Here is a brief sketch of 19th century military organization to help civilians reading history
The combat arms of an army were classified as infantry, cavalry and artillery. Infantry moved by marching, and its weapon was the individual firearm--musket or rifle, replacing the lance of the medieval army. Cavalry moved by riding, and its weapon was the sabre, later a carbine. Firing a muzzle-loading weapon while mounted was very unsatisfactory. Artillery moved by horse-drawn transport, and its weapon was the smoothbore cannon, howitzer or mortar. There were many variations within each category. Mounted infantry moved by riding, but dismounted to fight as infantry on the ground, and was armed with muskets. Dragoons were cavalry armed with carbines (originally short muskets called "dragons," hence the name) rather than sabers or lances, but U.S. dragoons originally had a saber and two pistols. Dragoons were intended as mounted infantry, at least at first. Grenadiers were infantry who threw hand bombs. Sometimes the name was simply used for units of hardened veteran soldiers. Light infantry and cavalry were units with light arms and limited supplies so they could maneuver rapidly and move quickly. For longer engagements, they required support. Units called "heavy" could operate more independently, but had cumbersome supply trains.
In addition to the combat arms, there were other necessary branches. The quartermaster corps and commissary were responsible for transport and supply, and the pioneers or engineers for stream crossings and the building and assault of fortifications. Sappers and miners were engineers who burrowed under enemy fortifications to collapse them or to blow them up by explosives. The ordnance corps dealt with firearms, artillery pieces, and ammunition. By the mid-19th century, a signal corps was appearing to handle flag signalling, telegraphs, messenger services, codes and ciphers, and other communications tasks. The sanitary corps provided hospitals and medical services, not latrines (toilets). Marines were soldiers carried aboard ships for naval combats, which originally were carried out by boarding and fighting on the decks. After the practice of fighting at sea with cannon became standard, marines became a kind of sea-mobile army, fighting mainly on land.
The basic unit of an army for recruitment, training and administration was the company, commanded by a Captain. These were often enlisted and trained by their Captain in a restricted locality. The Captain was assisted by his Lieutenants, usually two or three, and the First Sergeant. A company could be divided into platoons commanded by Lieutenants. A platoon could be further divided into squads. In the cavalry, companies were called troops instead. In the artillery, they were called batteries, and their subdivisions sections. Companies, troops or batteries were given letter designations in the US Army, such as A Company, H Troop, B Battery. Lieutenants and Captains are company-grade officers. The rank of Ensign became Second Lieutenant, and Lieutenant became First Lieutenant. Lieutenants are sometimes called subalterns.
Non-commissioned officers were appointed from the ranks. These correspond to foremen in civilian life, and directly supervise small numbers of men. The Corporal was the first level above Private, Sergeant the next. Several different levels of sergeant were created, of which the First Sergeant was the most important, who handled the administrative duties of a company for the commanding officer. The commanding officer looks upward, the First Sergeant downward, in the chain of command. Noncommissioned officers are identified by chevrons worn on the sleeve. In armies of Spanish heritage, the noncommissioned ranks were: soldado raso (private), cabo (corporal), sargento (sergeant), brigada (staff sergeant) and alférez (master sergeant).
Under the Uniform Militia Act of 1792, a company consisted of 64 privates plus noncommissioned and commissioned officers, and musicians. In 1813, the company was increased to 100 privates. Note that 64 is 8 x 8, and 100 is 10 x 10, so these units made nice squares on the parade ground. Five companies made a battalion, two battalions a regiment, four regiments a brigade, and two brigades a division. A squadron of cavalry was analogous to (but smaller than) a battalion of infantry, often consisting of two troops. The regiment, commanded by a Colonel, was the basic independent command, and was generally associated with a limited geographic area if not a numbered regiment of a standing army. In the United States, the state was the usual area, and a state's regiments were numbered sequentially. Sometimes the Colonelcy was an honorary post, and the regiment was actually commanded by its Lieutenant Colonel. The rank of Major elevated an officer from company duty to command of a battalion or squadron, or to service as a staff officer.
Men and officers enlisted in a regiment, and remained with it if they were in the permanent, regular army. Promotion for the officers depended on vacancies in superior posts in their regiment, so promotion was slow. When the regiment had losses in battle or otherwise, they were made up by enlistment, not by replacements as in modern armies. A regiment could be reduced to small size by these losses. Regiments were seldom up to full size of 640 or 1000 men. The Regimental Sergeant Major was the ranking noncommissioned officer of the regiment.
