The Civil War History of the
Volunteer Infantry Regiment, USA
By Jared E. Billings
Basic Civil War Infantry Organization
In order to understand and appreciate any Civil War unit
history it is helpful to have some familiarity with the way
the soldiers were organized. Anyone already well versed on such may move past this topic if not in need of a review.
Owing to this being a history of an infantry regiment, the
emphasis on explaining the basic military organization
during the Civil War will be so focused. Cavalry, artillery,
naval units, irregular forces and state militias will be
omitted. Organizations to be examined will begin with the
Company and proceed through Regiments, Brigades,
Divisions, Corps and end with the Army.
In both the Federal and Confederate armies, between 80%
and 85% of the soldiers served in infantry units. The 29th
Missouri was one of 2,144 total infantry regiments raised in
the various states by the Union. The Confederacy organized about 530 infantry regiments, but they also deployed 85 different battalions of infantry. The South also had a variety of local defense units and state militias.
The first unit of organization, that which every other unit
was built upon, was the company. It was common for a
company to have a large contingent of men from the same
general area, since many were recruited from a single
location, although this was not always the result. A single
company might have men from a wide variety of regions.
In the Volunteer Service, both commissioned officers and
non-commissioned officers were predominantly assigned
their positions in a company through elections. This did not always result in the the best man getting the job, so to
speak, but usually worked out well. Once organized, internal company assignments could be, and often were, rearranged per orders.
There was no exact set number, although there was a
minimum number, of soldiers required to make up a
company, but 100 or so was about ideal. Many Civil War
companies in the Union armies began with anywhere from
75 to 125 men, but in a short time, the companies became
depleted owing to a variety of causes.
Discharges for unfitness weeded out soldiers early.
Desertions were relatively common when companies were
newly formed and continued at a slower pace for the
duration. It was not uncommon for a company to loose ten
men to desertion in the first two or three months.
Before most companies saw combat their numbers were
decreased by sickness and disease, the most common
killers, by far, in the Civil War. Men who had rarely strayed
far from home found themselves exposed to thousands of
other people in different lands.
Unaccustomed foods, contaminated water, malnutrition and undernutrition, poor medicines and medical care, exposure to the elements of weather and the stresses of marching and fighting all contributed to the increased incidence of disease and its attendant morbidity and mortality.
Dysentery and diarrhea were the biggest killers. Common
colds and infections often led to pneumonia, another big
killer. Measles took its toll, as did typhoid, smallpox and
As the war progressed other factors depleted companies of their soldiers; being killed in action the most obvious. Many soldiers were discharged for disability as the result of battle wounds.
It was not unusual for a full company, having been in the
field less than a year, to find its numbers reduced to 40 or 50 men and sometimes even less. Usually, several of those
remaining were sick but still on duty.
Ideally an infantry company would have one captain in
command. Companies were divided into two platoons with
a First Lieutenant, who was also second in command of the company, commanding one platoon. The Second Lieutenant would serve as third in command of the company and also commanded the second platoon.
The ranking enlisted man in a company was the First
Sergeant. Many of his duties were of a clerical nature,
writing reports, taking musters, keeping records and
tending to other paperwork.
Four other sergeants were ranked Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Sergeant. Each platoon had two of these sergeants assigned. Four Corporals went to each platoon for a total of eight in the company. 80 or so Privates would round out the fighting force in a company of 100 men.
Companies often had a Musician or two, usually a Drummer and a Fifer. This was how younger men, mostly boys actually, would get into the army. 14, 13 or even 12 years old was not too young. 15 and 16 year olds would sometimes lie about their ages and pick up a musket instead of a drum.
Ideally, a company would have a Cook to prepare meals and
a Teamster or Wagoner to drive the company wagon and
tend the mules. A company fortunate enough to have such
positions manned sometimes hired civilians for these
The Federals usually allowed their companies and
regiments to dwindle in number through attrition, choosing to form new units rather than reinforce existing ones with fresh recruits. The Confederacy, on the other hand, for the most part, would send new soldiers to replace lost men in their units. Towards the end of the conflict, there were increasingly less and less recruits to send. As a result, the Confederate units also became seriously depleted and under strength.
The regiment represented the next tier of military
organization of the Infantry during the War of the Rebellion. There were two basic types: regular and volunteer. The vast majority were volunteer, or temporary regiments. Regular refers to the regular U.S. Army. At the outset of of the war in 1861, the United States had but about 17,000 soldiers in the regular army. Most of them were out west fighting American Indians and supporting territorial governments at the time.
Volunteer infantry regiments were named for the states
where they were raised, but they may be assigned
anywhere. So there was the 20th Maine, USV (for United
States Volunteers), the 58th Ohio, USV or the 29th Missouri, USV. If it was a part of the regular army, a regiment's designation would be U.S., as in 2nd U.S. Infantry, a unit in the regular United States Army.
