64 years after serving 46 years (he was appointed to West Point at age 18).

Twenty-one year old Garrett Graveraet of Harbor Springs, Michigan was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant of Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. The governor wished to form the company with the best shooters of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indian tribes. Garrett Graveraet was an Ottawa with great influence among the young men. His father, 49 year old Henry Graveraet, enlisted as a private, also in Company K. The company saw heavy battle and took great losses. Henry died at Fredericksburg, and Garrett died in a Washington, DC Hospital of wounds suffered at Cold Harbor. Garrett was unmarried. His mother received a pension as his next-of-kin, which was greater than what she would have received as Henry's widow.

The method for the Confederacy was similar, except that the regiments were often formed from a single town, village or rural county.


The regiments were primarily organized by the states, but there were exceptions which were, literally, independent. More definition will follow, but first:

A battalion was any military group larger than a company (or detachments of several companies) organized for a single purpose. For example, in the 1870's when General George Custer split his 7th Cavalry regiment into three "prongs" of a fork ~ to attack around to the right, up the middle through the village, and around the left to scatter the Indian horse herd ~ they became forever after known as 'Custer's main battalion', 'Reno's battalion' and 'Benteen's battalion'.

Earlier in the 1850's, the Kansas Jayhawkers formed several militia regiments which marched as a group called 'Lane's battalion' to stop an invasion by pre-slavery Missourians. The commonality between the two sets of names was the singular purpose of the formation.

Now, lets say that many of the young men of a certain county wanted to go off and fight in the civil war, but the governor of that state had called for every regiment that he was authorized to at that particular time. Some "movers and shakers" of the community, who knew military protocol and procedure; would organize an independent company, regiment, or even a battalion with the singular purpose of being accepted into the regular army once they were ready. This was an especially appropriate procedure if the governor was not of the same political party as the young men who wanted to fight. Some places, like New York, northern Illinois, and northern Kentucky had a lot of Independent organizations. They could be very colorful in uniform and procedure, and often entered the actual war during crucial campaigns, seeing the worst of the combat. In some cases, the independents left excellent local records, but there would be no record with the US Government sources until it ceased to be independent. My great-great-grandfathers, in Kansas, left no records at all.

Dave Frederick ~ Billings, Montana 2003

Corrections (brigade/battalion) by Jeff Marguglio

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Last modified: June 6, 2006