General officers commanded larger bodies of men, called divisions, corps and armies, usually put together arbitrarily for definite purposes. The brigadier general was a regular step in the American army, between colonel and major general, but in the British army the rank was termed brigadier, and was a special rank, like commodores in the navy, between captains and admirals. The Major General was the usual general officer, commanding a division, corps or army as required. In earlier days, it was the usual highest regular rank. Lieutenant General was a special senior rank, usually commanding an army. In the United States, Washington was the first and only Lieutenant General until the Civil War. The ranks of General and Field Marshal (U.S., General of the Army) were used later in a kind of rank inflation or competition between the officers of allied armies. American generals are identified by stars, from one for a brigadier, to five for general of the army. In most armies, stars are used for the ranks from second lieutenant to captain. An aide-de-camp is a junior officer of any rank, or even a civilian, reporting personally to a general officer, as an adviser, messenger or trusted agent. In the 19th century, the word was spelled aid-de-camp by many in the U.S., as apparently sounding more masculine, and confusing the man with his service.
Spanish officer ranks were: sub-teniente, teniente, capitán, comandante, teniente-coronel, coronel, general de brigada, general de divísion, teniente-general, and capitán-general. Other ranks are occasionally met with, such as mayor and mariscal de campo, or field marshal, a rank probably originated by Napoleon. The generalísimo is the commander-in-chief. The Mexican army had the same distinction between militia and line (regular) units and ranks as existed in the United States.
If there were vacancies in the officer ranks of a regiment, junior officers from elsewhere could be assigned to these positions and given a brevet rank suiting the post. Their permanent rank still depended on seniority in their own regiments. Regular army officers assigned to volunteer units often had brevet rank far above their regular rank. A regular captain could easily become a brevet brigadier general (Grant is an example). Volunteer regiments were named or numbered, as the 11th Illinois Regiment, and often nicknamed as well. The adjutant of a regiment was responsible mainly for personnel matters, and usually had the rank of Captain. Majors, Lieutanant Colonels and Colonels are called field-grade officers.
The basic infantry weapon was the smoothbore musket, with flint or percussion lock. Flintlocks were used from about 1630 to as late as the 1840's. (The troublesome matchlock disappeared much earlier.) Powder, ball and bullet were eventually combined in a cartridge wrapped in stout paper. The cartridge was torn open, the powder poured down the muzzle with the wad and bullet rammed on top of it. Some powder was placed in the firing pan, or a prepared percussion cap was put in place. Rate of firing was a very important quality of an infantry unit. Although fighting was often done in formation in early times, later infantrymen fired from cover or from rifle pits, later called "foxholes." Muskets were equipped with bayonets, turning the weapon into a pike for close combat, after the charge had been fired. The rifle, in which grooves in the barrel gave the bullet a spin, was more accurate than a musket, but slower-firing and mechanically more troublesome. Early rifles were long and not well-adapted to bayonets. Around 1812, the infantry musket was a flintlock of .70 caliber, with a range of about 100 yd, while .40 caliber rifles had a range of 300 yd. A stand of arms was the individual equipment of one man, including things like a ramrod, powder horn and other equipment in addition to the weapon itself. This should not be confused with a stack of arms, which is three firearms making a tripod for temporary storage. Firearms should not be laid on the ground.
The term "half cock" comes from the way a rifle lock was designed. The hammer could be drawn back to this first detent so that it was free of the flint or whatever to allow adjustments. This may have uncovered the pan to allow priming, since this was usually covered by the steel "frizzen" that the flint struck. At "full cock" it was drawn back all the way against the hammer spring and held by a second detent. When the trigger was pulled, both detents were withdrawn, and the hammer descended to strike the flint or percussion cap. If the trigger were pulled at half cock, the gun would probably not fire.
