Introduction to Confederate Military Organisations,
and Pre-War Organisation
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 18th February 1861. Davis had been trained at USMA, and served with distinction in the US Volunteers and as Secretary of War of the United States, giving him a high opinion of his own military abilities.
The War Department under the Secretary of War conducted the political and administrative oversight of the Army, Navy and the Marines; and all matters pertaining to the conduct of military operations. The Militia of the several States were directed by the Governor. The Secretary of the Navy dealt with matters pertaining to the Navy and Marines.
The US Regular Army had traditionally considered its most senior ranking officer as General-in-Chief, but the post of General-in-Chief was not created by the Confederate Congress until 23rd January 1865. The position had been debated as early as February 27 1862, but President Jefferson Davis voiced his rejection and veto to the Congress on 14th March 1862. He believed that such a General could “command an army or armies without the will of the President.”
General Robert Edward Lee and General Braxton Bragg served as Military Advisers to the President, “charged with the conduct of military operations in the armies of the Confederacy.” Executive authority remained with the President with guidance from the Adviser.
Much of the design of the Confederate States Army was based on the structure and customs of the US Army when the Confederate Congress established their War Department on February 21 1861. The Confederate Army was composed of three parts; the Army of the Confederate States of America (ACSA), intended 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.
Whereas the Union army could differentiate seniority by promoting to grades within the US Regular Army, or the US Volunteers, or in both, all Confederate Generals (apart from the original five “full” Generals of the embryonic Regular Army) held their grade only in the Provisional Army.
Territorial commands were organised to relate to geographical territories and also served as headquarters for the majority of military forces. Military Divisions, Departments, and 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, War Department and, eventually, the General-in-Chief. They were devised to coordinate the action of their subordinate Department commanders 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 made independent, and the Western Department followed in July 1863. Its commander, General Joseph Eggleston Johnston, always argued that the region was so extensive, communications so slow, opportunities for cooperation by his Department commanders so difficult, and the direction of the President so strong, that the organisation 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, it was again discontinued, and 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, War Department and, eventually and largely theoretically in 1865, to the General-in-Chief. Some Departments were subdivided into one or more Districts and Sub-Districts.
Departments were created to oversee threatened regions of the Confederate States at the outbreak of the war but eventually extended across the entire Confederate regions 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 changed in response to local circumstances and command priorities. Some were aligned with state borders but most reflected territories of military operations across or within state and territorial borders. Their nomenclature could be inconsistent, and anomalies occasionally arose over the geographical extent and authority of some Departments.
Districts and Sub-Districts
Districts and Sub-Districts were formed within some Departments. These had specific geographical responsibilities. Some existed for extended periods of time while others functioned only temporarily in response to operational requirements. Many were subject to changes to their territory of responsibility as commanders as circumstances developed.
Military forces were combined in varying sizes and levels of complexity for active operations. The basic building blocks were the infantry regiment and cavalry regiment. These were grouped into brigades and then brigades grouped into divisions.
In larger forces, a collection of divisions and brigades was termed an Army. Sometimes Armies were sub-divided into one or more Corps (or more properly, Army Corps). At the start of the war, forces as small as one or two brigades were termed “armies”, giving a misleading sense of their size. Later in the war, independent commands continued to be termed as “Armies”, either officially or unofficially. The designation of autonomous field forces of any size as an “Army” also occurred to some extent also in the Union, but it was more common among the Confederates.
The major Confederate armies were usually commanded by a “full” General from the beginning of the war. The term Chief of Staff was not in official use, but a senior General was sometimes assigned as a second-in-command to perform that role.
In these pages, there is an artificial differentiation between major and minor armies. Major armies are typically those which had a long duration, providing the main field force in a particular theatre and usually comprising several divisions or more than one Corps. Minor armies are usually smaller commands operating with some degree of autonomy, usually in a particular locality.
