The Chain of Command

Posted by | May 4, 2016 | All Things Security

Battle of GettysburgBy the early summer of 1863, the American Civil War was in its third year.  In the early days casualty figures that would have been considered unimaginable, were now becoming common statistics.  By the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, those statistics were about to soar to new heights. 51,000.  Unlike modern warfare, Civil War casualties extended across the whole army. General officers, who led their divisions and brigades, were exposed to the same hazards as the private soldier.

I read on the Civil War trust website while researching this short piece, and I quote: “Of 120 generals present at Gettysburg, nine were killed or mortally wounded during the battle. No other battle claimed as many general officers.” (The Civil War Trust, “Ten Facts about Gettysburg”, 2014, page 1, fact 4).

I mentioned senior officer fatalities to introduce the difference between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia, and how high-ranking fatalities placed confusion on the Confederate formations.  When compared side by side, it’s easy to visualize why General Robert E. Lee was at a disadvantage.  Not through lack of numbers, as some might think, but organization and funding!  Those weaknesses likely contributed to periods of disorganization when the Confederate army was spread over large areas.  To simplify this explanation lets look at two private soldiers.

A private soldier in the Army of the Potomac was organized and funded by the Federal Government and supplied through the Quartermaster General.  The structure of the army was based on a standard military numerical system that remained constant.  At Gettysburg, a Private soldier of Company D, 44th New York Infantry Regiment, was part of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 5th Corps, of the Army of the Potomac.  The army being administered through a single branch it was under no ‘state’ restrictions when organizing its brigades and divisions.  Therefore, the 3rd Brigade consisted of the 16th Michigan, the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the 20th Maine. The Private soldier I mentioned, if during the battle his brigade or divisional commander was killed, he was still a member of the 44th New York, in the 3rd Brigade, of the 1st Division, etc.

His Confederate counterpart, in the Army of Northern Virginia, was organized much differently.  The South, who seceded from the north over states rights to self-government; locally funded their own regiments.  If North Carolina for example, raised fifty-seven regiments, those regiments were funded by North Carolina.  They consisted solely of North Carolina soldiers.  If an officer was killed or wounded, a replacement had to be found within the regiment.  Not necessarily the right man, based upon experience and tactical ability, but the right man geographically.

The Army of Northern Virginia was structured not around the more familiar numerical system used by many global armies, but a unique system of naming regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps, after their commanders.  A Private soldier in Company D, 8th Virginia Infantry Regiment, was part of Garnett’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division, Longstreet’s Corps, of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The army structure was based upon grouping regiments from within the same states for ease of funding and resupply.   For example, Garnett’s Brigade consisted of the 8th, 18th, 19th, 28th, and the 56th Virginia Regiments.

Using the same comparison I mentioned above, Brigadier General Richard B. Garnett was killed during Pickett’s Charge.  Therefore, the private soldier in the 18th Virginia would have started the battle in Garnett’s Brigade, and finished it in Peyton’s Brigade.  As officers were killed units were changing names.  Nobody knew what unit they were in until after the end of days fighting.

~Steve McConnell

Image Source

Title: Hancock at Gettysburg.
Description: Digital print based on the painting called Hancock at Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup, May 1887. Shows Major General Winfield S. Hancock riding along the Union lines during the Confederate bombardment prior to Pickett’s Charge.
Date: 1887.
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Bookmark of this record:
Original print by: Thure de Thulstrup


C. (2014). Ten Facts About Gettysburg. Retrieved April 25, 2016, from


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