The basic artillery weapon was the smooth-bore cannon on a 2-wheeled carriage. The trail of the carriage was carried on a limber, with two wheels and harness, for movement. To "limber up" meant to put the trails on limbers in preparation for moving. Ammunition was carried in special wagons called caissons. Horses pulled the limbers and caissons. Gunners either marched or rode. When in battery, the cannon were restrained to limit recoil. The charge consisted of powder, wad and shot. Shot was spherical (since the barrel was not rifled, and a nonspherical projectile would tumble), and could be solid, canister ("grapeshot" containing bullets), chain shot, or exploding shell. It was impossible to control the explosion of shells accurately with the usual time fuzes. Artillery was usually employed "point-blank" in level fire over short ranges, acting as a barrier to infantry advance. It was extremely effective when massed in this way, rather ineffective when scattered as individual pieces. Mortars gave high-angle fire, lobbing shells into fortifications at short range. Howitzers were cannon for launching explosive shells at medium angles of elevation, commonly used by infantry units. Shells often did not explode as desired, since the simple time fuze was inaccurate. When they exploded as intended, fragments rained down on men beneath them, perhaps in trenches or behind cover. Percussion fuzes were used to good effect by the Prussian forces in the War of 1870. They tended not to explode in soft ground, however. Shrapnel was a special kind of ammunition composed of bullets in a casing ("grapeshot"). It was projected from a cannon, and then blown apart by a small charge. The name later was attached to the fragments of an exploding shell. The size of an artillery piece was usually stated by the weight of iron shot that it threw. Howitzers were specified by diameter of the barrel, a practice that later became universal for all artillery pieces. Artillery in the field had to be carefully protected from the enemy by infantry or cavalry, since it could not move rapidly.
A term you may run into is "spiking" a cannon to render it useless. Smoothbore cannon were fired by bringing a light to the touch hole, which was the opening of a hole drilled through to the barrel, and filled with powder to act as a fuse. To spike a cannon, a tapered steel pin was driven into the touch hole with a hammer until it was flush with the surface, or cut off flush. This pin could not be easily drawn out again (there was nothing to hold on to), and had to be laboriously drilled out before the cannon could be used again.
Cavalry originally fought with sabers and lances, but short firearms that could be fired while mounted later became universal. It is very clumsy to manage a musket or rifle while mounted (two hands are required), and long-range fire is impossible. The saber was still always used for close combat, however. Repeating magazine carbines, which appeared in the 1860's, made cavalry very efficient, especially against infantry armed with muskets with slow firing rates. Until late in the Civil War, the US Army badly misused cavalry, spreading it out in small detachments as pickets and guards. Cavalry was most effective when in large massed units, which could move rapidly and had great shock power. American dragoons were armed with sabers and two pistols. Dragoons fought from horseback, mounted infantry dismounted to fight with muskets or rifles. They were each most effective on their appropriate terrain (open and smooth for dragoons, wooded or rough for mounted infantry).
The copper percussion cap, generally separate, was introduced around 1830. The Prussian army adopted the Dreyse needle gun (the needle was the firing pin) in 1843, but it was not seriously used until 1866, in the Austro-Prussian war. A Prussian rifleman could get off six shots to an Austrian's one, so easy was it to reload with brass cartridges. This very rapidity of fire made some military authorities reluctant to adopt breech-loading rifles, since soldiers "would use up their ammunition too rapidly." Such was the competence of these experts! Many historians, not experienced with rifles, vastly overstate their useful ranges. Most soldiers can effectively use a rifle at ranges only up to 100 to 200 yards, which was the very limit for smoothbore muskets. It is difficult to produce aimed fire at 400 or 500 yards, simply because of the nature of open sights (which were universally used). Certainly a good breech-loading rifle, like the French Chassepot of 1866-1874, could send a bullet 1000 yards and more, but it could not be aimed at such a range. The ultimate sensitivity of the eye corresponded to a transverse distance of a foot or so in this case, so whether a bullet would hit a target was a matter of pure chance. However, at normal ranges the new rifles were much more effective.
The introduction of breech-loading rifles, which could fire much more rapidly than muzzle-loaders, and of rifled, breech-loading artillery pieces, as well as machine guns (mitrailleuses, Gatling guns) fundamentally changed battle tactics. The mass cavalry charge became suicidal, so the traditional role of cavalry, as a shock arm, vanished. Only reconnaissance and raiding duties remained for it. Close-order infantry formations, that provided assurance and courage to the soldier, were also impossible. Infantry now had to advance as skirmishers, taking advantage of cover and concealment and perhaps adopting the attractive alternative of "getting lost." Artillery became dominant in the field, and counter-battery fire could now prove effective, with the increased range and accuracy. Artillery was now part of the attack, not a defensive barrier or a reserve strength, as it had been regarded by Napoleon. These changes were just beginning at the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), but were fully apparent in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, which is still an excellent example, well worth study. Added to the capabilities of the railway and telegraph, introduced at about the same time, warfare was fundamentally altered in these years.
In the 20th century, aircraft and armor again changed battles significantly. The one was difficult to hit, from its speed and height, while the other was oblivious to small arms. Armor reprised the role of cavalry as a shock arm, while aircraft were a very mobile and long-range sort of artillery. However, these developments are beyond our scope here.
