General Officers in the American Civil War: Overview

The challenge of recruiting a high command

When hostilities began in April 1861 there were very few experienced military men available to fill the rapidly expanding positions of high commands in the Union and Confederate armies. Each side had to look very widely to find sufficient men with evidence of, or the potential for, military leadership.

Serving US Army officers, former US Army officers, Mexican-American War veterans, and military school graduates filled most of the higher positions as Colonels and as General Officers. Some foreign émigrés, many with military training, found positions. Many posts were also filled by prominent politicians, professional people, lawyers, or vocal civilians with little or no military training. Some of these had served in the pre-war Militia of the various States and other military groups, but few had authentic military experience and almost none had the experience of leading large forces. A few individuals had risen to prominence during the pre-war troubles in Kansas or Nebraska and elsewhere, or on the various frontiers, but their experience was on a scale soon to be dwarfed by the mass armies of the Civil War. Some gained prominence by raising regiments or even entire brigades for service and were rewarded with commands by their State governors.

With very few exceptions, the General Officers and even Colonels appointed at the start of the war by both sides were short of officers experienced in commanding and organising large forces beyond the size of a company. Those who had led a regiment were highly prized members of the military class. The shortage of experienced staff officers was as challenging as the dearth of field commanders. An underlying distrust of professional soldiers existed – suspecting “West-Pointers” especially to be bookbound and punctilious – while civilian soldiers were expected to compensate for their lack of training with resourcefulness, eagerness, and enterprise.

As the war progressed, especially after the scale of fighting and level of casualties accelerated from early 1862 onwards, it was increasingly possible for both armies to promote and appoint commanders with battlefield experience. Officers promoted to General grades were increasingly Colonels of regiments who had earned their elevation by merit or distinction and not only by seniority or public prominence. A few had served as staff officers to senior commanders. By 1863 the Generals in both armies were nearly all experienced soldiers and most of the incompetents and place-seekers had been weeded out. By 1865 both sides had built a proven corps of highly professional and battle-tested General Officers, but the process of their emergence differed.

What is a “General”?

In the Middle Ages, armies were generally led by kings, dukes, and other feudal lords, who commanded their own loyal retinues. These were grouped together into larger blocks for battle, largely in order of rank. These temporary assemblies were known as “battles”, the origin of the term battalion.

As armies evolved from feudal retinues into more professional organisations, the main military unit was the “Company” of soldiers, loyal to and commanded by their own Captain. The term “Captain” came from the Latin “caput“, meaning “head”. Captains recruited, maintained, and led their own companies and these gradually became permanent units. Captains were given commissions by their ruler or state with the authority to raise and command their own company. They were increasingly conferred their office by a political rather than a feudal authority. They held an “office” and were therefore “officers”. Their subordinate leaders did not necessarily have such a direct commission from the political power, so they eventually became known as non-commissioned officers.

Companies (or Squadrons) were bound together by duty, loyalty, or other inducements. They would operate within the same arm of service – infantry, cavalry, artillery, dragoons, etc. The Company Captain’s deputy would be termed a Lieutenant, taking the name from the French term “lieu tenant” or place-holding, denoting that the officer was standing in for their Captain. When a number of companies were collected together, the senior Captain would be named the Captain-Major, or “Big Captain”, and this was the origin of the grade of Major, who usually commanded a battalion of more than one company.

As military organisations expanded and became more systematic from the 15th Century onwards, a number of battalions or squadrons might be grouped together to march together in a “Column”. The Column would be led by the senior Major, who was named Colonel, a term derived from the word column or “colonello”. The Colonel’s second-in-command or deputy would therefore be the Lieutenant-Colonel, “holding the place of the Colonel”. The columns very quickly became more permanent groupings and groups of this size were described subsequently as a “Regiment”.

