Union Army

Union Army

The Union Army was the army that fought for the Union during the American Civil War. It was also known as the Federal Army, the U.S. Army, the Northern Army, and the National Army. [See, for example, usage in Grant, Preface p.3.] It consisted of the small United States Army (the regular army), augmented by massive numbers of units supplied by the Northern states, composed of volunteers as well as draftees. The Union Army fought and defeated the Confederate States Army during the war, from 1861 to 1865. Of the 2.5 million men who served in the Union Army during the war, approximately 9.5% were African American, about 360,000 died—in combat, from injuries sustained in combat, disease, or other causes—and 280,000 were wounded.



When the Civil War began in April 1861, there were only about 16,000 men in the U.S. Army, and many Southern soldiers and officers were already resigning and joining the new Confederate States Army. The army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. These regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canadian border and on the Atlantic coast.

With the secession of the Southern states, and with this drastic shortage of men in the army, President Abraham Lincoln called on the states to raise a force of 75,000 men for three months to put down the insurrection in the South. The first to offer a regiment was Minnesota's Governor, Alexander Ramsey. It was this call-up of Federal troops that incited four more states of the South to secede, making the Confederacy eleven states strong. The war proved to be longer and larger than anyone had expected, and on July 22, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men.

At first, the call for volunteers was easily met by patriotic Northerners, abolitionists, and even immigrants who enlisted with the hope of a steady paycheck and food rations. Over 10,000 Germans in New York and Pennsylvania immediately responded to Lincoln's call for volunteers, and the French were also among those quick to volunteer. As more men were needed, the number of willing volunteers fell, but nevertheless, between April 1861 and April 1865, at least two and a half million men served in the Union Army, most of whom were volunteers.

It is a widely held misconception that the South held the advantage of a large percentage of professional military who resigned to join the Confederate States Army. At the start of the war, there were 824 graduates of the U.S. Military Academy on the active list; of these, 296 resigned or were dismissed and 184 of those became Confederate officers. Of the approximately 900 West Point graduates who were then civilians, 114 returned to the Union Army and 99 to the Confederate. Therefore, the ratio of Union to Confederate professional officers was 642 to 283. [Hattaway & Jones, pp.9-10.] (One of the resigning officers was Robert E. Lee, who had initially been offered the assignment as commander of a field army to suppress the rebellion; Lee refused to bear arms against his native state, Virginia, and resigned to accept the position as commander of Virginia forces instead. He eventually became the commander of the Confederate States Army.) The South did have the advantage of other military colleges, such as The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, but they produced fewer officers. Only 26 enlisted men and non-commissioned officers left the United States Army to join the Confederate Army. [Hattaway & Jones, p.10.]

Major organizations

The Union Army was composed of numerous organizations, which were generally organized geographically.

; Department: An organization that covered a defined region, including responsibilities for the Federal installations therein and for the field armies within their borders. Those named for states usually referred to Southern states that had been occupied. It was more common to name departments for rivers (such as Department of the Tennessee, Department of the Cumberland) or regions (Department of the Pacific, Department of New England, Department of the East, Department of the West, Middle Department).

; District: A subdivision of a Department (e.g., District of Cairo, District of East Tennessee). There were also Subdistricts for smaller regions.

; Military Division: A collection of Departments reporting to one commander (e.g., Military Division of the Mississippi, Military Division of the Gulf). Military Divisions were similar to the regions described by the more modern term, Theater.

; Army: The fighting force that was usually, but not always, assigned to a District or Department but could operate over wider areas. Some of the most prominent armies were:

::* Army of the Cumberland, the army operating primarily in Tennessee, and later Georgia, commanded by William S. Rosecrans and George Henry Thomas.::* Army of Georgia, operated in the March to the Sea and the Carolinas commanded by Henry W. Slocum.::* Army of the Gulf, the army operating in the region bordering the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by Benjamin Butler, Nathaniel P. Banks, and Edward Canby.::* Army of the James, the army operating on the Virginia Peninsula, 1864–65, commanded by Benjamin Butler and Edward Ord.::* Army of the Mississippi, a briefly existing army operating on the Mississippi River, in two incarnations—under John Pope and William S. Rosecrans in 1862; under John A. McClernand in 1863.::* Army of the Ohio, the army operating primarily in Kentucky and later Tennessee and Georgia, commanded by Don Carlos Buell, Ambrose E. Burnside, John G. Foster, and John M. Schofield.::* Army of the Potomac, the principal army in the Eastern Theater, commanded by George B. McClellan, Ambrose E. Burnside, Joseph Hooker, and George G. Meade.::* Army of the Shenandoah, the army operating in the Shenandoah Valley, under David Hunter, Philip Sheridan, and Horatio G. Wright.::* Army of the Tennessee, the most famous army in the Western Theater, operating through Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas; commanded by Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, James B. McPherson, and Oliver O. Howard.::* Army of Virginia, the army assembled under John Pope for the Northern Virginia Campaign.

