Union Army

views updated May 17 2018

Union Army. Although the United States had a regular army of 16,000 career soldiers when the Civil War began, throughout the conflict it placed chief reliance on an ad hoc force of U.S. Volunteers, the Union army. On 15 April 1861, President Abraham Lincoln summoned 75,000 militia to serve for three months. (Oversubscribed, 91,816 were actually accepted.) Then, without legal authority, he increased the regular army by 22,714 men and called for 42,034 three‐year volunteers. In July 1861, the U.S. Congress sanctioned Lincoln's extralegal acts and authorized 500,000 additional volunteers.

The Union army grew steadily throughout the war, from 186,751 in July 1861 to 1,000,516 in May 1865. By war's end, about 2 million men had served in the army, a figure that includes 179,000 African Americans and 100,000 white unionist Southerners from the Confederate states. However, at any given time as many as one‐third of Union soldiers might be absent through illness, transfer, or some other cause—including desertion, which accounted for about 200,000 men absent during the course of the war.

Like its Confederate counterpart, the Union army was one of the first great military formations created by mass politics. States and localities played a critical role in its recruitment. Typically, a community leader such as a lawyer or politician with the volunteer rank of captain would encourage men to join his company, which when filled would be offered to the state governor. The governor then assigned ten companies to a numbered regiment and appointed a colonel (frequently yet another community leader) to command the regiment. At that point the new regiment would be mustered into federal service and thenceforth paid, fed, and equipped at national expense.

The system had pronounced strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, it tended to maximize popular support, and the decentralized nature of American society made it practically the only workable system anyway. But the governors tended to see it as a vast opportunity for political patronage, which meant that as regimental numbers diminished through battle casualties and disease, the tendency was to create new regiments rather than make good losses in existing ones. Only Wisconsin maintained an efficient system of replacements to keep veteran units up to strength.

Politics also played a significant role in the motivation of Union soldiers. Although they might have many reasons to enlist, surviving letters and diaries strongly suggest that many were politically aware and had a strong grasp of the stakes of the struggle, which most understood to be the future of self‐government (a much smaller percentage were animated by antislavery views). This political commitment to the Union cause was one of the most important factors holding the army together during four bloody and often discouraging years of war.

The first wave of Union volunteers achieved significant success in early 1862. But military reversals during the summer of 1862 spurred a call for 300,000 additional three‐year volunteers (which actually produced 421,000 new troops). This outpouring was assisted by the Militia Act of 17 July 1862, which empowered the president to set quotas of troops to be raised by each state, and authorized him to enforce the quota through a special militia draft if a given state failed to supply enough volunteers.

The threat of conscription as a tactic to secure more volunteers was applied systematically in the Enrollment Act of 3 March 1863, by which all able‐bodied males between twenty and forty‐five became liable for military service. But under terms of the act, conscription would be applied only to communities that failed to supply their quota of volunteers. As a result, most communities adopted the practice of paying a cash bounty to men willing to enlist. By 1864, a typical recruit could pocket as much as $1,000 in local, state, and federal bounties. Unsurprisingly, this system was flamboyantly abused. Numerous “bounty jumpers” deserted their units at first opportunity and repeatedly reenlisted, each time pocketing a bounty.

The Union conscription system had three other bad features. First, although the draft law nominally permitted few exemptions, over 50 percent of Northern draftees exploited the exemption categories that did exist and thereby escaped service. Second, it was possible for a man to pay $300 (a year's wages for a worker) and avoid being drafted in any given call‐up. Third, a man could also gain permanent exemption by hiring a substitute to serve in his place. Both the $300 commutation fee and the hiring of substitutes fueled bitter complaints that it was “a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.” Draft riots and other significant disorders resulted, and at least thirty‐eight federal provost marshals were killed trying to enforce the draft. Conscription directly accounted for only 13 percent of Union soldiers, but by the last two years of the war it undoubtedly encouraged a large number of voluntary enlistments.

The basic organization of the Union army was the regiment, theoretically composed of just under 1,000 men but usually operating at half strength or less. Four or five regiments generally made up a brigade, and two or three brigades typically comprised a division. Two or more divisions comprised a corps; several corps comprised an army. The principal Union field armies, named after major rivers in their area, were the Army of the Potomac, the Tennessee, the Cumberland, the Ohio, and the James. But these formations never contained even half the total strength available because many troops garrisoned strategic points or guarded important railroads.

Presiding over the Union army was the secretary of war. Simon Cameron initially held the post, but he resigned in January 1862 amid charges of corruption and incompetence. He was replaced by Edwin M. Stanton, who served forcefully and effectively for the rest of the war. The top military leader was the general in chief, of whom there were four: Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott (April–November 1861); Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, Jr. (November 1861–March 1862); Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck (July 1862–March 1864); and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (March 1864–May 1865). Of these, only Grant exercised sustained control over the army; the others tended to plan, propose, and advise, but not direct. President Abraham Lincoln was, of course, commander in chief.

Equipping and supplying the Union army was a for midable task that demanded high professionalism and efficiency. Fortunately, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs performed ably, as did David C. McCallum, superintendent of the U.S. Military Railroads, which proved quite successful in its vital transportation task of ferrying troops and supplies within the sprawling war zone. All in all, the Union army possessed an impressive logistics network, and the Union soldier was so lavishly equipped and supplied that European observers, to say nothing of his Confederate army counterpart, frequently expressed amazement.