In the Confederacy, by the same manner, there was the 3rd
Louisiana, the 7th Mississippi or the 15th Alabama. The 2nd Confederate Infantry would be a unit of the regular
Confederate States Army (CSA).
The ideal regiment would consist of ten companies plus the regimental staff and perhaps, particularly early in the war for the Union, a band.
The companies were designated A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I and
K. Note the omission of the letter J as a company
designation. As this author understands there were two
reasons for this. For one, the pronunciation of J sounds
very much like A. Also, a J looks much like an I. So, to avoid confusion, J was not used.
However, as the astute reader may notice, K also sounds
like A. Perhaps the pronunciation of the hard consonant
was deemed sufficient difference.
When asked what unit he was in during the war, a Civil War veteran would say his company and regiment, or
sometimes just his regiment. Regiments may find
themselves in different brigades, divisions, corps and even armies throughout the course of the war, but a particular company in a particular regiment was pretty much permanent. The exception being when badly depleted regiments were consolidated with other regiments.
If you were alive from the end of the war until 1934, and
were to ask my GG Grandfather, Private William Billings in
what unit he served, he would most likely answer,
"Company B, 29th Missouri." That is also what is written on his tombstone.
The headquarters of a regiment was titled the Field
and Staff. In an ideal regiment, in addition to the
approximately 1,000 men from ten ideal companies, there
would be 15 or so more men comprising the regiment's
Field and Staff.
A regiment was usually commanded by a colonel. Although
lieutenant colonels and even majors often commanded
regiments. It was not unheard of for a brigadier general to
be found in command of a regiment.
Lieutenant colonels were usually second in command with
a major third in command. There was the regimental
Chaplain. One regiment might have a Baptist Chaplain
while others would have Methodists, Presbyterians,
Catholic Priests or others. In this manner, since regiments
rarely operated alone, chaplains representing various
denominations were available to the soldiers.
A regiment had one Surgeon and at least one Assistant
Surgeon. Some regiments enjoyed having a second
Assistant Surgeon. There were also Hospital Orderlies,
sometimes several. Wounded or sick soldiers, unfit for front line combat duty, often served in such a capacity
A soldier holding the rank of lieutenant would serve as the
regiment's Adjutant. The First Sergeant of each company in the regiment would report directly to him. His duties were clerical in nature, much like the First Sergeants' duties, but on the regimental level.
The Adjutant handled all official correspondence and
regimental reports. He handled the daily administrative
duties for the regiment. He maintained all of the personnel
Another lieutenant would be designated the regiment's
Quartermaster, who was assisted by the Quartermaster
Sergeant. This officer was in charge of all of the equipment and supplies for the regiment. He would procur everything needed and keep records, plus store, transport and issue the materials to the soldiers. This author imagines one would have done well to remain in this man's good graces.
Another man assisting the Quartermaster was the
Commissary Sergeant. This soldier was in charge of the salt pork and hardtack. He fed the regiment, providing the cooks with all food stuffs and maintaining the appropriate records.
The highest ranking and most influential enlisted man in a
regiment was the Sergeant Major. He also had a lot of
clerical duties and coordinated the assignments of
regimental duties amongst the various companies. He was
responsible for posting the guards and organizing any work details.
Just as an ideal company would have a Drummer and a
Fifer, the regiment would have one of each, also. They were known as the Boss Drummer and the Boss Fifer.
At the beginning of the war most Union regiments had a
band. They were deauthorized in 1862. Some band members were discharged and some stayed with their regiments and were assigned to companies as infantrymen.
Ideally a regimental band had 25 Musicians, including the
Band Leader. In practice, however, most regimental bands
had half or three-quarters that many.
So, an ideal regiment (and very few were ideal) might have
an authorized strength of upwards to 1,050 men or more.
Throughout the course of the war, perhaps a regiment may
have had, at one time or another, 1,250 to 2,500 men who
served in the regiment, but the actual strength at any givin
time was much, much less than that.
On May 20, 1864, during the opening stages of the
Campaign for Atlanta, the reported strength of the 29th
Missouri Infantry Regiment was down to 179 officers and
men present for duty.
Brigades are composed of several regiments, just as
regiments are composed of several companies. Four to six
regiments usually were associated to form a brigade,
although examples can be cited with less or more,
sometimes up to ten.
The Confederacy tended to brigade together regiments from the same state while this was an uncommon practice in the Union. A notable exception involves the history of the 29th Missouri. They were once in a brigade known as "The Missouri Brigade."
During Sherman's Campaign for Atlanta, the Third Brigade
of the 1st Division of the XV Army Corps, Army of the
Tennessee, consisted of six Missouri regiments. They were the 3rd, 12th, 17th, 29th, 31st and 32nd Regiments.
