The Administration of the Union Army

Part 1

      To understand what manner of army it was that fought the battles of the Union one must read the spirited accounts of Bruce Catton and Bell I. Wiley, along with the caustic criticisms of Fred A. Shannon and General Emory Upton. Here there is space for a consideration only of some of the basic problems which confronted the new armies. In the first enthusiasm of volunteering, there grew up the practice of permitting individuals to take the initiative in raising regiments, and thus overnight to become colonels, with brigadier-generalships thereafter easily attainable. On August 6, 1861, it was officially stated that the war department "had accepted twice as many regiments from independent agencies as from state executives." This was usually done to please friends of those in power or to recognize known military ability. The governors opposed the practice; but, though it was pointed out that "the numerous skeleton organizations created unnecessary competition and resulted in no regiments being enlisted to full strength," the war department continued the policy. The clear-sighted Governor Andrew of Massachusetts was one of those who protested; and his imbroglio with General B. F. Butler well illustrates the baneful results of the system. Against Andrews wishes Butler obtained an order authorizing him to raise six regiments in the New England states. A serious deadlock ensued because of clashes of authority between the state governors, whose power to appoint officers of volunteers was recognized by the Federal government, and General Butler, whom the war department placed in command of the "Department of New England" with six states under his jurisdiction for recruiting purposes. It was only with the resignation of Cameron and the abolition of the "Department of New England" that this Butler-Andrew quarrel was adjusted.
        One aspect of Union military policy was the failure to make effective use of the existing regular army. General Upton has pointed out that "the difficulties of recruiting regulars in competition with volunteers, would have suggested the reduction of the line of the Army to a cadre, and the dispersion of its officers as commanders and instructors among the new troops." "Had this course been adopted," he adds, "every regiment of volunteer infantry, cavalry, and artillery might have bad a regular officer for a leader, and with these to guide the instruction, three months would have sufficed to give us an army in fair drill and discipline." There was, indeed, a law of Congress which authorized (but did not direct) the commanding general to make such use of regular army officers, but not being mandatory it was permitted to remain a dead letter. Statistics reveal that "while only one-quarter of the . . . graduates [of West Point] in service [when the war broke out] rose to the rank of general officer, more than one-half of those [graduates] who came back from civil life attained the same grade Uptons conclusion is that the preference for amateurism in the army and the departure from military standards prolonged the war, entailing a "useless sacrifice of life and treasure," and that for this result "our military counselors at Washington were chiefly responsible."
        Another mistake was that of permitting the men to elect their officers. Though this was not the usual method, yet the practice, especially as to officers below the rank of colonel, was "widespread," and was "recognized by both state and federal governments." By the act of July 22, 1861, this unmilitary method was written into Federal law. For the filling of vacancies in the volunteer forces, this act provided that each company should vote for officers as high as captain, above which vacancies were to be filled by the votes of the commissioned officers. This provision, said General Upton, incorporated the "worst vice known in the military system of any of the States," for it "tempted every ambitious officer and soldier to play the demagogue." In an army where such practices prevailed, it was but natural that "the politician, lawyer, or tradesman, if an officer, looked upon his men as clients, customers, constituents, or rivals." On August 6, 1861, this section was repealed; " and in the later years of the war there was a noticeable tightening of discipline.
        In such vital matters as food, clothing, and bedding the Union soldier was well supplied by the standards of the period. They had "the most abundant food allowance of any soldiers in the world" at that time, infinitely more than the Confederates had. Bread, meat, and coffee were the staples of army diet. Like all soldiers in all wars, Union troops complained vigorously about the quality of their victuals. "The boys say that our 'grub is enough to make a mule desert, and a bog wish he had never been born," an Illinois corporal wrote in 1862. Almost with pride another soldier counted "32 worms, maggots &c" in a single piece of his hardtack. Their salt pork, which they called "sowbelly" or "salt horse," seemed at times "so strong it could almost walk its self." During the early days of the war and during all periods of rapid movement and active fighting there was some basis for these grumblings, but on the whole the Union soldier seldom suffered from hunger. During the first months of the war many army uniforms were made of "shoddy," which, to quote a contemporary writer, consisted of "the refuse stuff and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued, and smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth." Naturally during the first rainstorm the soldiers "found their clothes, overcoats, and blankets, scattering to the winds in rags, or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust." But after the first year or so, these supply contracts were cleaned up, and thenceforth "Billy Yank had relatively little ground for complaint as to the quality of clothing received from the quartermaster.
        As to munitions, at the outset the Union army was supplied with virtually every kind of small firearm in existence. So difficult was it to purchase equipment, thousands of men were initially given smoothbore muskets, hastily converted from flint to percussion locks; others received outmoded European firearms. As the war continued, however, the standard infantry weapon became the Springfield or Enfield rifle. These were accurate and reliable but difficult to load. Robert V. Bruce has described the "tedious process a soldier had to go through to load and fire the regulation Springfield muzzle-loading rifle":