The major armies, as defined in these pages, are:
- The ARMY OF MISSISSIPPI renamed later as the ARMY OF TENNESSEE, which originated as the Army of Central Kentucky
- The ARMY OF THE POTOMAC renamed later as the ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA, which originated as the Forces in Alexandria or Alexandria Line
- The SOUTHWEST ARMY renamed later as the TRANS-MISSISSIPPI ARMY, which was a nominal designation for forces west of the Mississippi but which never combined into a single force
- The ARMY OF THE SOUTH was a late creation, amalgamating the remnants of forces in the Carolinas
Corps or Army Corps
Corps were not authorised officially in the Confederate army until 18th September 1862. However, the term was already in unofficial use prior to this date, along with terms such as “Wing”, “Command”, and others. These commands described a group of divisions, forming a substantial part of an Army. Sometimes a Corps was no larger than a few brigades, or just one division; at other times, a Corps might contain several divisions.
The Corps was the largest sub-formation to be designated within the major armies. They were never officially numbered in the Confederate army. The terms I Corps, II Corps, III Corps, First Corps, Second Corps, etc., are modern descriptors.
This convention of convenience had led to Corps designations, for example, I Corps, to be counted only within its parent army. Therefore, there are many apparent duplications of a name. For example, there was a designated I Corps in the Army of Northern Virginia, a designated I Corps in the Army of Mississippi, a designated I Corps in the Army of Tennessee, all existing simultaneously. In reality, at the time, each 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 little confusion during the war, but the later use of the numerical can make it easier to trace the continuity of commands as their commanders’ names changed. If a number was ever used at the time it was written in words, e.g. First Corps.
Some Armies had only one named Corps while others had none. Some Corps only ever served within one field Army or Department (e.g., III Corps Northern Virginia) while a few (e. g., I Corps Northern Virginia) were transferred from Department to Department. Nevertheless, most Corps remained with their parent army. They were occasionally detached to operate independently for short periods, 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 while detached it always retained its designation as part of the Army of Northern Virginia.
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, especially in the western theatre. The transfer in and out of brigades or divisions from Corps to Corps was not seen as good practice, and it occurred 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 at least three Divisions, but some had two and, especially early in the war, four, five or even six divisions. Some divisions, whether they were grouped within an Army Corps or not, acted independently. On such occasions, they might even by designated misleadingly as an “army”.
Divisions were rarely numbered within a Corps or an Army e. g. “1st Division” as 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 still most frequently referred to by the commander’s name. This can make it very different to track the evolution of a particular formation as it may have changed designation many times during the war. It is necessary to track the changes in the commander’s name as well as the formation. If a commander was wounded or absent, it might retain both the commander’s name – its official designation – or that of their replacement – for interim practicality. 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. Later in the war, necessity sometimes forced the appointment of Division commanders from outside the Corps.
If a promotion or replacement was required, precedence to command a division was usually accorded to the senior Brigadier-General within it, but necessity or convenience increasingly forced the appointment of division commanders from outside the division or even outside the corps.
In contrast, from mid to late 1862 onwards, Union Divisions were more generally but not invariably numbered within a Corps, e. g., 1st Division, VI Corps. This makes it easier to track Union commands, but they also were prone to frequent reallocation and could change their designation without changing their commander or constituent forces.
The organisation of regiments into brigades was authorized by the Congress on March 6 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 large concentrations of artillery, and to some senior staff positions.
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.
When a promotion or replacement was required, precedence to command a brigade was usually accorded to the senior Colonel within it, but necessity sometimes forced the appointment of brigade commanders from outside the division or even the corps. This was done reluctantly at first but became more common as the war progressed.
Commanders of Field Commands
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 immediately created a three-grade structure in 1861. The novel arrangement comprised the grades of Brigadier-General, Major-General, and General. The fourth grade of Lieutenant-General was created to coincide with the formalisation of Corps commands in late 1862.
