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The first thing to be noticed when discussing the structure and organization of Regiments and Companies during the American Civil War is that there is often – in fact generally – a great difference between official textbook composition and the reality of the composition of an active veteran organization on campaign.
For instance many Infantry Regiments (including the 1st Virginia) fought part, most or all through the war without the full 10 Companies “official” to Regimental structure. Likewise, it was an unusual Company of Infantry which had the full complement of 100 Privates fresh and green at outset – much less after any degree of encamping, campaigning or combat.
Therefore the focus of this article shall be on the typical example rather than the textbook example.
The majority of Infantry Regiments did indeed possess ten Companies but there were many regiments with less and a few with more. Typically, each Regiment would have been raised in a particular state and each Company in a particular town, county or region of a state. In addition to the members of its Companies a Regiment would have on its rolls a number of persons as Regimental Staff. The Regimental Staff would typically be:
The Colonel is the commander of the Regiment. At the outset of the war most had no real military experience though some few were Mexican War Veterans or had spent time in the US Army or in an organized militia. The Colonel was likely a prominent or popular person who had done the most toward raising or recruiting the Regiment, though in the North he may also have been a political appointee with no real direct connection. In the South many Colonels spent considerable personal funds toward uniforming and arming their Regiment, an example of the philosophy and practice of Noblesse Oblige. Casualties were high among Colonels, partly due to the fact that early in the war many led their men into the thick of battle from the front, and often on horseback.
The purpose of the Lt. Colonel was to be a “support officer” and “right hand man” to the Colonel as well as to oversee the right wing of the regiment in line of battle. As the war progressed this position (and those of most “support” officers) became less common.
The Major is a jack-of-all-trades support officer who could be assigned anything from the leading of a detachment, to overseeing the left wing of the regiment in line of battle, to carrying important dispatches.
If present, the Sergeant Major is the highest ranking NCO in the regiment and has as his particular responsibilities making certain that the men are properly trained and drilled and that they keep their places in line of battle.
Those with Rank but Limited Authority:
Regiments were sometimes attended by a civilian doctor who was a volunteer and held no official military standing. But when the surgeon was an official member of the military he generally held officer’s rank (typically Captain at the regimental level) though his command authority was limited to his direct sphere of responsibilities.
Chaplains also were often civilian volunteers (especially in The South), a number of whom not only shared camp life with the men but even accompanied them into battle. Civilian preachers also commonly visited the army to perform Sunday services, baptize, pray for the sick and wounded, bring letters and food from home and hold revival meetings. Official Military Chaplains generally held officer’s rank (typically Captain at the regimental level) though their command authority was limited to their direct sphere of responsibilities. There were also many preachers who joined the army as Privates; fighting in the ranks, conducting services and seeing to the welfare of their fellow soldiers - many of whom may have been fellow congregants from their home churches.
The Regimental Quartermaster is responsible for ordering, receiving, protecting and issuing supplies to members of the regiment. At the Regimental level the Quartermaster is typically a Lieutenant but his authority is limited to his direct sphere of responsibility.
Some other personnel who may or may not be part of a Regimental Staff would be adjutant or aide, farrier, wagonmaster, cook and surgeon’s assistants. These would generally be Privates who were assigned distinct roles though they might be NCOs and an adjutant could possibly be a Lieutenant.
“By the book” a Company was to have 100 men. This figure was not usually met even with green recruits at the very outset of the war and once on campaign the reality was very different indeed. A veteran Company on campaign might typically have 20-30 actually present for duty. 40-50 men present for duty would make for a large Company and small Companies with as few as 10 present for duty were not uncommon. Each of these Companies would have been raised in a particular area (probably a specific town or county) of a given state. Many of the men in a Company (especially in The South or rural areas of the North) would have been friends, acquaintances or at least would have recognized one another from back home. In battle a company was either “in line of battle”, operating as skirmishers or being held in reserve. A large Company could be split into two Platoons which might be divided for differing purposes. Though other ranks may have been present the Captain and 1st Sergeant were considered the indispensable leaders of a Company of Infantry.
