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American Civil War Life: Filling The Ranks – Order of Battle: Brigade and Above

Updated on January 16, 2016
Photo of the Excelsior Brigade drawn up for a review
Photo of the Excelsior Brigade drawn up for a review
Figure 1: A Brigade subdivided into four Regiments.
Figure 1: A Brigade subdivided into four Regiments.
Second image of the Excelsior Brigade at review
Second image of the Excelsior Brigade at review
Figure 2: A Division subdivided into two or three Brigades.
Figure 2: A Division subdivided into two or three Brigades.
A Division in a mock battle
A Division in a mock battle
A Division is arrayed to view an execution of one of its members
A Division is arrayed to view an execution of one of its members
Figure 3: A Corps subdivided into two or three Divisions.
Figure 3: A Corps subdivided into two or three Divisions.
The various Corps Badges adopted by the Union Army
The various Corps Badges adopted by the Union Army
Headquarters of 6th Army Corps
Headquarters of 6th Army Corps
Figure 4: An Army subdivided into two or three Corps.
Figure 4: An Army subdivided into two or three Corps.
Headquarters of Army of the Potomac
Headquarters of Army of the Potomac
Figure 5: A District subdivided into three Sub-Districts.
Figure 5: A District subdivided into three Sub-Districts.
Figure 6: A Department subdivided into three Districts.
Figure 6: A Department subdivided into three Districts.
Figure 7: A Wing or a Grand Division comprised of two Corps.
Figure 7: A Wing or a Grand Division comprised of two Corps.
Figure 8: A Military Division comprised of three Departments.
Figure 8: A Military Division comprised of three Departments.

ACWL: FTR - Order of Battle: Brigade and Above

Brigade

Two or more Regiments were consolidated into the next largest unit, which was called a Brigade (Figure 1). The standard number of Regiments per Brigade in the U.S. Army was four, though there are examples of Brigades containing as few as two Regiments and as many as a dozen or more.

Especially in the Union army, there existed the practice of Brigading together Regiments from different states, rarely allowing more than two Regiments from the same state. There were two reasons for this:

  • Concern over Casualties
  • Influence of the State Governors

If a Brigade contained men from only one state, and it was ever particularly hard-hit in terms of casualties, the state from which that Brigade drew its manpower might severely reduce its support for the war. This meant less and less recruits from that state to fill the ranks.

As for the Governors, they essentially created the Militia and Volunteer Regiments. The troops within them, along with the soldiers’ families at home, were their constituents. Governors thus took it upon themselves to look out for the welfare of the Regiments of their states (probably currying soldiers' favor and votes in the process). Governors, hearing of poor conditions within, or faulty senior-level leadership upon, their creations often took steps to interdict and interfere. They often wielded great influence on their Regiments. If several same-state Regiments were brigaded together, a governor would have been able to influence and/or interfere with all of them much more easily. If a governor ever decided to order one or more same-state Brigades back home (even if the governor was really not allowed to do so), the Brigades might very well obey. Army commanders wanted to minimize governor influence so that they could control their forces more effectively and with fewer restrictions. The situation of multiple commanders – commanding general AND state governors in this case - creates confusion, regardless of the time period.

Governor-interference was a very real concern, and it occurred a number of times (sometimes in very beneficial ways, as it turned out). However, Brigades made up of Regiments from different states often did not bond together well. This caused each such organized Brigade to be less than “the sum of its parts”. It caused the men to rally around only their own individual Regiments, rather than with the other Regiments in the same Brigade. Those very few Brigades from one state tended to bond and fight together very well, making them particularly effective. The First and Second Vermont Brigades, the Excelsior (New York) Brigade, and the New Jersey Brigade are excellent examples of same-state Brigades that had superb combat records.

The following list details the Brigade’s commander and his administrative staff:

A Brigadier General – he was the Brigade’s commanding officer, who was appointed by his immediate superior. His rank as a general officer, as with all general officer ranks, needed to be confirmed by the federal government.

One or Two Aides-de-Camp – they wrote out the orders of the commander and sometimes delivered them personally if needed. Each Aide needed to be thoroughly knowledgeable in the troop positions, routes of marches, and locations of the commanding officers in the Brigade. The rank of an Aide could have been as low as Captain or as high as Lieutenant Colonel.

An Adjutant General (or just Adjutant), a Quartermaster officer, Commissary officer, a Surgeon, and a Chaplain – all these positions were as described in the Regiment section, only the duties of these staff members encompassed those of the entire Brigade.

An Ordnance officer – he was in charge of supplying and maintaining the Brigade’s firearms (and cannon, if a battery was attached). This position may have originally been created if the Brigade was on duty independent of any larger parent unit. However, it eventually became a Brigade staff position regardless of the Brigade’s assignment.

An Inspector-General (or just Inspector) – he was responsible for ensuring regulations were followed, training and drilling was conducted, and all supplies and equipment were up to standards and ready for use.