Regiments – and their constituent battalions and companies – became the building blocks of the large armies that formed during the 18th and 19th centuries. They would typically comprise soldiers of the same arm – infantry, cavalry, artillery, dragoons, etc. Their subordinate battalions and companies might operate separately at times but, in some armies, the regiment became the enduring repository of the heritage and traditions of a particular group of soldiers and their successors. The term regiment survived sometimes even after it had become an honorific or administrative designation for a defunct formation.

As armies became larger, and the proliferation of subordinate commanders made battlefield control unmanageable for a single army commander, a new evolution occurred between the 15th and 17th centuries. The base of units of companies, regiments, battalions, squadrons, or batteries, were grouped together into formations that operated independently under a field officer who reported directly to the army commander. The new concept described these temporary assemblies as “brigades” which might have single-arm or mixed-arms composition. Brigades were put together for a specific and temporary mission or for an entire campaign. The term brigade derived from French and Italian origins and gradually gained common usage in modern armies. The creation of brigades solved the problem of managing a proliferation of independent formations acting under their individual commanding officers. As armies grew in size, brigades might be collected as a Corps, or “a body” of men within a large army. A further invention by Napoleon Bonaparte subdivided a Corps into “Divisions” when necessary. A Division was typically a grouping of two or more brigades from one arm of service, but it would include all the supplementary and supporting formations and other arms to make it capable of independent operations. 

Captains, Majors, and Colonels, therefore, emerged as the key officers in battlefield command of permanent or enduring military formations. They were usually connected indissolubly to their subordinate men and formations.

The higher and larger conglomerations of brigades, divisions, corps, and armies were more transient, comprising interchangeable mixtures of the building blocks of companies, battalions, squadrons, and regiments. They might exchange or add or subtract sub-units depending on the requirements of their mission. An officer commanding such a large and variable force needed to have a more “general” authority above and beyond their own “home” unit for which they had a specific commission. These “general officers” often commanded mixed arms forces of infantry and artillery, or cavalry, as well as their support echelons. Their responsibility was “general” so the term “General Officer” was applied to an officer appointed to lead a variable group of sub-units, whether of single or mixed arms and of varying size and composition. Moreover, a “General” officer could be transferred from group to group and assume varying commands as circumstances demanded. For example, a British officer might be commissioned to a named and specific regiment but once they became a General, their new command did not necessarily or automatically include that regiment.

By the 18th Century, increasingly large armies were made up more from massed civilians put in uniform for fixed periods of service rather than lifelong career soldiers. At the same time, the highest command in the field was transferred from Kings and Emperors to the appointed officers of their armies. These appointed officers would gradually evolve into professional soldiers because the maintenance of their forces, and their complex equipment, weapons, training, and supply became a year-round task, rather than a temporary duty for a single campaign. Therefore, the highest officer of an army had to be a “General”.

The original name of an army commander was the “General Major” – or the “Big General”. Over time, as the brigade became a key tactical formation, a “General of Brigade” would be appointed, usually from among its constituent units. These terms clearly evolved into Major-General and Brigadier-General. In due course, the overall commanding officer of an army would be known as “the General”. Where they needed a senior deputy from among the Major-Generals, the grade of Lieutenant-General eventually appeared in some armies.

The General could be switched from command to command and was entrusted with significant authority. By the 19th Century, the logistical and administrative demands of commanding such forces required the evolution of staff officers, and the “General Staff” came into being, initially formed from individual officers known and trusted by the General, but eventually made up of officers trained in various specialisms. In the Civil War, the term “Chief of Staff” was not in common usage but there are many occasions when the senior staff officer, sometimes known as the “Second in Command”, would deputise for the Commanding Officer rather than the senior officer in the chain of command.

Most names of military formations and officers’ grades or ranks tended to derive from the French language, as the French armies pioneered and innovated many of the features recognisable in the emerging professional armies of Europe. For example, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, brigade, division, corps, and even army, are all words based on French or earlier origins.

How does this apply to the American Civil War?

