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American Civil War Life: Filling The Ranks – The Volunteers and The Regulars

Updated on October 11, 2013
Postcard: The Union Volunteer. The caption on the bottom reads: "O'er Sumter's walls OUR FLAG again we'll wave, And give to traitors all a bloody grave, OUR UNION and OUR LAWS maintain we must, And treason's banner trample in the dust."
Postcard: The Union Volunteer. The caption on the bottom reads: "O'er Sumter's walls OUR FLAG again we'll wave, And give to traitors all a bloody grave, OUR UNION and OUR LAWS maintain we must, And treason's banner trample in the dust."
Recruiting poster seeking Cavalry Volunteers for a Connecticut unit
Recruiting poster seeking Cavalry Volunteers for a Connecticut unit
Volunteer for the 21st Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers
Volunteer for the 21st Regiment, Kentucky Volunteers
A Company from the 42nd Regiment, Ohio Volunteers
A Company from the 42nd Regiment, Ohio Volunteers
A Company from the 127th Regiment, Ohio Volunteers
A Company from the 127th Regiment, Ohio Volunteers
The Gripman Brothers, Hiram and William, Union Volunteers
The Gripman Brothers, Hiram and William, Union Volunteers
Illustration of Union Volunteer Companies at Drill.
Illustration of Union Volunteer Companies at Drill.
Two Union Volunteers pose for an ambrotype photograph circa 1861
Two Union Volunteers pose for an ambrotype photograph circa 1861
Company F, 38th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers
Company F, 38th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers
Private William Chase, 6th Regiment Vermont Volunteers
Private William Chase, 6th Regiment Vermont Volunteers
The Halford Brothers, Union Volunteers
The Halford Brothers, Union Volunteers
Troops of the 14th Regiment, U.S. Regulars
Troops of the 14th Regiment, U.S. Regulars
Field Musician of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Regulars
Field Musician of the 2nd Regiment, U.S. Regulars

ACWL: FTR - The Volunteers and The Regulars

Volunteers

As was also mentioned in The Union’s Path to War, another call for troops was made by Lincoln on May 3, 1861. This second call authorized the expansion of the sizes of the standing U.S. Army (aka. the Regulars) and U.S. Navy. In addition, 42,034 Volunteers were sought to serve three year terms.

What were these Volunteers (aka “Three Years Men”)?

Volunteers were very similar to Militia in that they were civilians rallying to the call for military service. Like the Militia, Volunteers were also mustered into their own distinctive units rather than merged within the Regular Army.

There were other similarities with the Militia: Volunteer Companies were raised within certain communities of each state, so men often served with their family and neighbors. Volunteers elected the officers for their Companies, and often for the next largest unit as well. Governors usually confirmed these selections though, eventually, the practice of electing officers was stopped by an act of Congress. State governors then consolidated Volunteer Companies into larger combat units and, if not already done so by elections, appointed men to fill any vacant officer positions.

Though similar in many ways, there were several differences between Militia and Volunteers. Most Militia Companies were already organized, with officers to command them and to recruit new members. Volunteers were starting “from scratch”, with no ready-made units in which to enlist. Volunteer Companies were created via the recruitment quotas (which accompanied the call for more troops) set for each county of each state.

The proper age range for a Volunteer was still 18 through 45, though this was often ignored by recruiting agents in order to secure as many willing recruits as possible.

It bears noting that recruiting agents were often not army officers. Many were independent citizens, contracted by the War Department, to recruit Volunteers. Payment to these contractors, or the right to be commissioned as commanding officers of the Companies they raised, was determined by their meeting recruitment goals and quotas. As a result, it was more lucrative for these agents to recruit anyone willing to go rather than to adhere to the age restrictions – more recruits that way!

Volunteers enlisted directly into Federal service, not Federal-via-State service like the Militia. These men were thus paid a soldier’s wage during their entire term of enlistment, which began at $13 per month for privates.

Volunteers enlisted for a set amount of time, specifically for the purpose of the current war. Volunteers would not continue beyond the term of enlistment unless the war was still in effect, in which case the Volunteers could reenlist.