Each of these armies was usually commanded by a major general. Typically, the Department or District commander also had field command of the army of the same name, but some conflicts within the ranks occurred when this was not true, particularly when an army crossed a geographic boundary.

The regular army, a term used to describe the permanent United States Army, was intermixed into various units and formations of the Union Army, forming a cadre of experienced and skilled troops. This force was quite small compared to the massive state-raised volunteer forces that comprised the bulk of the Union Army.

; TheatersOperations in the Civil War were distinctly divided within broad geographic regions known as theaters. For overviews of general army operations and strategies, see articles on the main , including the Western Theater, and Eastern Theater.

Personnel organization

Soldiers were organized by military specialty. The combat arms included infantry, cavalry and artillery. The Signal Corps was created and deployed for the first time, through the leadership of Albert J. Myer.

Below major units like armies, soldiers were organized mainly into regiments, the main fighting unit with which a soldier would march and be deployed with. Within each regiment were several companies, each commanded by a captain. Regiments were almost always raised within a single state, and were generally referred by number and state, e.g. 54th Massachusetts, 20th Maine, etc.

Regiments were usually grouped into brigades. However, brigades were changed easily as the situation demanded. The regiment was the main form of permanent grouping. brigades were usually formed once regiments reached the battlefield, according to where the regiment might be deployed, and alongside which other regiments.


Several men served as generals-in-chief of the Union Army throughout its existence:
* Winfield Scott: July 5, 1841ndash November 1, 1861
* George B. McClellan: November 1, 1861ndash March 11, 1862
* Henry W. Halleck: July 23, 1862ndash March 9, 1864
* Ulysses S. Grant: March 9, 1864ndash March 4, 1869

The gap from March 11 to July 23, 1862, was filled with direct control of the army by President Lincoln and United States Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, with the help of an unofficial "War Board" that was established on March 17, 1862. The board consisted of Ethan A. Hitchcock, the chairman, with Department of War bureau chiefs Lorenzo Thomas, Montgomery C. Meigs, Joseph G. Totten, James W. Ripley, and Joseph P. Taylor. [Eicher, pp.37-38.]

Scott was an elderly veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War and could not perform his duties effectively. His successor, Maj. Gen. McClellan, built and trained the massive Union Army of the Potomac, the primary fighting force in the Eastern Theater. Although he was popular among the soldiers, McClellan was relieved from his position as general-in-chief because of his overly cautious strategy and his contentious relationship with his commander in chief, President Lincoln. (He remained commander of the Army of the Potomac through the Peninsula Campaign and the Battle of Antietam.) His replacement, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, had a successful record in the Western Theater, but was more of an administrator than a strategic planner and commander.

Ulysses S. Grant was the final commander of the Union Army. He was famous for his victories in the West when he was appointed lieutenant general and general-in-chief of the Union Army in March 1864. Grant supervised the Army of the Potomac (which was formally led by his subordinate, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade) in delivering the final blows to the Confederacy by engaging Confederate forces in many fierce battles in Virginia, the Overland Campaign, conducting a war of attrition that the larger Union Army was able to survive better than its opponent. Grant laid siege to Lee's army at Petersburg, Virginia, and eventually captured Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. He developed the strategy of coordinated simultaneous thrusts against wide portions of the Confederacy, most importantly the Georgia and Carolinas Campaigns of William Tecumseh Sherman and the Shenandoah Valley campaign of Philip Sheridan. These campaigns were characterized by another strategic notion of Grant's—deny the enemy the supplies needed to continue the war by widespread destruction of its factories and farms along the paths of the invading Union armies.

Grant had critics who complained about the high numbers of casualties that the Union Army suffered while he was in charge, but Lincoln would not replace Grant, because, in Lincoln's words: "I cannot spare this man. He fights."