       "Reaching into his cartridge pouch, the soldier took out a paper cartridge containing the powder charge and the bullet. Holding this between his thumb and forefinger, he tore it open with his teeth. Next he emptied the powder into the barrel and disengaged the bullet with his right hand and the thumb and two fingers of the left. Inserting the ball point up into the bore, he pressed it down with his right thumb. Then he drew his ramrod, which meant pulling it halfway out, steadying it, grasping it again and clearing it. He rammed the ball halfway down, took hold of the ramrod again, and drove the ball home. He then drew the ramrod out and returned it to its tube, each movement again in two stages. Next he primed his piece by raising it, half cocking it, taking off the old cap, taking a new one out of the pouch and pressing it down on the nipple. At last he cocked the gun, aimed it and fired. And if he had a particular target in mind, which was unlikely in all the excitement, he probably missed it clean."

        Breech-loading rifles were not supplied, except in small numbers and to select groups of sharpshooters and cavalrymen. It has been seriously argued that had the war department introduced the breech-loader the war might have been ended in the first year. Certainly President Lincoln kept up an insistent pressure upon his stubbornly conservative Chief of Ordnance, James W. Ripley, to adopt the new weapon. But, in defense of the war department, it must be noted that in 1861 the breech-loader was an untested and imperfect weapon, which, in any case, could not be mass-produced in either America or Europe. Though highly useful for mobile troops, the breech-loader, at this stage of its development, had serious disadvantages for the ordinary infantryman. "It was not the breech-loader alone," Kenneth P. Williams observes, "hut the breech-loader plus smokeless powder that completely altered infantry combat. With a breech-loader a man could load while lying down. That was a great gain, but the smoke from the black powder quickly revealed his position."
        One of the most flagrant blunders in the army was the introduction of the bargaining or mercenary factor by an elaborate system of bounties. At the beginning of the war city and state authorities began the practice of offering money bonuses to recruits; and it was not long before the Federal government adopted the practice. Sanctioning a war department practice already in use, Congress on July 22, 1861, added a bounty of $100 over and above the regular pay of volunteers; and by 1864 the Federal bounty for new recruits had increased to $300, with an additional $100 for veterans. When conscription was introduced, the "peculiar horror of the draft" which pervaded the country served powerfully to stimulate the bounty system, which eventually reached amazing proportions and produced serious consequences. With cities, counties, states, the national government, and private organizations bidding for recruits, the sums spent for this purpose reached enormous figures. Cook County in Illinois, for instance, spent $2,801,239 for bounties; Henry County, $260,548; Bureau County, $616,862; and all the counties of Illinois, $13,711,389. In addition they spent considerable sums for transportation, subsistence, and the relief of soldiers families. In New Jersey there were more than one hundred laws passed at one session of the legislature authorizing various districts to incur obligations for this purpose. New York spent over $86,000,000; the total for the states and localities for the latter half of the war was in excess of $286,000,000; that of the national government more than $300,000,000. To figure the grand total of the country's mercenary bill would require the inclusion of various other items such as substitute fees; it is the estimate of Dr. Shannon that this total "could not be far short of three-quarters of a billion dollars."