The Captain is the commander of the Company. Much of what has already been said regarding Colonels applies to Captains as well. Early in the war most had no real military experience though some few were Mexican War Veterans or had spent time in the US Army or in an organized militia. The Captain was likely a prominent or popular person who had recruited and organized the Company and then was either appointed and/or elected (as a formality) to their position. In the South many Captains spent considerable personal funds toward uniforming and arming their Companies, an example of the idea of Noblesse Oblige. Captains were battlefield commanders and casualties were high.
1st Lieutenant & 2nd Lieutenant:
The purpose of a Lieutenant was as a “support officer” to the Captain. At the formation of the company they were either appointed by the Captain or (sometimes) elected but from that point if any new lieutenants were created they were appointed. Lieutenants could be given command or oversight of a platoon. As the war progressed Lieutenants seem to have become less and less common, many Companies having none at all. As the size of Companies shrunk there was less need for more officers (the Captain being the only indispensable officer position) and an understanding that while leadership was very important, at the tactical level more rifles in line of battle meant more firepower delivered.
NCOs were sometimes elected when a company was first formed but afterwards were generally appointed to their rank by the Captain.
1st Sergeant, 2nd Sergeant, 3rd Sergeant, 4th Sergeant:
A Company might have as many as four (or more) Sergeants who were ranked in a definite hierarchical chain of command. The Sergeants were particularly responsible for drill, the appearance and orderliness of the men, the condition of equipment and for keeping everyone in their place in line of battle. Sergeants might also command a small detachment or be responsible for any particular duty or set of duties as assigned by the Captain. Along with the Captain a solid First Sergeant was considered an indispensable person in a good infantry Company.
1st Corporal, 2nd Corporal, 3rd Corporal, 4th Corporal:
A typical company might have as many as four (or more) Corporals. They assisted the Sergeants, had similar responsibilities and could be assigned oversight of small numbers of men or of particular tasks by the Sergeants. Unlike Sergeants, the Corporals do not outrank one another. They are designated as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. according to height, running from tallest to shortest.
Standard Bearer was not a rank though Standard Bearers were often NCOs. Being a Standard Bearer was considered a great honour with a great responsibility. The colours – whether national, state, regimental or company colours - were never to go down. Standard Bearers held the most dangerous position on the entire field as in the smoke of battle the waving standards often became a focal point for enemy fire. Early in the war Confederate Companies often each had their own Standard Bearers. As the war progressed it was far more common for one Company of a Regiment to be designated the “Colour Company” and thus be the only Company carrying standards into the regimental line of battle.
Those with Rank but Limited Authority:
Company Quartermasters were more common in the cavalry but were sometimes used in the infantry as well. The Company Quartermaster is responsible for receiving, protecting and issuing supplies to members of the Company. At the Company level the Quartermaster was typically a Sergeant but his authority was limited to his direct sphere of responsibility.
We are currently expanding and transitioning into a Regimental structure accommodating four Companies and Regimental staff. Leaders will gradually be identified/developed and trained sufficient to a minimum of one each of Captain, Sergeant and Corporal per company. A Regimental staff is being developed and could possibly include any, some or all of the following positions: Lt. Colonel, Major, Quartermaster, Surgeon, Chaplain, Sergeant Major, etc.
Letter from the Colonel dated September 30th, 2009
If interested in an NCO or Officer position:
The 1st Virginia Infantry and 1st Minnesota Infantry have gained great experience and been blessed to gain compliments and honours as each has portrayed an Infantry Company. Now, as we have grown and as we are preparing for events related to the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War we move forward toward a Regimental Structure of four Companies when all are portraying the 1st Virginia together or two smaller Battalions of two Companies each when dividing and portraying both the 1st Virginia and 1st Minnesota at the same event. Nevertheless, much of the information below is still applicable and particularly on any possible occasions where we may revert back to portraying one large company.
Rank in the 1st Virginia / 1st Minnesota is about exactly three things: Portrayal, Responsibility & Service. To wear the braid or stripes requires developing the correct portrayal and stepping up to greater responsibilities and a higher level of service toward fellow members and the public. Officers and NCOs have a heightened role and are held to greater expectations in our mission of inspirational, family friendly, historical education in service to others. Noblesse Oblige: Learn it, Live it. "To whom much is given much shall be required."