Among field leaders of the army was Ivan Turchaninov and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Union victory

The decisive victories by Grant and Sherman resulted in the surrender of the major Confederate armies. The first and most significant was on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House. Although there were other Confederate armies that would surrender in the following weeks, such as Joseph E. Johnston's in North Carolina, this date was nevertheless symbolic of the end of the bloodiest war in American history, the end of the Confederate States of America, and the beginning of the slow process of Reconstruction.


Of the 2.5 million men who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, about 390,000 died in combat, or from injuries sustained in combat, disease, or other causes, and 280,000 were wounded. More than 1 out of every 4 Union soldiers was killed or wounded during the war; casualties in the Confederate Army were even worse—1 in 3 Southern soldiers were killed or wounded. Though it should be noted that the Confederates suffered a considerably lower amount of overall casualties then the Union, at roughly 260,000 total casualties to the Union's 670,000. This is by far the highest casualty ratio of any war in which America has been involved. By comparison, 1 out of every 16 American soldiers was killed or wounded in World War II, and 1 out of every 22 during the Vietnam War.

In total, 620,000 soldiers died during the Civil War. There were 34 million Americans at that time, so 4% of the American male population died in the war. In today's terms, this would be the equivalent of 5.9 million American men being killed in a war.

Ethnic groups

The Union Army was composed of many different ethnic groups, including large numbers of immigrants. About 25% of the white people who served in the Union Army were foreign-born. [McPherson, pp.36-37.]

Breakdown of the approximately 2.2 million Union soldiers:
*1 million (45.4% of all Union soldiers) native-born Americans of British ancestry.
*516,000 (23.4%) Germans; about 216,000 were born in Germany.
*210,000 (9.5%) African American. Half were freedmen who lived in the North, and half were ex-slaves or escaped slaves from the South. They served in more than 160 "colored" regiments. One such regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, is dramaticized in the film "Glory". Others served under white officers in Federal regiments organized as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). [Laurence Otis Graham notes that there were as many as 345,000 blacks in the Union Army and Navy in his book on the career of Blanche Kelso Bruce, "The Senator and the Socialite" (2006).]
*200,000 (9.1%) Irish.
*90,000 (4.1%) Dutch.
*50,000 (2.3%) Canadian.
*50,000 (2.3%) born in England.
*40,000 (1.8%) French or French Canadian. About half were born in America, the other half in Quebec.
*20,000 (0.9%) Scandinavian (Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish).
*7,000 Italian
*7,000 Jewish
*6,000 Mexican
*5,000 Polish (many of whom served in the Polish Legion of Brig. Gen. Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski)
*4,000 Native Americans
*Several hundred were: Hungarians, Portuguese, Chinese, Indians (born in India), and other nationalities.

Many immigrant soldiers formed their own regiments, such as the Irish Brigade (69th New York, 63rd New York, 88th New York, 28th Massachusetts, 116th Pennsylvania); the Swiss Rifles (15th Missouri); the Gardes Lafayette (55th New York); the Garibaldi Guard (39th New York); the Martinez Militia (1st New Mexico); the Polish Legion (58th New York); the German Rangers (52nd New York); the Highlander Regiment (79th New York); and the Scandinavian Regiment (15th Wisconsin). But for the most part, the foreign-born soldiers were scattered as individuals throughout units.

For comparison, the Confederate Army was not very diverse: 91% of Confederate soldiers were native born and only 9% were foreign-born, Irish being the largest group with others including Germans, French, Mexicans (though most of them simply happened to have been born when the Southwest was still part of Mexico), and British. Some Southern propaganda compared foreign-born soldiers in the Union Army to the hated Hessians of the American Revolution. As well, a relatively small number of Native Americans (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek) fought for the Confederacy.

Army administration and issues

Various organizational and administrative issues arose during the war, which had a major effect on subsequent military procedures.

Blacks in the army

The inclusion of blacks as combat soldiers became a major issue. Eventually, it was realized, especially after the valiant effort of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Battle of Fort Wagner, that blacks were fully able to serve as competent and reliable soldiers. This was partly due to the efforts of Robert Smalls, who, while still a slave, won fame by defecting from the Confederacy, and bringing a Confederate transport ship which he was piloting. He later met with Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, to argue for including blacks in combat units. This led to the formation of the first combat unit for black soldiers, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. Regiments for black soldiers were eventually referred to as United States Colored Troops. The blacks were paid less then white soldiers and were treated harshly.

Unit supplies

Battlefield supplies were a major problem. They were greatly improved by new techniques in preserving food and other perishables, and in transport by railroad. General Montgomery C. Meigs was one of the most important Union Army leaders in this field.