        Nor can it be said that the results of the bounty system justified the means. On the contrary the results were pernicious, raising the price of substitutes, retarding enlistment (for prospect of a higher bounty would cause men to hold back, if money was the motive), producing a low class of men known as "bounty brokers," and creating the practice of "bounty jumping." With no intention of serving in the army, a man would enlist in one locality, collect the cash bounties there, desert, and enlist under a different name in another locality, and repeat the practice as long as he could evade detection. Some bounty jumpers "enlisted as many as twenty times and received as much as $8,000 per man." In one case a man "confessed to having 'jumped the bounty thirty-two times."
        Meanwhile the pay of the soldier, though high in comparison with that in European armies, was far below prevailing wage scales. At the beginning of the war the pay was $11 a month; by 1864 it was increased to $16, but the increase was more than offset by the depreciation of the greenback. The enormous amounts spent for bounties, if the intention was actually to put the money to the use of soldiers or their families, might better have been devoted to increasing the soldiers regular pay.
        In view of the conditions which prevailed in the war department and in the Union army, it is not surprising that desertion was a common fault. Even so the actual extent of it, as shown in official reports, comes as a distinct shock. Though the determination of the full number is a bit complicated, the total would seem to have been well over 200,000. From New York there were 44,913 deserters according to the records; from Pennsylvania, 24,050; from Ohio, 18,354. The daily hardships of war, deficiency in arms, forced marches (which sometimes made straggling a necessity for less vigorous men), thirst, suffocating heat, disease, delay in pay,29 solicitude for family, impatience at the monotony and futility of inactive service, and (though this was not the leading cause) panic on the eve of battle-- these were some of the conditioning factors that produced desertion. Many men absented themselves merely through unfamiliarity with military discipline or through the feeling that they should be "restrained by no other legal requirements than those of the civil law governing a free people"; and such was the general attitude that desertion was often regarded "more as a refusal ... to ratify a contract than as the commission of a grave crime."
        The sense of war weariness, the lack of confidence in commanders, and the discouragement of defeat tended to lower the morale of the Union army and to increase desertion. General Hooker estimated in 1863 that 85,000 officers and men had deserted from the Army of the Potomac, while it was stated in December of 1862 that no less than 180,000 of the soldiers listed on the Union muster rolls were absent, with or without leave. Abuse of sick leave or of the furlough privilege was one of the chief means of desertion. Other methods were: slipping to the rear during a battle, inviting capture by the enemy (a method by which honorable service could be claimed), straggling, taking French leave when on picket duty, pretending to be engaged in repairing a telegraph line, et cetera. Some of the deserters went over to the enemy not as captives but as soldiers; others lived in a wild state on the frontier; some turned outlaw or went to Canada; some boldly appeared at home; in some cases deserter gangs, as in western Pennsylvania, formed bandit groups.
        To suppress desertion the extreme penalty of death was at times applied, especially after 1863; but this meant no more than the selection of a few men as public examples out of many thousands equally guilty. The commoner method was to make public appeals to deserters, promising pardon in case of voluntary return with dire threats to those who failed to return. That desertion did not prevent a man posing after the war as an honorable soldier is evident by a study of pension records. The laws required honorable discharge as a requisite for a pension; but in the case of those charged with desertion Congress passed numerous private and special acts "correcting" the military record.

