The Little Regiment
Civil War Units and Commands
Summer 1995, Vol. 27, No. 2
By Michael P. Musick
When Stephen Crane (1871–1900) chose the title The Little Regiment for his 1896 collection of short stories set during the Civil War, he knew what he was about. He knew that phrase would resonate with his readers, that it would have a special meaning for veterans, and for many nonveterans as well.
Crane knew what many in later years forgot: that for the Civil War generation, a regimental designation was not merely a military convenience. In truth, the regiment was the primary object of identification for the men who fought the war. For the most part, a unit meant neighbors, friends, and in many cases (as in the story that gave Crane his title) blood relatives. To speak the name of a unit was often to summon up a host of associations within a particular state and community.
And so the call to arms introduced into Federal or Confederate service an array of units with names like the Kalamazoo Light Guard and the Sumter Light Guards, the Brooklyn Phalanx and the Winchester Boomerangs— volunteer companies accepted by the governors of the states, combined into regiments, and tendered to the central government. Other names held other associations: the DeKalb Regiment (men of German birth), the Irish Jasper Greens (sometime denizens of the Emerald Isle), and the Louisiana Native Guards (men of color, first under the Stars and Bars, and later the Stars and Stripes). Fusileers followed Fencibles in serried ranks, their names lending panache to outfits rich in elegant uniforms if not in combat experience.
Many of these units were of company strength, supposed to number between 83 and 101 men. Confederate authorities specified a minimum of 64 privates, and a maximum of 125. Ten such companies of infantry, plus the field and staff officers, usually formed a regiment. Cavalry and artillery regiments were designed to have twelve companies. For the horsemen, each company was 100 strong. For light artillery, each company (called a battery) was to have no more than 150 men with six cannon.
The rugged realities of active service meant that, in practice, such numbers were often dramatically reduced, making many regiments little indeed. Eventually unit identifies were transformed into designations as prosaic as Company I, Second Michigan Infantry; Company K, Fourth Georgia Infantry; or the Seventy-third Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. This being the Civil War, anomalies abounded. The Second Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery was in reality two regiments, with more than five thousand men passing through the ranks. The Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Infantry boasted fifteen companies, lettered A through P. At least Sixty-two unattached Confederate companies served. Some were more independent than others. From Illinois came Capt. Thorndike Brooks's company, which went south to become Company G, Fifteenth Tennessee Infantry, C.S.A.
With time, of course, a particular history clung to each unit. It became a matter of intense pride to say that one had served in one of "Fox's 300 Fighting Regiments" (a list of regiments with the highest casualties, published by Union veteran William F. Fox in 1889). It also became necessary to be familiar with particular designations if one was to understand the service of their members. Hence the need to know that "The Mississippi Marine Brigade" was a Union army volunteer organization that served on gunboats on the Father of Waters rather than a Confederate contingent from the Magnolia State; that the six regiments of United States Volunteer Infantry were composed of Confederate prisoners of war who agreed to fight on the frontier against Indians; and that the Confederate First Foreign Battalion was raised from Union soldiers confined in North Carolina.
As might be expected with forces numbering in the millions, basic organizational terminology could sometimes be confusing. A popular name for an organization smaller than a regiment was a battalion, usually commanded by a lieutenant colonel or major. It could have anywhere from two to nine companies. The U.S. Regular Army, following the French system, introduced a three-battalion arrangement for each of its infantry regiments raised during the Civil War itself (the Eleventh U.S. Infantry through the Nineteenth U.S. Infantry), a practice that muddies understanding. Since the regular army was numerically of no great consequence, however, its organizational peculiarities are customarily ignored with impunity. Likewise, more than a dozen "legions" of the Confederacy (formations including infantry, cavalry, and artillery) are statistically overshadowed by the more familiar regimental arrangement.
Other, higher commands, of which the regiment was a part, were also means of identification. These were the brigade, division, army corps, and army, in ascending magnitude. Names such as the Iron Brigade, the Stonewall Brigade, Cleburne's Division, Syke's Division, Hardee's Corps, the Sixth Corps, the Army of the Cumberland, or the Army of Northern Virginia conveyed a cachet that became a significant part of the way the war was experienced.
All of these command designations represent important information that can aid in researching and understanding the conflict and in furnishing background for individual lives. In this hierarchy the regiment stands out as of special significance, especially since no individual service numbers had yet been devised to distinguish one John C. Jones from another. While a service record ordinarily provides only the bare bones of a soldier's history, a knowledge of what his unit did when he was with it, what its distinctive character was, as well as the personalities of its commanders and its triumphs and disasters, puts flesh on the bones and enhances our understanding of what it meant to be a particular person at a particular time in a particular unit.