At the Company level the only officers we envisage currently are a Captain for the command of each Company. (This was not only common to historic veteran Infantry Companies but we discover it is almost always the case among our reenacting compatriots on the East Coast.) Thus, in Company vs. Company scenarios that means exactly one officer per side.
In terms of reenacting it is more valuable to have men in the line of battle - with a minimum requisite number of good officers as commanders and leaders and several good NCOs capable of handling detachments when necessary - than it is to have a superfluous number of officers. Reenacting groups with too high of an officer to soldier ratio don't look right or function well.
These guidelines do not effect specialty portrayals such as General Robert E. Lee.
At an event officers are responsible for leading their commands into battle and must be proficient at drilling and marching the troops, in giving orders and in carrying out orders. Officers are also responsible for encouraging morale and esprit de corps, for reminding and inspiring all by both word and deed of our mission of inspirational, family friendly, historical education in service to others and for overseeing both soldiers and civilians, looking out for their comfort, safety, welfare and enjoyment and ensuring that all duties, obligations and responsibilities are safely fulfilled.
We would like to expand the number of Sergeants and Corporals to at least two of each for both the 1st Virginia and 1st Minnesota.
Gentlemen who are desirous of and able to uphold the responsibilities entailed below should contact Col. Scott with their interest.
1) Must be an involved and regular participant in 1st VA / 1st MN activities.
2) Must have a proven record of safety, responsibility and the keeping of commitments.
3) Must have an obvious desire and willingness to serve both fellow members and the public at large.
4) Must have a demonstrated pattern of being on time.
5) Must be quick and responsive in communications – including email.
6) Must become personally proficient at drill and be willing and able to teach drill if necessary.
7) Must be willing to receive and give orders, to lead and to follow.
8) Must be able to responsibly and safely take command of a picket post or detachment if called upon to do so.
9) Must exhibit the qualities of a gentleman such as loyalty, generosity and helpfulness and be able to encourage and inspire both veterans and green recruits.
The 1st Sergeant is a particularly important position requiring an even greater level of proficiency and commitment. The 1st Sgt. is typically the acting second in command. Therefore he must be comfortable and confident in giving orders and must be able when called upon to lead and command on the march and on the battlefield. Even more so than other NCOs the 1st Sgt. must be personally proficient in drill and able to teach the same. The 1st Sgt. is also responsible for seeing that all are properly uniformed and equipped for battle as well as dressed appropriately while in camp. (Unless heat dictates otherwise, the men should have their jackets fully buttoned for battle but may go "top button only" in camp. Men should never be without jackets ("in their shirtsleeves") if ladies are or expected to be present.)
In addition the 1st Sgt. must be willing to take on any and all other responsibilities as needed and will embrace the duties of the 2nd and 3rd Sergeants if no 2nd or 3rd Sergeant is present.
2nd Sergeants will be held particularly accountable for the health and safety of the men. Seeing that all have remained fed and hydrated during the course of the day, that canteens are full and sunscreen worn, and that first aid supplies are on hand will be among the responsibilities of 2nd Sergeants.
In addition the 2nd Sgt. must be willing to take on any and all other responsibilities as needed and will embrace the duties of the 3rd Sergeant if no 3rd Sergeant is present.
3rd Sergeants will be responsible for overseeing the physical condition and cleanliness of the camp, setting up and tearing down, first aid supplies, stocks of water and stocks of firewood. The 3rd Sgt. will also be acting provost; responsible for security, posting camp guards and assigning tasks to cadets.
In addition the 3rd Sgt. must be willing to take on any and all other responsibilities as needed.
One of the above Sergeants will also – in addition to other duties – be the Quartermaster Sgt., responsible for overseeing the issuing and receiving of uniforms and equipment, keeping written records, creating awareness of damage or discrepancies and making certain that all is cleaned and safely and securely packed away at the end of the day or event.
Each Corporal will be assigned either (A) to be an assistant to the Captain or a particular Sergeant in his duties or (B) independent duties of his own.
In addition a Corporal must be willing to take on any and all other responsibilities as needed.
All NCOs have command authority to enlist Privates to assist them in their duties as necessary.
June 2009, Updated July 2010
Want to join the action?
Email the Colonel for details as to how you too can portray history as a Civilian with the 1st Virginia / 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
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