In the American Civil War, the original volunteer armies were recruited by companies that were banded together later to form regiments, frequently with elected officers when first mustered. Later on, regiments were recruited en bloc with a Colonel appointed to command by the particular State of origin.

The company was the ordinary soldier’s “home” or family, and it became the unit that managed an ordinary soldier’s practical and day-to-day existence. The company Captain was accessible, visible, and significant.

As there were usually ten companies in a volunteer infantry regiment, so the regiment’s Colonel was usually a more remote, but prominent figure. The regiment became the most important tactical unit for the deployment of infantry and cavalry in action. Usually fighting together as a single unit, regiments acquired a character and identity with which soldiers could build a strong, even lifelong, association. A well-led regiment, with a popular, competent, and respected Colonel, could be a powerful force on the battlefield.

Tactical or battlefield command was managed primarily at the brigade and division level and so the grade of Brigadier-General was extremely important for command at the battlefield level. Casualties were remarkably high. The operational command of divisions and corps was typically but not necessarily the domain of the Major-General.

The Union Evolution

The Union had an immense military machine, but they were bound to the command structure of the existing US Regular Army. The creation of new General officer grades would set precedents of grades and therefore salaries for the post-war army that they sought to avoid.

The Union armies managed for three years with just two grades of General officers, Brigadier-General and Major-General. These were explicitly differentiated as commissions in either the US Regular Army (permanent) or the US Volunteers (temporary). It was not until 1864, when pragmatic necessity compelled it, that the revival of the grade of Lieutenant-General was permitted by Congress to provide a third level. The grade of full General was not revived in the US Army until after the war.

President Abraham Lincoln became impatient with many of his initial pool of higher commanders. By the end of 1862, he was acting with increasing decisiveness to secure the dismissal of incompetents or, if that was impossible, to sideline them. The first batch of Union Generals included many self-publicists, failures, and outright embarrassments, some of whom survived far longer than was justified by their ability.

At the start of the war, there were many Regular Army officers serving in both staff departments and line commands whose age and seniority immediately conferred entitlement to a high command but whose capacity to cope with a new and dynamic style of warfare, active service in the field, and the management of large forces proved to be inadequate. Most of these had died, retired, or been sidelined by the end of 1863.

By mid-1863, a strong body of reliable, experienced, and suitable General Officers had emerged across the Union armies. These commanders had passed the test of fire and by late 1863 most of the important field commands were occupied by competent and, in some cases, highly talented commanders. Some peripheral or more administrative posts were still occupied by those who had failed on the main stage but whose service could not be easily terminated. Some senior officers could not be dismissed for reasons of political necessity but, whenever possible, these were shifted to less critical positions. Nevertheless,   a few early appointees remained in high command far longer than was desirable.

The list of the highest Union commanders in 1865 shows little resemblance to that of 1861 and early 1862. Comparatively few of the original senior commanders of 1861 and 1862 still remained in important field commands by 1865, having been supplanted by more dynamic commanders who had advanced through merit and experience.

The Confederate Evolution

The Confederates had the opportunity to create a brand-new command and grade structure for the Army they had to create almost from scratch. The individual States appointed their own officers and generals, but almost immediately the Confederacy appointed senior general officers to command formations comprising units from several States. The novel grade of General was invented early in 1861 and after just over a year the grade of Lieutenant-General was also authorised, providing grades that matched the different levels of authority of their immense forces. Major-Generals and Brigadier-Generals were also appointed immediately, but the Confederate approach was to start fairly early with full Generals and Brigadier-Generals and then to fill in the gaps more gradually with Major-Generals in 1861 and Lieutenant-Generals in 1862.