Other staff members may have included an Assistant Adjutant General, one or two Assistant Surgeons, and an Assistant Inspector General. Brigade commanders, and above, sometimes had a certain amount of leeway in organizing their staffs. Not every commander had the same staff, but the above listing is a fair “template”. In addition, there were clerks or couriers (enlisted men and/or NCO’s) to handle other low-level administrative and communications duties as meted out by the staff officers and/or commander.

As for designating the Brigades, some were originally designated sequentially, by number, in the order in which they were organized within the entire region (ie. 14th Brigade). Most other Brigades were designated sequentially, by number, only within their next largest units. By mid-1863, this latter method of Brigade designation was standardized throughout the U.S. Army.

As hinted above, some Brigades came to be known by nicknames rather than by their official numerical designations. Generally, these were Brigades that distinguished themselves somehow. Comprising all New Jersey Regiments made the nickname “New Jersey” Brigade pretty much inevitable for that unit. An army commander admired one particular Brigade’s prowess in battle, noting that they “stood like iron”, so that unit earned the sobriquet “Iron” Brigade. The “Irish Brigade”, not surprisingly, had a sizeable number of men that originally hailed from Ireland. And The “First Vermont” Brigade earned its nickname both for its Regiments all hailing from Vermont as well as for its reputation in hard marching and extremely stubborn fighting.

Division

Two or more Brigades were consolidated into a Division (Figure 2).

There were rare cases of Divisions comprising men from a single state (ie. Pennsylvania Reserve Divisions) but the jumbling of Regiments per Brigade rendered that phenomenon nearly impossible.

The following list details the Division’s commander and his administrative staff:

A Major General – he was the commanding officer of a Division, who was appointed by his immediate superior.

Three Aides-de-Camp

An Adjutant and Assistant Adjutant

Two Commissary officers

A Chief of Ordnance

An Inspector and Assistant Inspector

A Surgeon

A Quartermaster

The duties of these staff members were as earlier stated, only the duties were those for the Division as a whole.

Just like for the Brigades, designating the Divisions varied in the first two years for the same reasons. By mid-1863, Division designations were standardized by the method of sequential order within the next largest unit.

Wing / Corps

During the early months of the War, if two or more Divisions were grouped together, the resulting unit was called a Wing.

In the second year of the war, President Lincoln authorized the Corps formations, each comprising two or more Divisions (Figure 3).

The following list details the Wing / Corps’ commander and his administrative staff:

A Senior Major General – he was the commanding officer of the Wing / Corps, who was appointed by his immediate superior or by the President.

The staff of a Wing / Corps commander was very similar to the afore-mentioned Division and Brigade staffs with a few possible additions like these:

Chief of Staff – he was the right-hand man of the Wing / Corps commander. He was responsible for drafting the orders and overseeing the necessary logistics, including establishing objective timetables and stockpiling supplies.

Chief Engineering Officer – he was responsible for engineering efforts: road, bridge, and dam building, construction of earthworks, fortresses, and obstructions.

Chief of Artillery – he headed the artillery efforts of the Artillery Brigade attached to the Wing / Corps.

Provost Marshal – he headed the Provost Guard (military police) and was often responsible for the safety of the Wing / Corps commander. He was also responsible for policing the Wing / Corps, incarcerating enemy prisoners, and maintaining order.

A Wing was often designated by its place in the line of battle (ie. Left Wing, Right Wing, Center Wing).

A Corps was designated by a number, and by early 1863, that number was unique throughout the entire branch of the Army. The number was a Roman numeral (ie. VI Corps) or was spelled out (ie. Sixth Corps). And often, army commanders referred to them as Army Corps (ie. II, or Second, Army Corps).

In 1863, corps badges were adopted in the Eastern theatre as a way of helping Corps and Division commanders distinguish officers and men in their commands. This practice grew to involve nearly all Corps by the war’s end. The badge, which was unique for each Corps, was usually worn on the top, or side, of the men’s headgear. This way, officers on horseback could more easily see the badges and ascertain whether or not they were among men they commanded. The shape of the badge denoted the Corps to which the wearer belonged (ie. a Disc denoted I Corps, a Trefoil (three-leaf clover) denoted II Corps, etc). The color of the badge denoted the Division within the Corps:

Red - 1st Division

White - 2nd Division

Blue - 3rd Division

If more than three Divisions were within a Corps, then Green was used for the 4th Division, and Orange was for the 5th Division.

It bears noting that not every Corps adopted a badge by war’s end, but almost all did. All Corps currently have badges now.

Army

Two or more Wings / Corps were consolidated into the next, and most often largest, operating unit, the Army (Figure 4). Before the Wings / Corps were created, two or more Divisions comprised an Army.

The commanding officer of an Army was appointed by the general in chief (the top officer of the U.S. Army) or the President, and was often the most senior general available and qualified.