Combat medicine

Medical care was, at first, extremely disorganized and substandard. Gradually, medical experts began calling for higher standards, and created an agency known as the United States Sanitary Commission. This created professional standards, and led to some of the first advances in battlefield medicine as a separate specialty. General William Alexander Hammond of the Medical Corps did some major work and provided some important leadership in this area.

Additionally, care of the wounded was greatly improved by medical pioneers such as Clara Barton, who often worked alone to provide supplies and care, and brought a new level of dedication to caring for the wounded.

Military strategy

The Civil War drove many innovations in military strategy. It brought the first mass movement of troops by railroad. There were many other innovations brought by necessity. It also forced generals to reexamine the Napoleonic infantry tactics of maneuvering large groups of soldiers towards the enemy by walking as a single mass. The improvement of the rifle made this tactic almost obsolete, as defenders could cause more damage at a long range. Thus the Civil War saw the beginning of modern tactics of mobility.

Desertions and draft riots

Desertion was a major problem for both sides. The daily hardships of war, forced marches, thirst, suffocating heat, disease, delay in pay, solicitude for family, impatience at the monotony and futility of inactive service, panic on the eve of battle, the sense of war weariness, the lack of confidence in commanders, and the discouragement of defeat (especially early on for the Union Army), all tended to lower the morale of the Union Army and to increase desertion.

In 1861 and 1862, the war was going badly for the Union Army and there were, by some counts, 180,000 desertions. In 1863 and 1864, the bitterest two years of the war, the Union Army suffered over 200 desertions "every day", for a total of 150,000 desertions during those two years. This puts the total number of desertions from the Union Army during the four years of the war at nearly 350,000. Using these numbers, 15% of Union soldiers deserted during the war. Official numbers put the number of deserters from the Union Army at 200,000 for the entire war, or about 8% of Union Army soldiers. It is estimated that 1 out of 3 deserters returned to their regiments, either voluntarily or after being arrested and being sent back.

Many of the desertions were by "professional" bounty men, men who would enlist to collect the often large cash bonuses and then desert at the earliest opportunity to do the same elsewhere. If not caught, it could prove a very lucrative criminal enterprise.

The Irish were also the main participants in the famous "New York Draft Riots" of 1863 (as dramatized in the film "Gangs of New York"). The Irish had shown the strongest support for Southern aims prior to the start of the war and had long had an enmity with black populations in several Northern cities dating back to nativist attacks on Irish immigrants in the 1840s, when it was observed that blacks, who rivaled the Irish at the bottom of the economic ladder, were frequently reported encouraging on nativist mobs. With the view that the war was an upper class abolitionist war led in large part by former nativists to free a large black population, which might move north and compete for jobs and housing with the poor Irish and others, it could hardly be expected that the poorer classes would welcome the draft that a richer man could buy his way out of. As a result of the Enrollment Act, rioting began in several Northern cities, the most heavily hit being New York City. A mob reported as consisting principally of Irish immigrants rioted in the summer of 1863, with the worst violence occurring in July during the Battle of Gettysburg. The mob set fire to everything from African American churches and an orphanage to the office of the "New York Tribune". The principal victims of the rioting were African Americans and activists in the anti-slavery movement. Not until victory was achieved at Gettysburg could the Union Army be sent in; some units had to open fire to quell the violence and stop the rioters. By the time the rioting was over, perhaps up to 1,000 people had been killed or wounded (estimates varied widely, then and now).

ee also

*Grand Army of the Republic
*Military history of African Americans
*Uniform of the Union Army


*Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., "Civil War High Commands", Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
*Hattaway, Herman, and Jones, Archer, "How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War", University of Illinois Press, 1983, ISBN 0-252-00918-5.
* McPherson, James M., "What They Fought For, 1861-1865", Louisiana State University Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0807119044.
* Grant, Ulysses S., [http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/4367 "Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant"] , Charles L. Webster & Company, 1885–86, ISBN 0-914427-67-9.


External links

* [http://www.civilwarhome.com/ethnic.htm Civil War Home: Ethnic groups in the Union Army]
* [http://www.thehistorynet.com/cwti/bl_common_soldier/ "The Common Soldier", HistoryNet]
* [http://www.nps.gov/gett/getttour/armorg.htm Army Organization during the Civil War]
* [http://jdc.jefferson.edu/milsurgusa/ "A Manual of Military Surgery"] , by Samuel D. Gross, MD (1861), the manual used by doctors in the Union Army.

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