Broadly speaking, and with some egregious exceptions, the Confederates were rather more fortunate than the Union in their selection of commanding Generals in the early part of the war. Some outstanding commanders emerged at all levels early in the conflict and this contributed to some significant successes during 1862 and 1863. There were also some poor appointments where officers had to be removed or reassigned. The list of the highest-ranking Generals changed little through the war but many early and older and lesser-known Brigadier-Generals and Major-Generals did fall by the wayside during 1861 and 1862.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis showed great loyalty to his earliest appointees and as a former soldier and Secretary of War, he was also very alert to the sensitivities and protocols of seniority. While a few highly talented exceptions had broken into the highest echelons of the Confederate army through proven ability by the end of the war, the list of Confederate Generals holding the very highest grades and commands changed remarkably little between early 1862 and 1865. However, the high rate of battle casualties, especially by the middle of 1864, caused severe erosion in the Confederate high command. Confederate Generals had to be elevated increasingly to succeed casualties rather than to replace failures. The conventional route of succession through seniority and succession that was sacrosanct for most of the war had to give way by the middle of 1864 to necessity and the recognition of some talented but less senior officers whose merits were undeniable.

How many General Officers?

During the Civil War, there were between 554 and 564 Union Generals of substantive grade, and between 398 and 401 Confederate Generals of substantive grade. Substantive officers were properly appointed, confirmed, accepted the appointment, and served actively as General Officers.

It is believed that 583 actual, substantive Generals of various grades or levels were appointed by United States President Abraham Lincoln and confirmed by the Senate for the Union Army and 425 actual, substantive Generals of various grades or levels were duly appointed by Confederate States President Jefferson Davis and confirmed by the Senate for the Confederate Army during the course of the American Civil War. These numbers could properly be reduced by about 25 names each to account for cancelled appointments and unconfirmed nominations. For various reasons, there are disparities concerning the number of Militia Generals and many anomalous cases who might be counted or recognised as Generals or where evidence is unforthcoming.

A General Officer of the Union Army, whether of the United States Regular Army or the United States Volunteers, and whether of full or Brevet grade, could legally be promoted to the grade of a General Officer only if appointed by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate. Field promotions, the exercise of command duties, or Brevet rank promotions alone were insufficient to qualify an officer as a substantive General Officer until duly appointed and confirmed.

A General Officer in the Confederate Army could be appointed only by the President of the Confederate States and confirmed by the Confederate States Senate; an exception being those officers holding a grade on the date of enactment of the first Confederate law on the subject of appointment of General Officers, 21st May 1861, were permitted to keep those ranks. Late in the war, these practices had to be loosened in two significant ways. Firstly, after the Trans-Mississippi region was almost completely cut off after the fall of Vicksburg and General Edmund Kirby Smith was given interim plenipotentiary powers as he could not obtain proper confirmation of promotions by the President or Senate. Secondly, a number of “Special” promotions were permitted where a General was appointed to a higher grade on an interim basis only, usually to cover the extended absence of another commander through illness or wounds. Most of these promotions were confirmed permanently but some expired and the officer reverted to their substantive rank.

The Union Army was supported in active field command by a number of State Militia Generals who were not taken into the United States Volunteers with a state regiment nor recruited to Federal service. The Union Army also had several officers assigned to command or temporarily placed in command of units normally assigned to a General Officer but who did not receive full-rank appointments commensurate with their command.

A number of Confederate officers exercised high command as commanders of Militia or State Troops but were never formally appointed as Confederate Generals. There were many officers assigned to a command or temporarily placed in command of units normally assigned to a General Officer but who did not receive full-rank appointments. As many as 159 uncertain cases and 226 Militia officers have been identified as Confederate Generals of some sort. Ten officers who were assigned to duty by General Edmund Kirby Smith in the Trans-Mississippi Department but unconfirmed by Congress after communications were severed are among these uncertain cases.