More than that, the regiment is a building block in a stairway leading to all manner of explorations. For example, when unearthing the history of a locality, a county, or a building, knowledge of which units were there may take one to rich and varied source material, retrievable in no other way. Similarly, documentation on units can open the door to the details of battles, campaigns, and skirmishes. Unit affiliation can unlock the experience of Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, Irishmen, Germans, and other ethnic and religious groups. When it came to forming military bodies, ethnic or racial groups in nineteenth-century America joined together in military units to fight.
Records in the National Archives relating to regiments (a term used here to include battalions, batteries, legions, etc.) are rewarding and voluminous. However, they are the raw material of history rather than history itself. The Federal and Confederate War Departments did not demand of the regiments that they compile narrative histories, and so such histories were not compiled under government auspices. That task fell to the veterans as private citizens, if it was accomplished at all. Committees of survivors, chaplains, or keenly interested individuals took it upon themselves to tell the stories of their outfits, beginning in some cases during the conflict and in others as late as the second decade of the twentieth century. These hundreds of published unit histories, although they vary tremendously in quality, scope, and content, are generally the first place to turn to learn about a given unit. They should be sought in historical libraries rather than in the National Archives.
An outline sketch of the history of every Union regiment, regular and volunteer, will be found in Frederick H. Dyer's magnificent, privately produced A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. No comprehensive Confederate equivalent of Dyer's Compendium exists at present, though several efforts in this direction are extremely helpful (See Appendix C, "Confederate Army Regimental Books"). Not every Confederate unit has a published version of its history. Because of a dearth of documentation for the more obscure outfits, these gaps are not likely to change soon. Nevertheless, when they exist, the single-volume published unit history, devoted to one Union or Confederate organization, is generally the most valuable source on its subject. They are popularly styled "regimentals" and customarily include a unit roster, sometimes profuse illustrations with portraits and scenes, and almost always a connected narrative of service written by a participant.
Charles E. Dornbusch, a bibliographer with the New York Public Library, painstakingly constructed the gateway to these published regimentals. The unit histories portion of his labors will be found in the first two volumes of his monumental Military Bibliography of the Civil War. Volume 1 contains listings for most of the Union volunteer units. Volume 2 includes Union, Southern, border, and Western states and territories and troops raised directly by the federal government, as well as all Confederate units, with biographies of personalities on both sides thrown in for good measure. Volume 4 brings the bibliographic coverage up to 1987. All of the unit histories in Dornbusch are available on microfiche under the title Civil War Unit Histories: Regimental Histories and Personal Narratives by University Publications of America, Bethesda, Maryland.
A few words of introduction for users of the Dornbusch bibliography are in order. An important list of abbreviations for frequently cited works appears early in each section and, among other things, explains abbreviations used in the lists of reference works preceding each state subsection. The lists of state reference works are particularly notable because they provide the titles of publications that have information on every regiment from a given state. There follow listings by arm of service (artillery, cavalry, infantry) and then by number or name.
To illustrate the approach, in volume 1 is a section for Indiana and Ohio. On page 78 of this section are listings for the 105th Ohio Infantry, beginning with dates of organization and muster-out of service, and proceeding with a citation to the Official roster of the soldiers of the state of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861 - 1866 . . . compiled under direction of the Roster Commission . . . published by authority of the general assembly (1886 - 1895) in twelve volumes, a state-sponsored work that supplies the names of Ohio soldiers by unit, gives some service data, and has a single-paragraph summary of the unit's service. The 105th Ohio is shown to be in volume 7, on pages 570 - 598, and 774 - 780. Most Northern and some Southern states have printed rosters of their troops, varying widely in format and quality.
Dornbusch cites an additional work on all Buckeye units (one that gives a fuller narrative of the regiment) and then lists three publications on the 105th, including a splendid production by Albion W. Tourgée, a feisty jurist, novelist, and veteran of the outfit, titled The Story of A Thousand (Dornbusch-Ohio #392), which in style and depth demonstrates why "the regimental" is an enduring cornerstone of Civil War literature. Symbols ("DLC," "NN"), whose explanations are unfortunately not provided in the volume, indicate libraries in which the compiler located copies (e.g., the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and the New York Public Library). Most librarians will have a key to the library symbols, and one is printed on the end-papers of the National Union Catalog of Pre-1956 Imprints, issued by the Library of Congress. The Online Computer Library Catalog (OCLC) is another useful tool for locating these publications. Unfortunately, among the notable items missed in Dornbusch's bibliography are the many Confederate titles in The Virginia Regimental Histories series, begun in 1982. The OCLC is especially helpful in filling the chronological void. The Library of Congress catalogs these works under "United States History, Civil War 1861 - 1865, Regimental Histories."