Troops on campaign were issued several days' rations, which they carried in their haversacks. A ration is a standard amount of food required for one soldier for one day. In the U.S. Army, a ration in 1812 included 20 oz. of beef or 12 oz. salt pork, 18 oz. flour or bread, 4 oz. rum, brandy or whiskey, salt, vinegar, soap and candles. Also issued were corn meal, biscuit (hardtack), coffee and sugar. Soldiers cooked their own food, in general, over a campfire. The commissary (an officer) was responsible for the food supply, often obtaining it from local contractors who dealt with individual farmers. Since money was involved, corruption was rife. Soldiers also carried their weapons, ammunition, a bed roll and spare clothing, especially spare socks and boots, and perhaps a bandage. At night, a bivouac would be made, where the men slept on the ground in the open. (bivouac comes from the German Beiwacht, and is an old term.) At intervals, the wagon train would come up, and camp was made, with tents for sleeping and kitchens for hot food. A good site for a camp offered wood for fires, water for men and animals, grass for grazing, and a good position for defense, with ample views and not dominated by high ground. The quartermaster was responsible for these things and general supplies. The paymaster paid the troops. Ammunition and other supplies were replenished in camp. The care of mounts placed special demands on the cavalry. Horses had to be watered, fed and rested in order to do their best.
Soldiers' needs and luxuries that were not supplied by the quartermaster or commissary were catered to by sutlers and other camp followers. These individuals were useful, perhaps essential, but often engaged in gambling, swindling, trickery and sharp practice, especially around payday. They often encroached on government transport and supplies, and could be a cover for spies and saboteurs who mingled with them. The worst cases were handled severely by the Provost Marshal, who usually kept a close surveillance. Sutlers sold alcoholic beverages, cards and dice, stationery, personal items such as combs and razors, delicatessen, knives, pornography and newspapers, or anything by which they could make a profit. Prostitutes also hung about, and to banish them would cause a mutiny. We know a canteen as a soldier's water bottle, but the word was also used for his mess kit. The canteen was more significantly an official establishment where a soldier could purchase food, liquor and other essentials without relying on sutlers. There were dry canteens that sold tobacco and foodstuffs, and wet canteens that sold mainly alcoholic beverages.
A army could forage for fresh food and fodder for its animals, otherwise called robbing it from the locals. In the absence of such loot, the army fell back on staple supplies, such as salt pork, hard tack and dried apples. Horses were the chief sufferers when forage was scanty, because an army could not carry much feed with it, and many horses preferred corn or oats, not grass. A cavalry unit could carry none, since wagons could not keep up with it. Horses that could subsist on grazing were more useful than the finer horses requiring oats and corn. Water was a continuing concern, for both men and animals. Bad water supply often spread communicable disease. In spite of all this, armies of the 19th century could operate in much more difficult and isolated campaigns than today's armies, which depend on fragile, complex supply systems. The conveyances that carry the supplies and support equipment of an army on the move are called its trains. This does not imply wagons connected together, or anything like that, but simply a column of wagons or pack animals.
Transport was a very difficult matter, and often determined the course and outcome of campaigns. Wheeled vehicles, such as wagons and artillery, require prepared roads and bridges to be capable of moving with any speed or reliability. A "road" was often just a track from which trees had been cleared to permit wagons to pass, laboriously and slowly. There was, of course, no continual maintenance of such roads after they were made. Only pack animals, carrying perhaps 300 pounds each, can be used on primitive trails, and make 12-15 miles per day in good conditions. In marshes and mud, pack animals sometimes required causewayed paths, raised above the muck. In either case, supplies move no faster than men on foot. Canoes on rivers were generally faster than horses on land. River transport was best when it could be had, but streams tended to have too little or too much water in them, and were frozen for several months of the year. Infantry can march where cavalry and artillery cannot easily go. However, a hard freeze made it possible to cross water and swamps, and sledges became useful in snow. Railways and waterways, however, could move men and supplies rapidly and in large quantities with the aid of steam. Men and materiel were often moved in such masses by railways that poor planning in unloading and distribution created chaos. Rivers generally go where they list, and have varying amounts of water in them, but railways went in useful directions and were available at any season, besides usually having a telegraph line beside them. They are also unaffected by mud, which can slow an army to a crawl.