There were 1,367 Union officers who were not promoted to a substantive General rank but were awarded Brevet General Officer rank (or, to within 10 of this number). Most Brevet ranks were awarded posthumously or to rank from dates near the end of the war and many of them were not confirmed until 1866 or later. At the time of the Civil War, these Brevet appointments were honorary titles and had little effect on command positions or status, especially since most of the awards were not confirmed until months or even years after the war was over, regardless of the date from which the awarded Brevet grade was to rank. In some respects, they might be seen as an early equivalent of medals for valour, good conduct, or distinguished service that were created later.

The Confederate Army never introduced a system of awarding Brevet ranks although a similar form of recognition would undoubtedly have been introduced had the Confederacy achieved its goal of independence.

Generals in Post at Six Months Intervals

US and Union Army Generals

Asterisk* – Concurrent with US Volunteers grade


in Post

US Volunteers US Regular Army
TOTAL Brigadier-General Major-General Brigadier-General (Staff) Brigadier-General Major-General Lieutenant-General
1 Jan 1861 5 1 3 1
30 Jun 1861 48 34 3 1 7 3
31 Dec 1861 134 114 5 4 8 3
30 Jun 1862 218 178 27 5 7 (3*) 4
31 Dec 1862 352 265 75 5 8 (5*) 4
30 Jun 1863 346 261 72 6 7 (4*) 4
31 Dec 1863 347 266 70 6 9 (8*) 4
30 Jun 1864 342 260 70 8 9 (8*) 2 1
31 Dec 1864 356 271 69 9 8 (7*) 5 1
30 Jun 1865 336 253 67 9 9 (8*) 5 1
31 Dec 1865 220 150 53 10 9 (8*) 5 1
31 Dec 1869 7 8 5 1 + 1 General

Confederate Army Generals


in Post

Confederate Army ACSA and PACS
TOTAL Brigadier-General Major-General Lieutenant-General General
30 Jun 1861 14 11 1 2
31 Dec 1861 82 64 13 5
30 Jun 1862 138 108 25 5
31 Dec 1862 195 150 33 7 5
30 Jun 1863 208 156 39 8 5
31 Dec 1863 239 179 46 9 5
30 Jun 1864 259 191 52 11 5
31 Dec 1864 270 196 56 11 7
30 Jun 1865

Differences between the United States Regular Army (USA) and the United States Volunteers (USV)

When hostilities threatened to begin the United States adopted a practice that had been effective in the Mexican War of 1848 to mobilise the high numbers of armed men to create armies and a navy large enough for the task. Rather than increasing the size of the permanent US Regular Army, it was decided to expand it slightly while keeping it apart as a distinct core of permanent professional soldiers.

It was envisaged that the permanent Regular Army would maintain its existing size and structure, and retain most of its officers and men, as it would be assigned largely to operate on the frontier against the Native Americans or in garrisons and fixed fortifications. Some Regular Army units, especially artillery, would be released to serve with the armies. In time, several new Regular Army units had to be raised for field service with the fighting forces.

The Regular Army was not expected to provide a trained cadre from which officers and trained non-commissioned officers were drawn to command units of US Volunteers. It was to remain as unchanged as possible, supplemented by a much larger temporary force, engaged for specified periods of temporary service. This temporary force was designated the US Volunteers. Even when the desperate need for men eventually forced the adoption of the draft and compulsory conscription, the force retained the name of US Volunteers. The US Volunteers ultimately expanded to an unprecedented size. The Regular Army also expanded but to a much smaller extent.

Almost all units of the US Volunteers, with a few interesting exceptions, were recruited on a state-by-state basis, with each State fulfilling a stipulated quota of men to serve under officers appointed by the State. Each State raising units for the US Volunteers was expected to identify and appoint commanders for its units. Suitable candidates with the ability to learn and to lead were sought from all walks of civilian and professional and political life but those with military training or experience were at a premium. While military experience was usually viewed as an advantage, formal military training provided by the Regular Army or West Point was thought by some to inculcate a rigid and rule-bound approach unsuitable to the leadership of independent-minded Americans. Nevertheless, any form of military training and expertise was highly prized.