Of the 583 Union generals, only 217 were West Point graduates, but most had previous military experience. Quite a few owed their appointments to political considerations, particularly their influence over important constituencies. Such “political generals” seldom won battlefield success, although Gen. John Logan, an Illinois congressman who commanded a corps in William Tecumseh Sherman's Army of the Tennessee, was an able exception. They often had substantial administrative abilities and popularity with their troops—no mean consideration in a civil war. Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks, for example, was a former Speaker of the House and an important Democrat. Although a poor combat commander, he performed a considerable service by presiding over a crucial experiment in wartime Reconstruction in Louisiana.

Although at first the goal was primarily to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital, Union strategy eventually focused on the destruction of Confederate armies and (after 1863) the destruction of Confederate war resources, including crops and livestock. The Union army's battlefield performance varied. The Army of the Potomac proved unable to win a decisive victory in Virginia until the closing days of the war, leading some historians to speculate that it suffered from a cultural inferiority complex. The Army of the James's record was even more dismal. But in the western theater, the Army of the Tennessee went from success to success, while the Armies of the Cumberland and the Ohio also achieved significant victories. In every case, however, success or failure owed mainly to the quality of the senior leadership. The rank and file fought with determination and élan in almost every engagement.

Officially, total Union army deaths from all causes are placed at 360,222. Of these, 110,100 were killed or mortally wounded in battle. Most of the rest died of disease. Indeed, a Union soldier stood a 1 in 13.5 chance of dying of illness as opposed to a 1 in 65 risk of being killed in action. An additional 275,175 Union troops were wounded, while some 211,411 became prisoners of war. Proud of their efforts, Union army veterans created the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1868. By the 1880s, it was a potent force in American politics, and remained so for the rest of the century. Unlike most similar organizations, membership in the GAR was open neither to veterans of other wars nor to the veterans' own sons. Their service to the country in saving the Union, Northern veterans believed, was unique.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Cause; Militia Acts; New York City Antidraft Riots; Veterans: Civil War.]


Bell Irvin Wiley , The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, 1951.
Ezra Warner , Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders, 1964.
Carl L. Davis , Arming the Union, 1973.
Michael C. C. Adams , Our Masters the Rebels: A Speculation on Union Military Failure in the East, 1861–1865, 1978.
Stephen Z. Starr , The Union Army, 1861–1865: Organization and Operations, 2 vols., 1989.
James W. Geary , We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War, 1991.
Mark Grimsley , The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861–1865, 1995.

Mark Grimsley

Army, Union

views updated May 18 2018


ARMY, UNION. When Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, the United States army had barely 16,000 enlisted men and officers. The resignations of Robert E. Lee and other Southern officers had also crippled the military. For the next three years, Northern states desperately passed laws to raise, equip, and train volunteers. By April 1861, state governors had offered some 300,000 such troops to the federal government. President Abraham Lincoln, however, refused to assemble Congress before 4 July. Therefore, with no new legislation to authorize an increase in the army, all of the recruiting fervor of the early spring was wasted.

The 75,000-man militia, which the government called up on 15 April, had only three-month terms of enlistment and was ill prepared when it rushed into battle at Bull Run. The crushing defeat at Bull Run aroused the federal government, and on the very next day (22 July 1861) Congress authorized the creation of a volunteer army of 500,000 men. At first, political generals chosen by the state governors and officers elected by the enlisted men commanded this army. As a result, its discipline and efficiency developed slowly. The army was further plagued by competition between the state governments and the War Department over military supply contracts, which led to graft, high prices, and shoddy products.

The United States had difficulty maintaining even a rudimentary army after the disastrous defeat at Bull Run. The first army had been so badly depleted by disease and battle that on 2 July 1862 the federal government ordered the states to call up an additional 300,000 volunteers. When volunteering proved sluggish, the United States instituted a draft. Although the draft provided just 65,000 men, federal, state, and local bounties lured enough volunteers during the next few months to boost military morale.

Early in 1863 U.S. leaders feared that the army would collapse as a result of heavy casualties, desertions, short-term enlistments, and scanty volunteering. Consequently, Congress passed the Enrollment Act of 3 March 1863 to stimulate volunteering by threat of conscription. Under the act, men of means could either pay a $300 commutation fee or hire someone to take their place. Congress later limited the commutation fee to conscientious objectors, but rich draftees could hire substitutes until the end of the war. The direct product of two years of repeated drafting was about 50,000 conscripts and 120,000 substitutes. In the same period, however, the promise of government bounties lured more than a million volunteers.

Before federal conscription began on 1 January 1863, the Union army numbered just under 700,000 troops. On 1 May 1865, at its highest point, this number reached nearly 800,000. These totals do not include about 200,000 men unfit for active service. Although the Union army was vast, it suffered from political partisanship and inefficiency. Eventually, however, the army weeded out inexperienced political appointees, eliminated regimental elections of officers, and established a greater degree of military discipline. Contract grafts also continued to undermine the army's efficiency, but to a diminishing degree as the war raged on. Ultimately, the Union army's advantages in manpower, supplies, and access to transportation turned the tide of battle against the Confederacy.


Linderman, Gerald F. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1987.

McPherson, James T. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Paludan, Phillip S. A People's Contest: The Union and Civil War, 1961–1865. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Royster, Charles. The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the Americans. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Eric J.Morser

Fred A.Shannon

See alsoBull Run, First Battle of ; Peninsular Campaign ; andvol. 9:Letters from Widows to Lincoln Asking for Help .

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Union Army

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