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American Civil War Life: Filling The Ranks – Organization Of, and Choosing, The Company

Updated on August 6, 2018
garytameling profile image

I'm a Sr. Financial Analyst from Long Island, NY and am an American Civil War buff and Living Historian (Company H, 119th NY Volunteers).

The units, into which men assembled and enlisted, were called Companies. In the case of sparsely populated areas, one Company was often all that was in existence or could be recruited. Densely populated areas were able to support many Companies, new or existing.

An infantry Company standing at Rest
An infantry Company standing at Rest

Organization Of The Company

The Company was usually the smallest operating unit in a military force. There were smaller units within the Company, but they rarely operated independently.

Upon the initial formation of a Company, it was often designated by a nickname, often indicative of the town or county in which the unit was raised or of the commander of the Company, or of the ethnic makeup of the unit. Examples include Halleck Guard, Keuka Rifles, or Scandinavian Volunteers.

Upon consolidation with other Companies, each Company was designated sequentially by letter (ie. Company B) within the next largest unit, though J wasn’t used because, in Latin, J was I. Latin was still influential in 19th century America, as evidenced by it being one of the school subjects of remedial education.

The Company’s full regulation strength seemed to vary. 101 officers and men appears to be the most followed standard at the time, but numbers less than 100 were also often mentioned as full-strength. Assuming an aggregate total of 101, the Company was comprised as follows:

Captain – the commander of the Company.

First Lieutenant – the second-in-command of the Company, and he possibly led one of its two subdivisions.

Second Lieutenant – the third-in-command of the Company, and he directly led one of its two subdivisions.

There was the possibility of a Third Lieutenant existing in the Company, which was mentioned in army regulations. He would have been the fourth-in-command of the Company and led one of its two subdivisions.

First Sergeant – the direct liaison (for the commander) with the enlisted men, was responsible for the Company Roll, and handled other administrative matters.

Sergeants (4) – Second Sergeant through Fifth Sergeant; they maintained the order of, and guided, the enlisted men, and led smaller sub-units.

Corporals (8) – they assisted in maintaining the order of the enlisted men, and may have led the smallest of the Company’s sub-units.

Musicians (2) – these were a fifer, or a bugler, and a drummer.

Wagoner – he drove the horse-drawn supply wagon for the Company, and maintained the horses, wagon, and the supplies it carried.

Private soldiers (82) – these were the men that did the majority of fighting in the Company.

This is a diagram of the formation of a Company, taken from a drill manual, which shows subdivisions of the Company and the various placements of officers and non-commissioned officers along with the private soldiers.
This is a diagram of the formation of a Company, taken from a drill manual, which shows subdivisions of the Company and the various placements of officers and non-commissioned officers along with the private soldiers.
Modern illustration of a Company in line of battle, with the posts of its officers and NCO's.
Modern illustration of a Company in line of battle, with the posts of its officers and NCO's.
An infantry Company of the California Volunteers
An infantry Company of the California Volunteers

The Company was subdivided into two Platoons (Figure 1), each of about 50 officers and men. Platoons were designated sequentially, within the Company, by number (ie. 1st Platoon), and were led by the First and Second Lieutenants. If a Third Lieutenant existed, Platoons were led by the Second and Third Lieutenants.

Figure 1: A Company subdivided into two Platoons.
Figure 1: A Company subdivided into two Platoons.

The Platoon was subdivided into two Sections (Figure 2), each of about 25 men. Sections were designated sequentially, within the Platoon, by number (ie. 2nd Section), and were led by Sergeants within the Second through Fifth Sergeants cadre.

Figure 2: A Platoon subdivided into two Sections.
Figure 2: A Platoon subdivided into two Sections.

The Section may have been subdivided into two Squads (Figure 3), each of about 12 men. Squads were designated sequentially, within the Section, by number (ie. 1st Squad), and were led by the Corporals. However, it does not appear that Squad-sized units were always utilized.

Figure 3: A Section subdivided into two Squads.
Figure 3: A Section subdivided into two Squads.

The two Musicians in the Company were the “extended voice” of the commander. The fifer/bugler played the music that corresponded with orders (charge, retreat, drill, etc). The drummer did that as well, but his music also set the pace and cadence of marching. The Musicians were part of the Company as a whole, not assigned to Platoons, Sections, or Squads, and reported to the Company commander.

A Fifer and Drummer, the Company's Field Music
A Fifer and Drummer, the Company's Field Music
A Bugler, which often supplanted the Fifer in the Company's Field Music
A Bugler, which often supplanted the Fifer in the Company's Field Music

There was allowed one Wagoner per Company, who drove a horse-drawn supply wagon. He also was part of the Company as a whole, and reported to the commander. Later in the war, Companies were ordered to do without wagons, so many of the Company Wagoners eventually found themselves in the ranks.

A supply wagon. One supply wagon per Company was normal in the early months of the War.
A supply wagon. One supply wagon per Company was normal in the early months of the War.

Choosing The Arm

In an attempt to drum-up more manpower, recruitment posters were hung in areas where people congregated, such as town squares and market places, or in shop windows or outside post offices. These posters included the identities of the units seeking new members, what Arms (to be explained next) the units represented, maybe how many men they were sought, and where men could go to enlist into those units.