Parade ground drill is now used only for ceremonies, but it once had a very important role in giving commanders control over their men. Mass formations stiffened infantrymen in battle, and gave them courage. Units had to form line of battle from line of march, and were repositioned to meet threats from the flanks and other exigencies. Fighting in ranks prevented dispersal of units and encouraged bravery, but became impossible with rapid-firing weapons, and was useless against artillery, as was mentioned above. A rank is a line of men side by side, while a file is a line of men one behind another. A difficult, but essential, evolution for a unit was to wheel, where the ranks moved like spokes of a wheel, to face a different direction. In the United States, there was often very little training of volunteer militia units before they were sent into battle, whether of drilling or the manual of arms. Most, however, were well acquainted with the use of firearms, which was then not as simple as just pulling a trigger.
One of the most fundamental military principles is that an obstacle, to be effective, must be covered by fire, either by riflemen or artillery. Otherwise, it may inconvenience the enemy, but that is all it will do. Under fire, however, an obstacle is very difficult and expensive to pass. Another principle is that some force, a reserve, must be reserved for reinforcing threatened areas. If all the force is engaged, any breakthrough will be fatal. However, reserves can be sent to any area of unexpected enemy strength. A third principle is that every operation must have a definite, clearly-stated objective, either territorial or operational, and everything must contribute to the attainment of that objective. A fourth principle is the control of commanding ground, usually higher ground with good views, and fighting on ground of your own choosing, not the enemy's. A fifth principle, attributed to Frederick the Great, was that of concentration of force at a point of enemy vulnerability, which requires the ability to maneuver forces quickly and accurately.
Armies maneuver to achieve advantage. Surprise is, of course, one of the chief advantages. An effective maneuver is to "turn the enemy's flank," or to move so that your front faces the end of the enemy's line. Then, all your fire can be brought to bear on the limited width of the enemy's line and roll it up while he can reinforce his position only with difficulty. Also, it may be possible to advance farther and enclose the enemy, attacking him from the rear and threatening his supplies. For this reason, one tries to "anchor" a flank on an obstacle such as water, a cliff or gorge, or an impassable thicket. A classic maneuver is the encirclement, when both wings move around an enemy and close behind him. Often the enemy is enticed to advance by a feigned withdrawal in the centre. A dangerous movement is the "flank march" past an enemy lurking on one flank or the other. A spread-out column on the march is weak at every point against a flank attack, which may divide a force fatally. One should distinguish between tactics, or the detailed managment of small engagements, and strategy, large-scale plans that may involve political considerations. Tactics are a matter for company and field officers, strategy for generals.
The term "picket" is frequently met with. This referred originally to an isolated sentry or small squad of men, posted on a route of approach. A picket would not fight, on detecting an enemy in any force, but would set up an alarm as quickly as possible and retire into its lines. Like many military terms, this one comes from French, picquet, a general term for a detachment of men in a camp assigned a specific mission. A related concept is the chain of sentries within sight or earshot of each other, perhaps making a ring around a camp. These also became known as pickets, as in picket fence. Small detachments of cavalry roamed about, or "patrolled" an area. A vedette is a sentry with enhanced surveillance, perhaps stationed on a high point, or on horseback. Stragglers were men who had become separated from their units in the chaos and movements of battle, often voluntarily. There was a temptation to desert when in this situation, since one might be presumed to have been killed, and listed as "missing" in default of a body.
General commands to bodies of troops in the field were made by drum or bugle call. Reveille, Lights Out or Tattoo, and mess calls organized camp life. Charge and Retreat controlled movements in battle. There were drum rolls expressing these orders as well as bugle calls. Other calls brought the men to ranks and dismissed them. The orderly drum called unit commanders to the commander's side. The cavalry call "boots and saddles" told the unit to prepare to ride. Sergeants and corporals commanded the men around them by shouting. Flags and guidons showed where the command of the units was located, and provided rallying points.
An Officer of the Day, or OD, was a junior officer who saw that the guard was posted and efficient. This duty was passed around among the officers of a camp, fort or other installation. The guard ranged from the formal, decorative guards of Buckingham Palace to the serious and essential guard of a unit in the field facing an enemy. Troops detailed for guard duty bunked in a guard room, where the OD had an office, and were posted and relieved by the Corporal of the Guard, or his equivalent, who marched his detail around the guard posts. A guard occupied a fixed post, or had prescribed rounds to march while on duty. They challenged persons approaching their posts, asking for the password. They arrested drunken soldiers and pilferers, and watched for fire. The guard was specially necessary by night, but guards were also posted by day. Alarms were passed to the OD, who took the necessary action.