Among the best sources for unit history are official battle reports (in modern parlance, after-action reports), official letters and telegrams, and tables of organization (more recently called order of battle). These records for the most part are now a part of the National Archives. Because of their importance, however, the War Department printed a good many of these in its monumental 128-volume War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880 - 1901). A companion series issued by the Navy Department and an accompanying Atlas help to make the Official Records an indispensable research tool (for greater detail, see "Honorable Reports: Battles, Campaigns, and Skirmishes" Prologue 27 (Fall 1995). Not all such material was printed, but the published volumes have many such sources, and they are widely available.
Persons wishing to use the Official Records for unit history need to keep in mind that they are indexed in a manner unfamiliar to twentieth-century readers. State volunteer regiments are found by examining the "General Index" under the state designation (such as "Georgia Troops (C)," for Georgia Confederates), then "Infantry-Regiments," then "4th," for the Fourth Georgia Infantry of the Confederate army. These steps lead to a series (numbered I through IV), and then an individual volume number. Arabic numerals must be translated into roman numerals, and the same subject then looked up in the index to the pertinent volume for specific page numbers. Other troops will be found under such headings as "United States Colored Troops" or "United States Regulars." In general, indexers of the Civil War era used the state as the primary index term, while many indexers of the past few decades, unfamiliar with the conventions of the subject, use references such as "Fourth Georgia Infantry," using the unit number as the primary item of identification. Recent variations are numerous.
Many authors and filmmakers have used unpublished personal letters and diaries to good effect. These sources are to be found outside the National Archives. For the purposes of unit history, some (but far from all) of them can be found indexed in a style almost identical to that of the Official Records indexers in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. Likewise, John R. Sellers's Civil War Manuscripts: A Guide to Collections in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress employs categories such as "Georgia Troops," though it placed regular units under "U.S. Army" and United States Colored Troops under "Black troops."
Published letters and diaries, particularly those that appeared later than the coverage in Dornbusch, can be located in profusion in Civil War Eyewitnesses: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles, 1955 - 1986 (1988), by Garold L. Cole, using the familiar state rubric. Cole indexes corps, regular army units, and U.S. Colored Troops under "United States Army," the Colored Troops under the additional subdivision, "Volunteer units. Colored." By definition, Cole does not list unit histories compiled by modern historians.
Newspapers, particularly small-town papers published in the localities in which a unit was raised, generally printed letters written home by soldiers themselves. Such letters, though by publication no longer private, do not fit the category "official." These letters have no comprehensive bibliography or listing, nor do unit histories that appeared in newspapers years after the conflict. In such cases, intrepidity and imagination on the part of the researcher will help a great deal. Two periodicals with much on Confederate units, the Southern Historical Society Papers and Confederate Veteran Magazine, now have good indexes, and other such indexes are in preparation.
The most complete and authoritative records relating to Civil War units are those in the National Archives. Numerous units, particularly on the Confederate side and Southern Union outfits, have little or no published history, and there is a good chance that the National Archives records will fill those gaps. Two microfilm publications, M594, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Volunteer Union Organizations, and M861, Compiled Records Showing Service of Military Units in Confederate Organizations, often flesh out the stories of such unsung outfits. The utility of these records (also called "Records of Events" or "Caption Cards") is very uneven, particularly for Confederates, even within the same unit from one report to the next. Many of these records were left blank by the troops or filled in perfunctorily with a phrase such as "In the field, Tennessee." They are currently being published in letterpress edition as Part II of the Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Wilmington, N.C., 1994 - ), edited by Janet B. Hewett, beginning with serial 13.
Unit records of the war were kept according to the army Regulations, the Confederate version being virtually identical to that of the U.S. Army.1 The primary difference between the contending armies in this respect was that the Confederate troops rarely created the required descriptive books, with information on place of birth, age on enlistment, and physical description. When they do exist (and even federal records can have gaps in this respect), the descriptive books of both sides include lists of commissioned and noncommissioned officers, registers of men transferred, discharged, deceased, and deserted, as well as entries for each soldier in the unit. Descriptive books were supposed to be maintained at both the regimental and company level and would in theory contain the same information for each man in a given company, but in practice they frequently do not overlap when they should. Some people always seemed to be left out. The only complete roster for a Union unit is the Compiled Military Service Records. For some Confederate units, no complete roster is possible.