By necessity, men with little or no military credentials whatsoever took command as Colonels of many US Volunteers regiments, trusting that their civilian leadership qualities would suffice to supplement eager hands-on learning in the field. Even some Brigadier-Generals and Major-Generals received commands without obvious military credentials. Company officers rarely had military expertise and the majority learned on the job.

Officers and General Officers could be appointed to a grade either in the United States Army (USA) or the United States Volunteers (USV) or, sometimes, in both concurrently. A grade in the US Army was a permanent promotion in the Regular Army that would remain in force after the end of hostilities. As such, General Officer grades in the US Regular Army ranks were authorised very sparingly and within strictly regulated limits. At first, only those commanders who would be expected to remain in service when hostilities ended, and the armies contracted back to pre-war proportions received such appointments. Eventually, however, men whose Regular Army commitment was not so clear-cut were increasingly appointed.

Seniority for General Officers was determined by the date of rank stated in the Senate’s confirmation resolution, which could be a date earlier or occasionally later than the confirmation date. Otherwise, rank would be determined by the order of names on the lists of officers confirmed in the same resolution made on the same date to rank from the same date. Where uncertainty arose about seniority, rank in the USA was deemed higher than the equivalent rank in the USV. For example, a Brigadier-General in the US Regular Army outranked a Brigadier-General in the US Volunteers. However, a Major-General in the US Volunteers outranked a Brigadier-General in the US Army, although the circumstances where such a command was asserted were uncommon. The US Army was usually punctilious in ensuring that those US Volunteers who were promoted to senior commands also received promotions both in the USV and the USA appropriate to their status and needful authority. The use of Brevet ranks was a helpful expedient on occasion. In extreme cases of uncertainty, if seniority was otherwise the same, age could be a determining factor but may never have been required.

Prior to the Civil War, the US Army system of promoting officers was based strictly upon seniority. As a result, the General Officers, chief staff officers, and full colonels of the small pre-Civil War Regular Army were few in number and almost all were of advanced age. Among the top field officers, 11 of the 19 colonels of the line had fought in the War of 1812 as commissioned officers. Thirteen of these individuals stayed with the Union and during the Civil War five died, seven retired and one was relieved. Not one was still on active duty by the end of hostilities. Of the four who joined the Confederacy, three were appointed to the grade of General in 1861; one died, one was killed in action, and the two others were still serving at the end of the war.

The US Volunteers force expanded rapidly, creating opportunities for men who had commanded no more than a company or a militia unit –perhaps in the rather distant past – to be appointed as colonels of regiments.

There was stiff competition to secure the most promising talent from the pool of current and retired officers to command new Volunteer units. Anyone with military training or experience was prized. Many Regular Army officers were induced to retire in order to take a higher command and more rapid promotion in the US Volunteers. Others retained their Regular Army grade and were appointed simultaneously to serve in the US Volunteers. State origin often influenced the appointment of officers – and also directed the choices of the officers themselves – but it was not essential to hail from a particular State to receive a commission in the US Volunteers.

A dilemma arose for all Regular Army officers. Should they retain their secure and permanent regular commission or resign to seek a temporary but more lucrative and senior commission in the US Volunteers at a much higher rank? The US Regular Army was largely static, if not stagnant, and seniority was the primary factor in advancement. Even though several new regiments were formed during the war,  Many frustrated or ambitious officers responded to the appeal to join the US Volunteers, alongside many retired officers.

Grade in the US Volunteers was always considered a temporary appointment and it did not confer continuing rank or position when or if an officer rejoined the Regular Army after the end of hostilities. Many Regular Army officers did not resign their Regular commission at all and took Volunteer commissions concurrently, effectively receiving a leave of absence from their Regular unit. If they progressed through the Volunteer grades, their Regular Army grade sometimes had to advance to ensure that they could continue to exercise authority over subordinates in both hierarchies.

