If you’ve attempted military research or genealogy no doubt you’ve run headlong into the many descriptive names of military units. And maybe you, like me, have come away scratching your head.
I know I had to take a big step back from my research to first understand what the different types of units were and what that meant for my ancestor’s experience in the war.
Today I offer a brief description of some of the key terms you’ll find in hopes of making your journey through this vocabulary and your research a little easier. Make sure you check out the additional references listed below.
Now known collectively as the National Guard, the local militia unit is the oldest type of military force in the American armed forces. As early as 1636, militia units were organized and administered by colonial towns and counties. Able-bodied male citizens between the ages of sixteen and sixty were organized into companies to defend against Natives, foreign powers, criminals, and pirates.
During the Civil War, militias were increased in size, but still generally stayed within the boundaries of their local jurisdictions.
Militias vs. “state guards” and “home guards”:
Similar units, known variously as “state guards” or “home guards” were created for service within the borders of their own state. Such units, often composed of those outside the normal parameters for enlistment such as age and health, were generally meant to serve as last-resort defenses or for rounding up deserters from army units, especially in the Confederacy.
In some cases, all men not already enlisted in a militia or volunteer unit were required to sign up with the home or state guard. These units sometimes ran into problems of conflicting loyalties – either to the state governor or to the Confederate or Union government. Also, in some states home or state guard units were raised by both sides, as was the case in Missouri.
Most Civil War regiments were made of volunteers raised by the states. Volunteer units were often formed within the soldiers’ neighborhoods, states, or territories of residence, lending decidedly regional compositions to those units. Some enlisted in the Regular Army or were assigned to Regular Army units as well. And some who had emigrated westward enrolled in units formed at their place of birth or previous residence.
President Lincoln’s April 15, 1861, proclamation called for 75,000 militiamen from the loyal states and territories to suppress the rebellion in the southern states. Subsequent proclamations and Congressional Acts increased the size of the Regular Army and Navy, and also called for additional volunteers and militiamen.
States and territories met the requirements by activating the militia, calling for voluntary enlistments, and instituting drafts. The majority of Volunteer units were organized by the states, but a few Volunteer units were organized by the federal government as well. Volunteer units were usually put under the command of Army officers and served alongside Regular Army units. The Federal Draft system, created by Congress in 1863, superseded the state and territorial draft systems.
The various draft systems were often inequitable and disorganized. There were many ways to be exempted from the draft, including reasons that are still in place, such as physical or mental disability, or familial obligations. Other reasons may seem outlandish now, such as the exemption of the planter class in the Confederacy. Even for those who were called to service, there were ways out, such as sham medical examinations. Additionally, many who were called up simply disregarded the summons. Others would hire someone to take their place, as was allowed under the laws of the time. This led to a decidedly lower-class characterization of the average draftee and contributed to the negative views of draftees among many other servicemen. In the Union Army, only about 8% of the 2,100,000 soldiers were brought in via the draft, and three quarters of those were paid substitutes, meaning only 2% of the fighting force were drafted themselves. Confederate conscription was more widespread. It was resisted by citizens on both sides.
The Regular Army is also known as the Standing Army or simply the Army. This is the professional force that originated as the Continental Army, later known as the Legion of the United States, and eventually took the name United States Army in 1796. During the Civil War, regular units in the Union Army were designated with the suffix USA.
Thanks to Stephen J. Buffat, genealogist, for initial research on this topic.
The Civil War Archive – Regimental Index
National Park Service – Searchable index of military units and more
Minnesota History Center – Info on military organization
The Missouri History Museum – On the Missouri Home Guard and Enrolled Missouri Militia
Chambers II, John Whiteclay, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Escott, Paul. Military Necessity: Civil-Military Relations in the Confederacy. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006.
Geary, James W. We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991.
Leach, Jack F. Conscription in the United States: Historical Background. C.E. Tuttle Publishing: Rutland, Vt., 1952.
Moore, Albert Burton. Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy. New York: Macmillan, 1924.