If a certain percentage of men in a Volunteer unit reenlisted, the unit would continue in existence. If not, reenlisted Volunteers were assigned to other Volunteer units. The remaining Volunteers were mustered out of service, and the Volunteer unit then ceased to exist. Generally, a unit needed to maintain strength of 50% or more of its full complement in order to prevent the threat of its disbanding. If the war ended before the enlistment term expired, the Volunteers were often discharged early, though at the discretion of the President and/or the War Department.

Uniforms and weaponry were to be provided by the federal government. However, in reality, the states were generally the providers, at least at first. They gave their troops whatever was available from the state arsenals (often outdated weapons and uniforms of great variety, hardly any in sufficient quantity) until the federal government raised, and forwarded to the troops, the much needed equipment.

Volunteers were raised hurriedly. Training of the troops was often necessarily haphazard as those officers, who facilitated the training, were new to it themselves. It was not unheard-of for Volunteer units, only recently mobilized, to be sent into battle barely familiar with their own firearms much less the mysteries of the close-order, linear warfare of the day.

Volunteer Companies raised in the late summer and early autumn of 1861 often contained several former Militiamen. When the ninety days of federal service were completed for the Militia units (around August and September 1861), many members went home and resumed their civilian lives. However, many more left their Militia units upon returning home and enlisted as Volunteers. This gave some Volunteer Companies a somewhat valuable cadre of experienced men serving within their ranks, however little that experience might have been. In fact, many Militia Companies made the wholesale effort to become Volunteer Companies after their terms of Militia service ended. Not all of them were successful in that endeavor, however.

U.S. Regulars:

Then there was the third type of soldier: the Regular. The expansion of the Regular US Army created a need for additional recruits for its ranks. Those men unable or unwilling to enlist in the Volunteer organizations were welcome to join the Regulars. The number of Regular combat units was increased to make way for this Army-wide enlargement to 42,000 men. This was the part of the United States military that was considered “the standing army”; the land force to be in existence in war and in peace. The pre-war troop numbers were deliberately small as a large standing army involved greater rates of taxation for keeping it supplied and paid. No one liked higher tax rates back then (just like today). Also, citizenry in the mid-19th century was still very wary of large, standing armies. The results of the rebellions in Europe in the 1830’s and 1840’s provided further proof that large, standing armies were wielded too effectively by absolute rulers in crushing citizen unrest or uprisings. The still-fledgling democracy of the United States would not risk absolute leadership via a large standing army if at all possible. The standing army could have been increased in size during armed conflict but, once the conflict ended, the army was whittled away to a shadow of itself.

Regular Companies were each recruited within certain states, somewhat similar to Volunteer and Militia Companies. However, the larger Regular combat units, into which these Companies were consolidated, did not always comprise Companies from the same state. A Regular combat unit could have contained some Companies that were raised in one state and the rest of the Companies that were raised in another state. In some cases, Regular combat units contained Companies from six or more states and territories. In the Regulars, Companies from nearby regions of the country were merged into combat units regardless of state(s).

Regular units continued in perpetuity, meaning the units continued to exist and were kept up to strength by continued recruitment. New recruits mustered into these units, joining already existing members, and replacing those mustered-out. They then served their entire terms of enlistment. Regular units were not disbanded unless ordered by the commanding general or the War Department.

As mentioned before, when the Regular Army expanded, several new Regular combat units were created. No veteran troops were already present to help indoctrinate the new recruits, so these Regular units were very much like those of the Volunteers. However, many of the officers assigned to these new units were professional soldiers in the Regular Army, not citizens-become-officers like those within the Volunteers.

Regular Officers were not elected. They were appointed, either by commanding officers (for lower officer levels) or by the War Department. Promotions were based on seniority (how long the officer was in the army), and by competence and merit.

Regular units were, generally, better trained and more disciplined than Volunteer units, though the newest units were the exception to this rule. Officers in the Regular Army were usually in the army for years and had learned their vocations well. In turn, they imparted their knowledge on their troops with necessarily iron wills and with much practice.

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

© 2013 Gary Tameling

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