Almost immediately, the US Volunteers expanded to a point where regiments had to be formed into brigades, then into divisions, and finally into corps and entire armies. While the States appointed the colonels of their US Volunteers’ regiments, their commission permitted them only to command their state’s forces. The jurisdiction of Generals exceeded the limits of any particular state, and their commands usually comprised units deriving from more than one state, and not only the state of their original commission. Therefore, General Officers commanding brigades or higher commands had to be appointed by the US government. Colonels could and did command brigades and higher commands interim through seniority or other factors, if there was no general officer present or if they were awaiting promotion.

Differences between the Confederate States Army (ACSA) and the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS)

When the Confederate Congress established its War Department on 21 February 1861, the structure and organisation of the Confederate States Army were inevitably based on the structure and customs of the US Army.

The Confederate Army comprised three elements; the Army of the Confederate States of America (ACSA), which was intended to become the permanent regular army after the achievement of sovereignty, the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS), which was a “Volunteer” Army to be disbanded after hostilities; and also, the Militias and Forces of the several States.

The Confederate Army ultimately had four grades or levels of General Officers: General, Lieutenant-General, Major-General and Brigadier-General. The Regular Army of the Confederate States of America (ACSA) did not progress far beyond the planning stage.

The Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS) was the effective force organised and so PACS and ACSA ranks were broadly identical operationally.

Many former US Army officers who joined the Confederacy were given their initial commission in the ACSA. The majority of these dated nominally and retrospectively from 16 March 1861 and were usually set at one grade above the grade in the US Army just vacated. Nearly all of the received a subsequent commission in the PACS and their ACSA commission was a temporary assignment to secure their services. Many officers also or alternatively gained a commission in the Militia, State Troops, or Provisional Army of various states. This happened particularly in the states that joined the Confederacy later in time, especially Virginia. These were sometimes long-term but usually turned out to be interim arrangements until they could be assigned to a command in the Confederate service. By mid-1861, the majority of these interim and ad hoc arrangements had been converted to PACS commissions.

The role of the United States Military Academy 

The United States Military Academy was established at West Point, New York in 1802 to train the new nation’s young men in advanced military and engineering skills and prepare the future leaders of the United States Army. The Academy produced 445 Civil War generals – 294 for the Union and 151 for the Confederacy. Of graduates who were still alive at the start of the war, 105 were killed and 151 had been wounded – 25% of the total. A West Point graduate commanded one or both armies in every one of the 60 major battles of the war.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, 296 US Regular Army officers of various grades resigned. Of these, 239 joined the Confederate Army in 1861 and a further 31 joined after 1861. Of these 270 Confederate officers from the US Army, 184 were United States Military Academy graduates. The other 809 active officers in the US Army, 640 of whom were West Point graduates, remained with the Union. Approximately 900 West Point graduates were in civilian life at the beginning of the war, and of these 114 returned to serve in the Union Army and 99 joined the Confederate Army.

In total, there were 283 Confederate and 754 Union “West Pointers” but professional military training did not necessarily confer high command. Loudly voiced prejudice was often voiced against West Pointers, especially in the North. This was partially justified by the small size, limited field experience and overly bureaucratic nature of the pre-war army, but accusations of excessive punctiliousness or even incompetence among them were largely unfounded. The Confederates were more energetic in finding and promoting officers with West Point training.

The first cadets of the United States Military Academy graduated in 1805; 52 cadets graduated in the first ten years, of whom only three served in the Civil War.

Graduates of Military Institutes

Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont furnished more officers to the war than any other military school except the United States Military Academy (West Point) and the Virginia Military Institute. The school contributed 523 officers to the Union Army and 34 to the Confederate Army. Norwich was the only military college in the Union states, other than West Point, with a sizable number of military-trained alumni. Of the 1,902 men who had attended the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, 1,781 fought for the Confederacy. One-third of the field officers of Virginia regiments in 1861 were VMI graduates. The Citadel Military College of South Carolina provided at least six General Officers to the Confederate Army as well as 49 field-grade officers (Colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel, Major) and 120 company-grade officers.