The principal means of communication was the messenger or courier. Every headquarters had a large number of these, who continually moved back and forth, usually on foot but sometimes mounted, carrying written messages. By mid-century, semaphore signalling with flags was used over short distances, and then the electromagnetic field telegraph came into use. However, the written message was the most common form of communication, and remained so for many years. The field telegraph was first extensively used by the United States Army in the Civil War, 1861-1865. Carrier pigeons could be used in certain circumstances, but it should be remembered that they return only to their home roosts when taken to a distance and released, so they can only be used on fixed routes, and in only one direction. During the Siege of Paris, 1870-71, coal-gas balloons were used to carry messages, pigeons and a few passengers out of Paris. The pigeons returned carrying photographically-reduced messages. This was insecure, but far better than nothing.
Observation of the movement of enemy troops was of great importance, since it reduced the chance of surprise and revealed opportunities for effective countermeasures. It was, however, very difficult until observations could be reported quickly by flags or telegraph, which was not possible until the 1860's. Hot-air observation balloons were used experimentally in the Civil War, with reports telegraphed from the basket to the ground. Similarly, observations were reported from high places by using signal flags. High-angle artillery fire where the point of impact is not visible from the field piece must also be guided by observation, unless it is just random shooting. The measures mentioned in this paragraph were not available in earlier times.
When casualties occurred, the wounded were quickly collected in places from which they could be sent to hospitals when transport was available. The dead were buried near where they fell by burial parties, often of local citizens. The presence of dead and wounded did not improve the courage and morale of the remaining troops, so they were removed from sight as soon as possible. The identification of fatalities was difficult, since they did not carry the "dog tags" that have improved the situation at the present day. Surgeons attended wounded soldiers on the field, but were probably not present in sufficient numbers. Generally, wounded troops were carried to the surgeon's tent for attention. More soldiers, however, died from disease than from any actions of the enemy, especially from contaminated water and insect-borne diseases. Camps, with their crowding and poor sanitation, were ideal ground for the spread of infection. The conditions in field hospitals did not improve until the latter half of the century, largely through the efforts of gallant women such as Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, and Mary Lincoln.
A parolewas a promise by a prisoner of war not to take up arms against his captors for the duration of the current conflict. On this promise, he was allowed to go free and return home. After the catastrophic Battle of Sedan in 1870, 550 French officers were released on parole. This offer was less often extended to enlisted men, because they were considered to have fewer scruples of honour, and were more difficult to account for. Sometimes it was permitted to whole garrisons after an honourable siege, who marched out "with the honours of war," keeping their arms. Parole lessened the considerable expense of keeping prisoners of war. Prisoners who were exchanged usually did not have to give paroles.
Classic sieges were still employed in the 19th century. The methods of attacking fortifications were worked out in the 17th century by classic military engineers like Vauban. Cannon had already rendered fortifications vulnerable since the late 14th century, and had only improved. The advance was by means of a series of parallels, deep trenches dug parallel to the walls. When one parallel was complete and guns were firing from it, a tunnel was dug forward and another parallel was extended. Finally, the wall, or glacis, was attained, and by sapping, mining and explosives a breach was made in the wall of the fortress. If this was judged a "material breach" that could be used for an assault, the defenders could honourably give up the struggle, and were usually allowed to depart with the honours of war, avoiding the grievous casualties to both sides in an actual assault. The sieges of Vicksburg and Petersburg in the American Civil War, and the sieges of Strasbourg and Paris in the Franco-Prussian War, are good examples of 19th-century sieges.
The United States Army consisted of regulars, volunteers and militia. In times of war, the militia made up about 90% of the Army. The regular army was officered by West Point graduates (the Military Academy opened in 1802), and was considered a career by both officers and men, with 5-year enistments the rule. In 1789, the regular army was only 840, in 1801, 5400, reduced to 3300 in 1802. Even as late as the Spanish-American War, a regular army of only 30,000 was authorized, and only 25,000 were actually supported. The regular army of today is huge by comparison. In 1890, 1 of every 2500 Americans was in the army. In 1990, 1 in 178 was in the active armed forces (about the same proportion was in prison). Promotion in the regular army was slow, and precedence was more carefully guarded than by the chickens in a henhouse. The Army was commanded by a Commanding General, who was a Major General, the highest rank, except for Lieutenant General Washington, and Winfield Scott in 1861. Regular army regiments were usually numbered, as the 1st Cavalry, or 4th Infantry. On an officer's uniform, rank was shown by straps on the shoulders, using symbols that are roughly the same as they are today.
In times of national emergency, calls for volunteers were issued. These volunteers joined regular army regiments, but were not considered permanent members, and often served only for the emergency. Volunteer should be distinguished from the militia, who were, of course, volunteers in a broad sense, but were supposed to be part of an existing military force.