The bound records of the Union volunteer regiments (RG 94, entries 112 - 115) are a magnificent source for unit history, and one little exploited.2 All told there are some 8,713 unique volumes of these records, sent to the Adjutant General's Office in compliance with general orders. Most of these volumes are combinations of several smaller ones. The Record and Pension Office of the War Department in the 1890s rebound the records, combining slim volumes together to form new, thicker, and less unwieldy tomes. Thus the individual company descriptive books of the Ninth Indiana Infantry regiment are bound together to form two volumes, one for Companies A through E, and another for Companies F through K. Many of the clothing account books were de-accessioned by the National Archives and can be found in places like the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg (for Keystone State outfits), and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division, at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (430 volumes from the U.S. Colored Troops).
In addition to the standard books required, many units kept a variety of miscellaneous items. A few random examples are a register of absentees; a "history of the 183d Pennsylvania"; a register of charges, arrests, and confinements; a memorandum book of the Third Kentucky Cavalry (which has notations on scouts, movements, and charges preferred); guard reports; and regimental casualties and lists of men furloughed in the Ninth New Jersey Infantry. A "journal" in a volume for the Thirty-fifth Missouri Infantry for September 30, 1862–July 13, 1863, includes these remarks for February 26: "Came ten miles today. The quartermaster went to hunt some corn to feed the staff officers horses and went to a house where thare [sic] had been a fight and in the fight a small girl had been shot in the head[.] a sergeant went and dressed the wound."
Some individualistic recordkeepers put down additional information beyond what was required on standard records. A descriptive book of Company E, 114th Pennsylvania Infantry (Collis's Zouaves D'Afrique) includes the Philadelphia street addresses of the soldiers. A descriptive book of Company I, Fifty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry, raised in Adams County, Mississippi, shows the names of the former owners of the soldiers. The same kind of record for Company A, 110th Pennsylvania Infantry, furnishes the names of battles and skirmishes in which the men participated.
These records are physically in poor condition, the imitation leather bindings now crumbling, producing an irksome dust ("red rot"), which covers the hands of users. Dr. Richard J. Sommers of the U.S. Army Military History Institute, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, says that it represents "Truly, the Red Badge of Courage earned by Civil War scholars!" Some of the information in the regimental volumes will be found elsewhere. The descriptive books were usually "carded" (transcribed), and such battle reports as appear in them usually found their way into the published Official Records. Nonetheless, they present a detailed picture of soldier life found nowhere else, from orders specifying the daily schedule, reveille to tattoo, to directions for the line of march, the equipment to be carried into action, and admonitions on the appearance of the outfit. Capt. John S. Buckles's Order No. 11 of December 20, 1861, from the headquarters of the Ninth Illinois Cavalry, illuminates the difficulty in controlling volunteers in the first year of conflict and hints at the kind of thing that may have led Buckles to resign his commission soon after:
Hereafter, if any man gets drunk when he has a pass to go out of camp He will not get a pass again. The Captain desires if any man wants to get drunk, that he do it upon his own responsibility and not upon a pass granted by the Captain. If a man realy wants to get drunk and cant get along without it, if he will inform the Captain of it he will Himself go and get Whiskey For Him and let him get drunk right in camp where he can be taken care of and not be liable to be caught by the patrol and placed in the Guard House.
A second major source of unpublished documents significant for the history of Union volunteer regiments are the unbound regimental papers, which (at this writing) are filed with muster rolls. The papers for the U.S. Colored Troops units have been conveniently separated from the muster rolls and are consequently more readily accessible. The regimental papers, rarely used, are especially notable because they exist for every unit, including many for which there are no bound records.
The regimental papers are of many kinds and are much more numerous for some units than for others. Typically, they will include such things as quarterly returns of deceased soldiers, monthly returns, inspection reports, orders issued and received, letters received, telegrams, lists of deserters and absentees, and court-martial charges and specifications. Almost anything can turn up in these hodge-podges. Some unusual examples have included photographs of soldiers, personal letters, and brief narrative histories.
- Appendix A: Checklist for Sources on Regimental History in the National Archives
- Appendix B: Colonel Cahill's Ninth Connecticut: One Regiment's Records
- Appendix C: Confederate Army Regimental Books
- Appendix D: Confederates from California
- Appendix E: Civil War Union Volunteer Regimental Books
1. Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States, 1862 (1861), para. 80 (pp. 8-9) and 120 (p. 12); Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861 (1862), para. 88 (p. 20) and 127 (p. 24), and other editions.
2. Stephen Z. Starr, a mid-twentieth-century scholar who pored through National Archives records to write a modern history of the Seventh Kansas Cavalry, discusses these records in an article, "The Second Michigan Volunteer Cavalry: Another View," Michigan History 60 (Summer 1976).
|Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.|