The staff of the Army commander was very similar to that of a Wing / Corps commander with possible additions of:

Chief Topographical Officer – he was responsible for map-making and distributing the finished maps to all general officers.

Chief Signal Officer – he was responsible for the army-wide communications technology, including the telegraph, signal flags, signal torches, and the coding of the messages being sent.

Paymaster – he was responsible for the distribution of proper payments to the troops.

Chief of Artillery – he was responsible for the reserve artillery, and the replacement and repairing of damaged artillery batteries throughout the Army.

Chief of Military Intelligence – he was responsible for all information regarding the enemy forces and enemy territory.

Armies were designated by name (ie. The Army of the Potomac), and they derived their names from the Districts or Departments in which they were assigned and operated. It bears noting that armies often moved out of their assigned areas due to contingencies. However their names did not necessarily change as a result.

District

A District was a geographic area, designated by a name that was descriptive of the region it encompassed (ie. District of East Tennessee). The commander of a District could have been the commander of an Army assigned to it, or a subordinate commander who supported the Army that operated around and within that District. Not surprisingly, the administrative staff of a District was very similar to those already mentioned for the Brigade through the Corps commanders.

Sometimes Districts were subdivided into Sub-Districts (Figure 5). Generally, Sub-Districts were too small to have their own armed forces but, like the Districts, they supported the armies that operated in the area. They were commanded by officers subordinate to the District commander.

Department

Two or more Districts comprised a Department (Figure 6). These were geographical areas of the entire United States, including the loyal Union states as well as the rebelling Confederate states. Like Districts, Departments were designated by names that were descriptive of the areas in which they encompassed. If the size and/or strategic value of a Department was great, there could have been multiple Armies operating within it, perhaps one to each District. Most other times, the Department supported one Army, and the Army commander headed the Department. If the Department was well away from the front lines and, thus, deemed fairly secure from enemy activity, there may have been very few military units assigned to it. The Department commander might thus have been the equivalent of a Brigade commander at best. Emergencies sometimes called for the raising of many more units from the Department’s civilian population, but those units were generally local Militia Companies. Any resulting Army from this emergency would have been temporary.

As the War continued, Departments were often merged or subdivided due to contingencies or efficiencies, and Department names either changed or disappeared. Therefore, the affected Armies could have officially changed names several times during the War. However, there were cases where Armies continued to be referred-to by previous, or more popular, names. For example, the Department of the Gulf was changed to the Department of West Mississippi, but Army of the Gulf continued to be the preferred moniker of the force that operated in this Department.

Special Case Units

There were a couple of special military units worthy of mention, temporary or rare as they were:

Wing / Grand Division

Two Corps could have been grouped together within the same Army to form what was called either a Wing (not to be confused with the predecessor to the Corps), or a Grand Division (Figure 7). This new unit had once been created to cut down on the number of Corps Commanders reporting to the Army Commander, a perceived streamlining of the chain of command. Other times it was created to enable the Army to cover a wide swath of territory and, thus, make easier the attempt to locate the enemy. When the enemy was encountered, two (or more) Corps in that area, under one commander, maintained enough strength to, at least temporarily, fight on its own against an enemy force until the rest of the Army arrived. The commanding officer was appointed by the Army Commander, but was most likely the Corps commander with the greater seniority. He, in turn, appointed the most senior Division commander to command the Corps, and so on down the chain of command.

Military Division (“Army Group”)

In extremely rare circumstances, two or more Armies fought together under one commanding officer. In today’s terms, that resulting unit is called an Army Group, but that designation did not exist during the American Civil War.

This rarity usually occurred when several Departments were grouped together. Why did Departments group together, or merge or subdivide? There were many reasons, but they were mostly due to the need for greater efficiency of action, the increased, or lack thereof, threat from enemy forces in those Departments, or political considerations.

The Armies of those now-grouped Departments might have merged into one Army. Alternately, they each could have continued in existence, and they often continued with the same commanders, but with one overall Military Division field commander for all of them (Figure 8).

A perfect example of this latter scenario was the grouping, in late 1863, of the Departments of the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee into one Military Division of the Mississippi. The three Armies of these grouped-Departments continued in existence and operated together under one overall Military Division field commander. Each Army also continued to have its own Army commander.

This grouping of the Departments and appointing the Military Division commanding officers was performed by the general-in-chief, or the Secretary of War, or the President. The commander was generally the most senior or most qualified of the Army Commanders.


Afterword:

For my next series in this realm, I shall now turn my attention to the experiences of those that filled the ranks. My next series of articles is called American Civil War Life: Union Infantryman – Life In Camp.

© 2013 Gary Tameling

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    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great stuff once again. Detailed, yet very readable. I'm guilty of very often thinking of Civil War units as volunteer or ad hoc groups (with the exception of the Army of the Potomac). But by the end of the war, the complex nature of the organization resembled that of WWII. Voted up.

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