Amendment II to the Constitution reads: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." The customs of the Roman Republic were looked to as the theory, where in times of national need citizens formed armies, bringing weapons with them, and placing themselves under the command of lawful authority. The perverse interpretation of this amendment in later days, when its purpose has been totally forgotten, is familiar to all. What it actually guaranteed is no longer available, and is indeed unwanted. It was deprecated by General Harrison that so few citizens prized the rights given by this Amendment. The arguments against a standing army as an instrument of a despotic state was always just theory; the effective reason was simply that no one wanted to support such an army, and the militia was a cheap way to provide for the necessary forces. General Harrison, and everyone else at the time, would have been astonished at the use of the amendment to allow the possession of firearms for general purposes in contradiction to law. The amendment merely guaranteed the survival of the militia system, under local control, in the United States.
It was generally possible to recruit militia for active service (whatever the theory) only for short periods of enlistment, and then only outside of planting or harvest time. When an area was under threat of Indian depredations, it was nearly impossible to induce men to leave their homes unprotected. The men were not paid, and were not supplied with uniforms and equipment, but only issued rations and ammunition. They were called "hunting shirt men" for this reason. The hunting shirt was an outer garment with fringes and other decoration, usually green--the camouflage suit of the 18th century. It would be called a jacket today. The "40-day men" often ate up supplies collected for a campaign after they were enlisted, then returned home before the action commenced. Such militia were untrained and unused to military discipline. Many showed up without weapons, or with strange rustic arms, and were given sticks to drill with. All able-bodied citizens were expected to appear at muster days, which did not amount to more than a battalion muster in the spring, and a regimental muster in the autumn. There was usually a fine for nonattendance. This was supposed to create a citizen army, but had as little effect as the measures for public education. Very little military training took place during muster days, which were famous for riot and drunkenness, and provided a background for droll stories.
William Henry Harrison clearly saw the defects in the militia system, and strove for reform when he was Congressman after 1816. His program advocated (1) military training at government expense; (2) universal service; (3) elementary military training in schools, and professors of tactics in seminaries. Congress was then, as always, averse to militia reform. Harrison's program was strictly in accord with the second amendment, and necessary for the amendment to have any real effect. He was luckier with pensions for war veterans and their widows and children, and in the recognition of the new South American republics.
Volunteer regiments often had officers that were political appointees, and commissions were frequently bought, with what amounted to bribes. Officers often sought fame and military glory, and were easy to insult, quick to take umbrage. Such officers affected splendid uniforms and fine horses, but were of very indifferent quality. In most cases, company or regimental officers were elected by the men, and the results, bad as they were, were often better than those achieved by political patronage or bribery. Often, volunteers objected to service under regular army officers, and regular troops under volunteer officers. Kentucky General Jo Daviess said that the "land is infested with generals so grossly incompetent" in 1811. The officers of General William Hull called him a "cowardly imbecile." Colonel John Boyd, commanding the U.S. 4th Infantry, a regular officer, called the militia an "untutored and undisciplined band." He was trying to form a camp in a hollow square on the way to Tippecanoe by shouting orders, and had got himself into a fine mess when General Harrison came up and straightened things out. Later, he demonstrated his general incompetence in New York.
The best of the militia units were the mounted infantry, such as those raised in Kentucky or Tennessee for the War of 1812. They moved rapidly, dismounting to fight as infantry, and were better-trained than the usual raw militia. Harrison greatly approved of them, and two regiments of mounted infantry were added to the regular army later. The way the army was organized in the War of 1812 (and later!) is demonstrated by the formation of a mounted infantry brigade of Ohio miliita under General Tupper in 1812. The companies of Captains Roper, Clarke and Bacon were ordered to form a battalion and elect a major (Roper was elected). This battalion was ordered to join R. M. Johnson's battalion and form a regiment. Johnson was elected colonel. This regiment was united with Colonel Findlay's regiment to form a brigade of about 800 men, and General Tupper was assigned the command by Washington City. The brigade mucked about south of the Maumee avoiding contact with the enemy as far as possible. Tupper delayed and fumbled, though encouraged by General Harrison to do something useful. The brigade ate the rations so arduously collected for them at the front, after which it returned to Urbana for more supplies.
The federal government and the states offered large bounties for enlistment, since citizens did not jump at the opportunity to serve their country, whatever they bellowed when drunk down at the tavern. Conscription, regarded as an evil French practice, was sometimes resorted to in order to satisfy the quotas. At the beginning of the War of 1812, a bounty of $8 plus 160 acres of land was offered for a 5-year volunteer enlistment. By 1814, the bounty had climbed to $124 plus 320 acres of land, a princely amount, showing how desperate was the search for soldiers. The buying of substitutes (a French practice) was also permitted. All this attracted swindlers, creating a business of enlistment brokering and bounty jumping that was endemic from then to the end of the Civil War. The Second Amendment guaranteed a right that nobody sought.