Part 2

        As to the central directing force in control of the army, the story is one of slow and confused evolution. Under the Constitution the President is named commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States, but Lincoln did not, of course, take to the battlefield in person. The Presidents principal military adviser at the outbreak of the war was General Winfield Scott, for whose "most distinguished character, as a military captain" Lincoln had great respect.2 Scott was, however, older than the national capitol and was physically incapable of commanding an army in the field. Consequently he was obliged to entrust actual battle operations to his subordinates, such as General Fremont in Missouri and General McDowell in Virginia. The staff of the army, if it can be so called, consisted of Scott and a few heads of departments and bureaus, such as the quartermaster general, the adjutant general, and the chief of ordnance. Civilian direction of the war effort would normally have fallen to Cameron, but the secretary of war was so inefficient that he shoved many of his duties off on Chase, the ambitious and able secretary of the treasury. As Chase later explained: "The President and Secretary of War committed to me for a time the principal charge of what related to Kentucky and Tennessee, and I was very active also in promoting the measures deemed necessary for the safety of Missouri. . . . While he was Secretary of War, General Cameron conferred much with me. I never undertook to do any thing in his department, except when asked to give my help, and I gave it willingly."
        The first battle of Bull Run showed the consequences of this system of divided responsibilities, and, as previously noted, Lincoln brought McClellan to Washington. For a time McClellan worked under Scott's direction, but the "Little Napoleon" soon came to regard the old general as "a fearful incubus" who "always comes in the way, . . understands nothing, appreciates nothing," and he began dealing directly with the President and the cabinet, ignoring his military superior. Finally, on November 1, 1861, McClellan forced Scott to retire and himself assumed the double roles of general-in-chief of all the Union armies and commander-in-chief of the forces in northern Virginia.
        But as winter passed into spring and McClellan failed to move against the Confederates, his enemies began to agitate against him. The first six months of 1862 saw a gradual whittling away of the generals extraordinary powers. On March 8 Lincoln, against McClellan's wishes, reorganized the Army of the Potomac by grouping its divisions into corps. The four corps commanders were not special friends of McClellan's but were chosen by the President from among "those elder generals whose point of view was similar to his own." Three days later, as McClellan was about to begin the Peninsula campaign, Lincoln relieved him of his duties as general-in-chief, restricting his role to that of commander of the Department of the Potomac. The same order showed that the new secretary of war had taken over from Chase the reins of civilian administration; it required "all the commanders of departments" to send "prompt, full, and frequent reports" to Stanton, rather than to McC1ellan. Though there was much political hostility and personal jealousy behind these anti McClellan moves, they were entirely justified. The general had attempted to do far more than any one man could have accomplished.
        While McClellan was fighting on the Peninsula, Lincoln and Stanton attempted personally to exercise a central direction over the war effort, notably in their effort to trap Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Painfully aware that he was "the depository of the power of the government and had no military knowledge," the President in March, 1862, sought to make a mentor of the elderly, retired, and ailing General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who, much against his will, accepted an ill-defined staff appointment as adviser to Stanton and Lincoln. The administrative machinery was further complicated when Stanton created an "army board" composed of chiefs of various bureaus of the war department.
        There was now great confusion in army control--no unity of command; no general-in-chief; Stanton and his bureau heads in exercise of functions which a general-in-chief should have performed; Lincoln, under political pressure, proclaiming army movements which were never carried out and withdrawing large units from McClellan's main force; corps commanders reporting first to the President, then to the secretary of war, then to the army board; councils of generals distant from the field being called into consultation on difficult operations; and, through it all, the committee on the conduct of the war exerting a never-failing interference.
        Order began to emerge from the chaos when Lincoln, on July 11, 1862, appointed General Halleck "to command the whole land forces of the United States as General-in-Chief. Though Halleck exhibited neither the daring nor the decisiveness which Lincoln had desired, he did have "the happy faculty of being able to communicate civilian ideas to a soldier and military ideas to a civilian and make both of them understand what he was talking about." His tiny office, which initially had only seven officers and sixteen enlisted men, did serve in some measure to give a central strategic direction to the war. Increasingly Secretary Stanton was allowed to devote his abundant energies to problems of procurement and 5upply. There was still a great deal of confusion and working at cross purposes for the President was not a man to revere any table of organization; moreover, after four months of personal command, he was not "satisfied to sit back and merely watch attentively."
        It was not until 1864 that the problem of organizing and administering the Union armies was 5atisfactorily solved. On March 12 Lincoln brought in Grant from the West and, naming him Lieutenant General, assigned him "to the command of the Armies of the United States." Halleck, relieved of his duty as General-in-Chief became "Chief of Staff of the Army under direction of the Secretary of War and the Lieutenant General commanding." Though not entirely free from flaws, the new arrangement did work. As T. Harry Williams remarks: "The arrangement of commander in chief, general in chief, and chief of staff gave the United States a modern system of command for a modern war. It was superior to anything achieved in Europe until von Moltke forged the Prussian staff machine of 1866 and 1870.

This Page last updated 02/10/02


This article consists of the first 2 parts of Chapter 18, The Civil War and Reconstruction, by J.G. Randall and David Herbert Donald.  Part 3 of this chapter may be found on this page:

Prisoners of the Civil War