Those men of eligible age (between 18 and 45 years) not already enrolled, in a Militia unit or in the U.S. military, needed to decide if they were going to enlist and become part of this historic undertaking to keep the nation whole. As this was indeed a chance for heroism and adventure, men came forth in large numbers to enlist in their local Militia units. If the existing Militia units were already at, or recruited to, full strength, but quotas were not yet reached, state governors created new Militia units, and they accommodated masses of new recruits.

After deciding to enlist, but before choosing a Company, a man needed to decide upon the Arm in which he wanted to serve.

There are many definitions of “Arm” but, as it pertains to the military, it is defined as “a combat branch of the military service”.

The Arms of the United States Army, as well as the Militia, included Infantry, Artillery, and Cavalry. Like today, the Infantry Arm was soldiers who marched on foot and fought with shouldered firearms and edged weapons. The Artillery Arm was soldiers who worked as a team to fire a much larger weapon, namely the cannon, which they moved by foot and by horse. For melee combat situations against enemy forces, the individual artillerists were only lightly armed to defend themselves. Shouldered firearms were too cumbersome to carry for their work, so short swords were originally issued, but the artillerists soon came to prefer hand-held firearms. The Cavalry Arm was soldiers mounted on horses or, in some rare cases mules, in order to cover much greater distances. They fought with long edged weapons along with shouldered firearms or hand-held firearms.

As is the case with most things, a man’s decision on choosing the Arm was, in large part, based on the type of area in which he lived and any particular skills he possessed (ie. good horsemanship). Urban areas supported all three Arms, though the Infantry was the most predominant. Not all urban dwellers owned the horses necessary for service in the Cavalry and Artillery. Suburban and rural areas had greater horse populations so service in the Cavalry and Artillery was more feasible. Nevertheless, the Infantry was the easiest to support and, thus, was the most populated Arm, regardless of the type of area. Suburban homes and rural farms could not always afford to give up, or risk losing, horses for Cavalry or Artillery Militia service. A man was much more easily able to volunteer himself, and a shouldered firearm, for Infantry Militia service.

Recruitment poster for an infantry unit forming in the City of New York. Note the comments near the bottom, mentioning that every "Comfort" will be given to the troops.
Recruitment poster for an infantry unit forming in the City of New York. Note the comments near the bottom, mentioning that every "Comfort" will be given to the troops.
Recruitment poster for an artillery unit in Massachusetts
Recruitment poster for an artillery unit in Massachusetts
Recruitment poster for a New York cavalry unit - the "Mounted Rifles".
Recruitment poster for a New York cavalry unit - the "Mounted Rifles".

Choosing The Company

Once the Arm was decided, the man’s next decision was on which specific Company of that Arm to join. As mentioned earlier, recruitment posters were hung about the town, which told him what Companies in that Arm were being raised, and where they were located.

Just as in deciding the Arm, a man’s decision on choosing the Militia Company was, in large part, based on where he lived. A man was much more likely to join a Company recruiting within an area in close proximity to where he lived than join a Company recruiting further away. A Company in close proximity meant a shorter journey to that unit’s recruiting and assembly area. It also meant the man stood a much better chance of joining a Company that contained a large number of neighbors, many of whom were friends or family. Who did not want to join a Company that contained many friendly faces?

Deciding upon the Company to join was also very much dependent on what a man was able to afford in the way of uniform and equipment. As mentioned in Filling The Ranks - The Militia, most Militia members needed to own those things.

Urban areas often had several Militia Companies of the chosen Arm from which to choose, each one most likely in close proximity. There was also a larger variety of socio-economic classes in urban areas. The more well-to-do citizens usually joined the Companies that required the purchase of more expensive “regulation” materiel. The less well-to-do urban citizens likewise often found nearby Militia Companies, but the required materiel in those chosen units was likely more affordable.

Suburban areas generally had a smaller number of Companies of the chosen Arm available in close proximity. Affordability may have varied as well, so the choice of Company was a bit more restricted and/or forced a longer journey to the unit’s recruitment and assembly site.

Rural areas probably had, at most, one Militia Company each, and the unit in the given area may have been of a differing Arm than the one desired. Rural areas generally had less wealth, so the materiel needs of the Militia Companies there were usually less opulent. However, the journey to the recruitment and assembly sites was usually quite substantial, regardless. Sometimes, men joined Companies being recruited in other states as those units were actually closer than Companies in their own state!

If a Company of the chosen Arm was simply too far away to join, a man could either join a more local Company of a different Arm (the Infantry being the most common “default” Arm) or forego enlisting at all. As the war was the great adventure of the age for these thousands of young men, the thought of not enlisting was often too much to bear, so certain factors that might very well have prevented a man from going somewhere, or doing something, simply did not apply in this case.

A recruitment poster for two Michigan infantry units: "Excursion Party for the Sunny South" was putting it mildly.
A recruitment poster for two Michigan infantry units: "Excursion Party for the Sunny South" was putting it mildly.

Afterword

The next article in this series is called American Civil War Life: Filling The Ranks - The Volunteers and The Regulars.

An infantry Company of the 93rd Regiment, New York Volunteers
An infantry Company of the 93rd Regiment, New York Volunteers

© 2013 Gary Tameling

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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Very interesting review of the structure of the Army in Civil War times. I have written some short stories of the civil War period and sometimes struggle for such details. up votes and sharing with followers.

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