The militia could not reasonably be expected to display reckless courage under their conditions of service, when they were expected back home for the harvest after a short season of fighting. Short enlistments hampered every volunteer army until the Civil War, when enlistments were eventually made "for the duration." In some cases, it was simply a way to get a little cash (after the militia became paid) while doing an exciting job of only moderate danger. In 1820, a private soldier was paid only $6 per month, in addition to subsistence. The commissary provided basic rations for officers who could not afford better, since officer's pay was also low. Such troops could not reasonably be expected to make forlorn hope charges, or stand when attacked in the open by veteran regulars. Every surprise or reverse soon developed into a rout. Militias sometimes refused to fight outside of their own states, and many refused to cross the U.S. border. The best American commanders understood the limitations, and occasional strengths, of their militia and volunteers.
A militia was under the command of the Governor of its state, who appointed its officers. When called into federal service, the federal government assumed the burdens of paying the soldiers and supplying them, so states were usually eager to federalize their regiments. There was controversy over who should then name the officers, and this produced severe controversies between the Governors and the Secretary of War. Some militia units refused to serve under regular officers, and even the politics of the officers made a difference. The Republican Oxford County militia in Maine refused to take orders from the Federalist state militia officers, and warfare almost broke out between the militias.
The Indian wars that had been continual before independence only intensified as western settlement was pushed. The United States was at war with somebody, internally or externally, almost continuously in the 19th century, so there was a constant need for soldiers. Governors were ex officio Commanders in Chief of the state militias, and appointed the officers. Companies were organized by the citzens for the local Indian wars. In times of national emergency, a call was made on the state militias for regiments, that would then be supported by the Federal government. Private citizens, even as late as Theodore Roosevelt, could organize units and present them to the state. These regiments were organized, as best suited conditions, into brigades, divisions, corps and armies under officers appointed by the Secretary of War or the Commanding General. A Brigadier General commanded a brigade or division, a Major General a corps or army (roughly speaking). Theatres of war were commanded by Major Generals and called Departments. All this organization was laboriously created on the spot. A unified command was not achieved until 1864 under Lieutenant General Grant. Not until 1903 were there peacetime divisions and armies, and a Chief of Staff. These reforms came much later than similar reforms in the French and German armies.
The outstanding qualities of Indians as warriors has largely been forgotten or discounted. They were brave and skilled, far superior to their opponents, though much fewer in number. Their greatest defect was that they fought by mutual agreement, not by a unified command, and any important action required a great deal of talking and argument. They removed their dead and injured from the battlefield with great care, but fought a total war. The Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 was the first victory of the U.S. over the Indians where roughly equal forces were engaged. In the disastrous defeat of St. Clair in 1791 by the Miamis, where his whole army was lost, only 8 to 10 warriors were killed. Braddock's defeat in colonial times resulted in the deaths of only a few warriors. This was the rule, not the exception. Indians made excellent use of cover and concealment, and were much better marksmen than their enemies. An army sent against them could not make the normal use of scouts and patrols, which never returned if they were sent out, to keep themselves informed. Indians could easily evade sentries and infiltrate camps, moving silently and swiftly. General Harrison remarked that militia sentinels were "not very remarkable for their vigilance." Messengers sent through dangerous territory seldom were seen again. Indians did not make concerted mass attacks except where surprise or the situation gave some hope of quick victory, but were alert to attack isolated detachments and the unaware. New tactics were developed by General Wayne in the 1790's to meet this threat, and these tactics were adopted and improved by General Harrison in the early years of the next century. Most American commanders seemed unaware of them, and continued to walk into disaster.
Two instructive, interesting, and very well documented, conflicts of the mid-19th century are the United States Civil War (1861-65), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870). Excellent introductions will be found in:
S. Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative, 3 vols. (New York: Random House, 1958).
M. Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (New York: Macmillan, 1961).
Each of these references contains an extensive bibliography leading to further information. Readers should particularly seek first-hand accounts to avoid the conscious and unconscious biases (and sometimes ignorance, especially in technical areas) of secondary histories. Railways and telegraphs, as well as maps, are not adequately treated in general historical works.
Composed by J. B. Calvert, once 1st Lt. US Army Signal Corps
Created 26 March 2001
Last revised 26 August 2006