Introduction to Confederate Military Organisations
The permanent Constitution of the Confederate States of America provided that the President should be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and of the Navy, and of the Militia of the several States when called into actual service. President Jefferson Davis became Commander-in-Chief on his inauguration as President of the Confederate States of America on 18 February 1861. Davis had served with distinction in the US Volunteers during the Mexican War and as Secretary of War of the United States.
The War Department under the Secretary of War conducted the political and administrative oversight of the Army, the Navy, and the Marines; and all matters pertaining to the conduct of military operations.
The Secretary of the Navy dealt with matters specifically pertaining to the Navy and Marines.
The Militia of the several States was directed by the relevant State Governor.
The post of General-in-Chief was not created by the Confederate Congress until 23 January 1865. At times, a senior General served as Military Adviser to the President, “charged with the conduct of military operations in the armies of the Confederacy.” At these times, executive authority remained with the President with guidance from the Adviser.
The structure of the Confederate States Army was based largely on the regulations and customs of the US Army when the Confederate Congress established the War Department on 21 February 1861. The Confederate Army was composed of three parts; the Army of the Confederate States of America (ACSA), intended in time to become the permanent Regular Army, the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS), a “Volunteer” Army to be disbanded after hostilities, and the Militias of the several States.
Territorial commands were organised with jurisdiction over specific geographical territories.
Military Divisions, Departments, Districts, and Sub-Districts had a primarily administrative function for their specific territory and dealt with military and logistical matters. They provided operational command in response to strategic directions from the War Department and other senior leaders. They did not necessarily direct the tactical operations of forces in the field.
Military Divisions were strategic commands, reporting directly to the President and War Department. They were devised to coordinate the operations of their subordinate Departments at a strategic level.
The Military Division of the West was designated in October 1863 and continued until December 1863. It was intended to coordinate operations of the Western Department, the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, and the Department of East Tennessee. Early in December 1863 the latter of these was detached and became independent, and the Western Department followed suit in July 1863. The sole commander, General Joseph Eggleston Johnston, always argued that the region was so extensive, communications so slow, opportunities for cooperation between his Department commanders so difficult to achieve, and the control of the President so strong, that the discretion of this Military Division was ineffectual.
The Military Division of the West was revived in October 1864, to coordinate the Department of Western Kentucky, the Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia, the Department of Tennessee and Georgia, and the Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and Eastern Louisiana. General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard was appointed to command. Beauregard encountered the same obstacles as Johnston and by December 1864, the Military Division was once again discontinued, and was never revived.
As the Military Division proved to be an impractical level of command for the Confederacy, the highest-level of effective territorial command throughout the war was the Department.
Departments reported directly to the President, to the War Department and, eventually but largely theoretically from early in 1865, to the General-in-Chief. Some Departments were subdivided into one or more Districts and Sub-Districts.
Departments were originally created to oversee threatened regions of the Confederate States at the outbreak of the war but eventually extended across the entire Confederacy by the end of the war. As the advancing Union army occupied Confederate territory, many Departments were discontinued or operated with a shadow of the influence their title implied.
The size and borders of Departments and their Districts and Sub-Districts evolved in response to local circumstances and to changing command priorities. Some territorial commands were aligned with state borders, but the majority reflected territories appropriate to military operations, regardless of state and territorial borders.
The nomenclature of territorial command could be inconsistent, and anomalies occasionally arose over the geographical extent and authority of some Departments.
Districts, Sub-Districts and Equivalents
Districts and Sub-Districts were formed in some Departments. These had specific geographical responsibilities. Some existed for extended periods of time while others functioned only temporarily in response to local operational circumstances. Many were subject to changes to their territory of responsibility as commanders as circumstances evolved.
Military forces were organised and combined in varying sizes and levels of complexity for active operations. The basic and commonest building blocks were infantry Regiments and cavalry Regiments. These were grouped into Brigades, and then Brigades were grouped into Divisions.
A collection of Divisions and Brigades might be termed an Army. From 1862 onwards, most Armies were sub-divided into one or more Corps (or more properly termed Army Corps), made up of two or more Divisions.
Army Corps were not authorised officially in the Confederate army until 18 September 1862. However, the term was in unofficial use prior to this date, along with terms such as “Wing”, “Command”, or other terms to denote a group of Divisions. Sometimes a Corps was little larger than a division; at other times, a Corps might contain several divisions.
The Corps was the largest formation within the major armies, but they were never officially numbered in the Confederate army. The terms I Corps, II Corps, III Corps etc., are modern conventional descriptors. By convention, Confederate Corps designations (for example, I Corps), were numbered only within its parent army. Therefore, there are many duplications of name (e.g., I Corps Northern Virginia, I Corps Mississippi, I Corps Tennessee, all existing simultaneously.