The Confederates adhered fairly strictly to the appointment of commanders at a grade appropriate to their command: a 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, as their scope and size varied, so a Department could be commanded by an officer in any one of those grades, depending on its importance. As the Confederate army declined in size and numbers, especially in 1865, there were increasing numbers of officers holding higher grades than was requisite or appropriate for their command. By the end of the war, there was an abundance of Generals at the higher grades and a dearth of lower grades.
In the absence of the appointed Lieutenant-General, the senior Major-General of the division would normally assume command but the Corps would retain officially the name of the appointed Lieutenant-General. Occasionally, when the Lieutenant-General had an extended absence or was as yet unnamed, the Corps would be referred to for clarity by the name of the temporary commander. Necessity increasingly forced the appointment of a new or temporary Corps commander from outside the Corps.
This Confederate terminology was not synonymous with the Union use of grades. For example, Ulysses Simpson Grant was one of only two Union Lieutenant-Generals during the war, the other being Winfield Scott who had received a promotion as Brevet Lieutenant-General by a special act of Congress in 1855. By the time of his promotion on March 9 1864, Grant was the only substantive Union Lieutenant-General in active service, and remained so after the war.
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, the majority served as commanders of Divisions within a field army.
The Confederacy faced both the advantages and disadvantages of creating a military organisation anew for the new nation. Inheriting the traditions and training from the US Army as a basis for the new Confederate Army, there were also opportunities for innovation.
The officer corps of the Confederacy did not come immediately into existence. Some officers resigned from the US Army and offered their services to the new nation, or to their home State. They were joined by former soldiers and officers, and new appointees taking up commissions from their States. The embryonic Army of the Confederate States of America (ACSA) provided some commissions for the earliest volunteers, but they were quickly replaced by commissions in the Provisional Army of the Confederate States (PACS). The PACS, like the US Volunteers, was intended as an interim and temporary force to be stood down after the achievement of independence. The ACSA would then be formed properly for permanent service. As victory was never achieved, the occasion did not arise for the permanent Regular Army to evolve far beyond giving it a name.
There was some deliberate planning in the evolution of the territorial and field commands of the Confederacy, but the first six months were characterised by improvisation in response to the most immediate threats. Whereas the US Regular Army had existing military Departments covering the entire mainland of the country, the Confederates established its first military commands at the initial points of threatened invasion and the remaining US military posts on its territory and coastline.
The very first large-scale military organisation was the Department of Louisiana, to defend New Orleans, the most populous city of the South and the gateway to the Mississippi. The Confederates understood that the Mississippi River was a vital strategic artery and access to it needed to be defended as an urgent priority. Furthermore, the Confederacy’s economic and strategic dependence on cotton exports required every available port to be held open and their fortifications to be acquired by State or national troops.
The next development inevitably occurred around Charleston, SC, where the national crisis was increasingly focused on the US garrison holding out at Fort Sumter. The Department of South Carolina was formed at the beginning of March 1861 to organise state forces to achieve its reduction. Unsurprisingly, the Department of West Florida was formed very soon afterwards to oppose the US garrison at Fort Pickens, at Pensacola, Florida. The confrontation at Charleston would spark the outbreak of armed hostilities. Opportunism led to the emergence of the next Confederate command at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where the US Arsenal provided much-needed machinery and supplies.
Plans to recruit an army and to mobilise the existing state militias for the occupation of Federal property continued apace but it would require the outbreak of actual hostilities for the Confederate Army to establish its true form as a military organisation. For the coming conflict, the Confederacy followed the pattern of the Union, which supplemented its Regular Army by recruiting a temporary army of volunteers, called up for service of limited duration. The main difference was that the Confederates never truly established a Regular Army. Of 1,108 US Regular Army officers serving as of 1 January 1861, 270 ultimately resigned to join the Confederacy. Only a few hundred out of 15,135 enlisted men left the ranks of the US Regular Army to join the Confederacy.