Although brigades, especially in the Confederacy,
sometimes operated independent of divisions, such as the
famous 1st and 3rd Missouri Confederate Brigades, they
were usually designated by number and assigned to a
Most Confederate brigades were numbered, but were rarely
referred to by such. They were instead known by the name of their commanders. It was the same with divisions, so there was Kemper's Brigade of Pickett's Division instead of the Second Brigade of the Second Division.
Brigades were designed to be commanded by a brigadier
general, but there are numerous examples of colonels
commanding brigades. All regimental commanders
assigned to a brigade would report directly to the Brigade
Sometimes two regiments within the same brigade would
be "battalioned" together and given a common assignment. This was not a formal organization but a temporary grouping as it was mostly practiced by the Federals. Battalions were more common in the Confederate Army but it was often an arbitrarily chosen designation for a unit that could just as well have been called an undersized regiment.
In theory, a battalion was an organizational unit between a
company and a regiment. But as related above, it was
seldom used in such a fashion.
Brigades usually had a staff of fifteen or so, much like the
Field and Staff of the regiments. Union brigades also often
had bands, especially following their abolishment on the
On paper, an ideal brigade of five ideal regiments would
field in excess of 5,000, maybe more than 6,000, soldiers.
However, brigades were more often manned by between
1,000 and 3,000 soldiers.
On May 20, 1864, during the opening stages of the
Campaign for Atlanta, the reported strength of "The
Missouri Brigade" described before, consisting of six
regiments, was 1,170 officers and men present for duty.
The Division was the next organizational tier. Just as
regiments consisted of several companies and brigades
consisted of several regiments, divisions consisted of
Most commonly in both armies, a division was composed
of three brigades while four was not unheard of. A division
was designed to be commanded by a major general, but
often a brigadier would do.
Divisions had staffs just as brigades and regiments had
staffs. They were designated by numerals, but as outlined
before, most Confederate divisions were known by the
name of their commanders. Divisions were assigned to
Corps. Divisions would usually have two or more batteries
of artillery, perhaps a detachment of sharpshooters and
sometimes a brigade of cavalry was attached.
An ideal division composed of three ideal brigades, with
artillery and perhaps cavalry, could field 16,000 to 18,000
soldiers. But in practice, divisions usually had anywhere
from 3,000 to 10,000 men.
On May 20, 1864, during the opening stages of the
Campaign for Atlanta, the reported strength of the First
Division of the XV Corps, of which the 29th Missouri was a
part, consisted of 4,343 soldiers including two batteries of
artillery. Added to that total was a detachment of 81
Sharpshooters, a detachment of 32 mounted infantry, and 70 detached Pioneers, for a grand total of 4,526 officers, men and pioneers present for duty.
A Corps was composed of divisions of infantry and other
units. Most commonly, three divisions were in a corps and were designated First Division of the Corps, Second
Division of the Corps and so on. The word corps is
pronounced "core" with a silent p and s.
In the Union armies, corps were designated with Roman
numerals, I through XXV. A corps might be disbanded and
another corps formed later would assume the numeral of
the defunct corps that preceded it. This occurred with the XIII Corps.
The Confederates, true to form, named their corps after their commanders, but they also had a numerical designation. At Gettysburg in July of 1863, Longstreet's Corps was also properly referred to as the First Army Corps, Army of Northern Virginia.
A major general could be a corps commander in the Federal Army, but the Confederacy required a lieutenant general to command a corps. For those who may not know, a brigadier general had one star, a major general two stars and a lieutenant general three stars.
The next higher ranking general had four stars and was just called "General" or a "Full General." Rarely in American Army history has a general been awarded a five star rank. Ulysses S. Grant was the first.
In additions to infantry divisions, corps had staffed
hospitals and supply trains with many wagons with all the
teamsters and mule handlers required. And, of course, a
corps commander would have a full staff of aide-de-camps.
After a brief stint with the (Old) XIII Corps near the
beginning of their service, the 29th Missouri was to be
found as a part of the XV Army Corps for the duration of
hostilities until mustering out in June, 1865.
The Army will be the next, and last, unit of organization
covered here. An Army was composed of two or more
Corps, usually three. An Army had engineers that
constructed bridges, fully staffed hospital units, wagon
trains and a staff. Armies tended to be staffed with more
men in the Eastern Theater than in the Western Theater.
The Confederacy required a full four-star general for a
commander of an Army while the Federals used lieutenant
generals to command an Army. The Confederates named
there armies after areas or states while the Federals, with
few exceptions, named their armies for rivers.
The Confederates had the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia. For the Campaign for Atlanta, Sherman had under his command three armies, the Army of the Ohio, the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the
Note the Confederate Army of Tennessee (AoT), named after the state and the Federal Army of the Tennessee, named after the river. An exception in Federal Army designation was the Army of Virginia commanded by Lieutenant General John Pope in 1862, which was defeated at the Battle of Second Manassas (or Second Bull Run) by General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
In December of 1862, the 29th Missouri was assigned to the Army of the Tennessee. They stayed with this Army until the end of the war.
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