At the time of the Civil War, a Confederate Corps was usually named after its commander, e.g., Longstreet’s Corps. The use of the commander’s name by general practice meant that there was rarely confusion at the time. If a number was ever used it was written in words, e.g. First Corps. Some Armies had only one named Corps and others had none. Use of the convention Roman numeral makes it easier for historians to trace the continuity of commands when their commanders’ names changed.
Some Corps only ever served within one field Army or Department while a few e. g. I Corps Northern Virginia, were transferred from Department to Department. Corps usually remained with their parent army but were occasionally detached to operate independently e. g. Longstreet’s Corps operated in Southern Virginia in 1863, Early‘s Corps operated in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864, Breckinridge’s Reserve Corps operated at Baton Rouge in 1862. A Corps operated temporarily with another field army on only one occasion when Longstreet’s I Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia was transferred temporarily to the Army of Tennessee in the autumn of 1863. It returned the following spring but always retained its designation as part of the Army of Northern Virginia on attachment.
There were never more than nine or ten active Confederate Corps and usually no more than five or six at any one time; these were broken up or reorganised occasionally. The transfer in and out of brigades or divisions from Corps to Corps was not seen as good practice, but happened more frequently in the West than in the East.
Divisions were created in the first year of the war to group brigades together under one command. The creation of Divisions within a field army was authorized by the Congress on 6th March 1861 to be commanded by a Major-General. They were almost always named after their commander and rarely numbered. The most common organisation was for a Corps to have three Divisions, but some had two and, especially early in the war, four, five or even six divisions. Divisions, whether they were within an Army Corps or acting independently, were intended to be commanded by a Major-General. Divisions were occasionally numbered within a Corps or an Army e. g. “1st Division” but the most widespread practice was to name them after their appointed commander e. g. “Cleburne’s Division”. Even on the infrequent occasions where they were assigned a numeral they were more frequently referred to by the commander’s name. In contrast, from mid to late 1862 onwards, Union Divisions were generally but not invariably numbered within a Corps e. g. 1st Division, VI Corps.
In the absence of the appointed Major-General, the senior Brigadier-General of the division would command but the Division would retain officially the name of the appointed Major-General. In practice, especially when a Major-General had an extended absence or was as yet unnamed, the Division would be referred to for clarity by the Brigadier-General’s name. Necessity sometimes forced the appointment of Division commanders from outside the Corps.
The organisation of regiments into brigades was authorized by the Congress on 6 March 1861. It was intended that Brigades of infantry and cavalry should be commanded by a Brigadier-General. Brigadier-Generals were nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Brigadier-Generals were appointed later in the war to command larger concentrations of artillery, and to some senior staff positions. The term Chief of Staff was not in use, but on both sides a General was sometimes appointed as a second-in-command to perform that role.
Brigades, whether acting within a Division or independently, were intended to be commanded by a Brigadier-General. Occasionally Brigades might be numbered within a division or command e. g. “1st Brigade” but the standard practice was to name them after their commander e. g. “Kemper’s Brigade”. Even where they were numbered, they were more frequently referred to by the commander’s name.
Within a Brigade, each Regiment was commanded by a Colonel, supported at full strength by a Lieutenant-Colonel and a Major. In the absence of the appointed Brigadier-General, the senior Colonel of the brigade would command the Brigade, but it would retain officially the name of the appointed Brigadier. In practice, especially when a Brigadier-General had an extended absence or was yet to be assigned, the Brigade would be referred to for clarity by the commanding Colonel’s name. Preference to command a brigade was usually accorded to the senior Colonel if a promotion was required, but necessity sometimes forced the appointment of brigade commanders from outside the division or even the corps.
Unlike in the US Regular Army and US Volunteers, which each had only the grades of Brigadier-General and Major-General until one single Lieutenant-General was appointed in 1864, the Confederates created a three grade structure in 1861 – Brigadier-General, Major-General and General. The fourth grade of Lieutenant-General was created to coincide with the creation of Corps commands in late 1862.
The Confederates adhered fairly strictly to appointing commanders with a grade appropriate to their command: Brigadier-General for a Brigade, Major-General for a Division, Lieutenant-General for a Corps and General for a major Army. Territorial commands were assigned much less rigidly, and a Department could be commanded by an officer in any one of those grades, depending on its size and importance.
As the Confederate army declined in size and numbers from late 1864 onwards, there were often officers holding higher grades than was requisite for their command. By the end of the war, there was an abundance of Generals of higher grades and a dearth of command commensurate to their position.
The grade of Lieutenant-General was not synonymous with the Union use of it. Ulysses Simpson Grant was one of only two Union Lieutenant-Generals during the war, the other being Winfield Scott who had received a promotion to Brevet Lieutenant-General by a special act of Congress in 1855. Grant was by the time of his promotion, 9 March 1864, the only substantive Union Lieutenant-General in active service.
Major-Generals served in a few cases as aides to other higher-ranking Generals or War Department staff officers. Many commanded Military Departments or the Districts within them, but the majority served as commanders of Divisions within a field army.