As I’m digging deeper into studying about battles of the Civil War, the more I tend to get a little cross-eyed when books go into incredible detail about the army movements. Keeping the organizational terms of an army straight in my head was a pain before I found some useful tools. I’ve also seen these graphics in museums and at battlefield visitor centers, which can be extremely helpful for your average Joe coming in off the street, who knows next to nothing about the military.
So, let’s start with how an army as a whole is broken down. The private who enlists will join at company of about 80-100 men. The company is led by a captain and underneath him are lieutenants (first and second) and sergeants (typically 4). Companies are labeled by letters. So, John Doe may join up with Company G. Recruit soldiers from a county would typically join up in the same company because they would all go to the same recruitment office. Companies could also come up with names like “Cherokee Rifles” or “Union and Sabine Rifles”. The soldiers could get creative with these names and it’s fun to look through reports or soldier databases for these wacky titles.
A company is a component of a regiment, which is usually a group of 8-10 companies. That means a regiment could have anywhere from 640 to 1,000 men, on average. There are exceptions for tiny companies or regiments who don’t have as many companies. A regiment is labeled by the state in which it was mustered in and a number. So, the same John Doe that joined Company G from Heard County, Georgia may find himself in the 7th Georgia Infantry. This changes if the soldier is joining the cavalry or artillery because they are organized into different regiments than the infantry. A regiment was led by a colonel and he would have subordinate officers with ranks of major and lieutenant colonel.
A regiment will then be assigned to a brigade, which is a group of maybe 2 – 6 regiments. So, now we’re looking at a strength of 1,280 men up to 6,000. A brigade is led by a brigadier general (just as the name suggests). These brigades could also earn names for themselves like the “Stonewall Brigade”, “Iron Brigade”, “Irish Brigade”, “Louisiana Tigers”, etc. Not all brigades are comprised of regiments from the same state. Some brigades may have regiments from New York and Pennsylvania together. Others may be exclusively from Texas or Florida. The title on brigade organization then diverts to who is leading the brigade or maybe where the brigade came from. So the same group of regiments may be led by Brigadier General Smith for one battle, and they’re labeled as “Smith’s Brigade”. But, Smith may get promoted, demoted, or killed so the next battle has that same group of regiments labeled as “Johnson’s Brigade”, but it’s essentially the same guys. For ease, they were sometimes numbered as well in the Order of Battle.
Then, a few brigades would be collected into a division. These divisions were led by a major general. These were not only labeled by their commanding general, but by numbers within the next organization level of “corps”. Corps were made up of maybe 2-3 divisions, also led by a major general. And an army is made up of corps.
So, let’s take an example to help illustrate the breakdown.
Within the ARMY of the Potomac, you can find:
II (2nd) Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock (has 4 divisions)
Third Division under Major General David Birney (has 2 brigades)
Second Brigade under Brigadier General Alexander Hays (has 9 regiments)
63rd Pennsylvania under Lieutenant Colonel John A. Danks (has 10 companies)
This organization may not stay the same through the war. Divisions can be created and disbanded, just as easily as brigades, regiments, and companies, if they’re found to be low on men or without a commander. Companies can also be consolidated if the heavy toll of a battle thins their ranks. Regiments may jump between different brigades, as well. To see what regiments and brigades make up the battle, consult with the Order of Battle, which has this breakdown. You’ll often find these in the back of the book or online.
Here’s a popular graphic to also help visualize the nesting quality of army organization
Next, one wonders how on earth this many people manage to move across a battlefield. Some of these places don’t seem big enough to hold two brigades, let alone a corps. Here’s a nifty visual of how a regiment will (ideally) go into battle. If the field is clear and flat, I can imagine this works a good portion of the time. In the Wilderness, not so much. I can see how they would have gotten lost and tangled up.
Then, I wondered how they recognize rank. Stupid question to ask, I know. All that gold braid and bars and fancy stars have to mean something. While my website may not allow you to really zoom in on this chart, it’s another little helper to get all the ranks and insignia straight.
A little studying of this, and you could be dropped into the middle of an army and know your way around in no time.