Militia Generals

Most states had Militias in place since Revolutionary War times consistent with the US Militia Act of 1792. They went by varied names such as State “Militia” or “Armies”, “State Troops”, “State Guard” or “Guard” and most were activated and expanded when the Civil War began. These units were commanded by “Militia Generals” in order to defend their particular state and rarely left home soil. State Militias used the General Officer ranks of Brigadier-General and Major-General; the commanding General of the Militia in a State was usually a Major-General. The regulations in the Act of 1792 provided for Militias into two classes based on age. Class one was to include men from 21 to 30 years old, and class two would include men from 18 to 20 years as well as from 31 to 45 years old.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union Army incorporated most State Militia units from the States adhering to the Union for federal service. Many Generals of these units did not receive US appointments and remained appointments with authority only within their state. Some states retained or recruited Militia units for local defence, but Generals rarely saw active service as State Militia units remaining under State control did not leave their States for service elsewhere.

The Confederate States Army followed a similar pattern with respect to incorporating volunteer Militias, but certain States retained a significant number of Militia units for local defence. Some State-appointed Generals saw significant active service, usually under the command of Confederate States Army commanders. On a few occasions, they were the only forces available to oppose Union operations. State units fought in Texas, Missouri, Virginia, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina.

There was an acute shortage of weapons, uniforms, and trained officers in the Militia. Among the available States’ Militia regiments, there were very uneven standards of training, with none being battle-ready. Typical Militia training at the time amounted at best to parade-ground drill. Militia units were raised in local communities and rarely met above company level; they never drilled together in formations as large as regiments.

Some states retained or recruited Militia units for local defence, but Militia Generals rarely saw active service as State Militia units remaining under State control did not leave their States for service elsewhere. Notable examples of Militia and local defence forces being on active service occurred in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio.

In the West, some State and Territorial Militias were more active forces and acted in defence of settlers. California had many active Militia companies at the beginning of the war and these increased in number throughout the conflict. California also provided the largest contingent of volunteers from west of the Rocky Mountains, (eight regiments and two battalions of infantry, two regiments, and a battalion of cavalry). It also provided most of the men for a volunteer infantry regiment from the Washington Territory. Oregon raised an infantry regiment and a cavalry regiment. Colorado Territory Militias were organised to resist Confederate invasion and civil disorder provoked by secessionists, Copperheads, Mormons, and Native Americans. Colorado Volunteers participated in the repulse of the Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory and later instigated the Colorado War with the Plains Indians. California Volunteers of the California Column travelled east across the southern deserts to drive the Confederates out of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and the part of west Texas around El Paso. They continued to fight the Navajo and Apache until 1866. They also guarded the Overland Trail, kept the Mormons under observation by the establishment of Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, and fought a campaign against the Shoshone. California, Oregon, and Washington Territorial Volunteers tried to protect the settlers in Nevada, Oregon, and the Idaho Territory and fought against the Goshute, Paiute, Ute, and hostile Snake Indians in the Snake War from 1864 to 1866. California Volunteer forces fought the Bald Hills War in the north-western forests until 1864 and also the Owens Valley Indian War during 1862 and 1863.

“Civilian” and “Political” Generals

Popular sentiment for “self-made” Generals proven in action and the influence of political figures secured many high commands for unqualified civilians. Pre-war Governors, Senators, Congressmen, Mayors, and other holders of high offices were appointed to high commands early in the war on both sides, with the assumption that leadership and position in civilian life were good indicators of their military potential. Some proved to be very able leaders and succeeded spectacularly despite their inexperience; others proved to be disasters or embarrassments. Both armies encountered difficulty in removing influential political and public figures who had proved unsuited to the task and some who were relieved of command subsequently became political thorns in the side of the government.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close