Combatants of the Civil War

The question of command was often a very vexed one, and many mistakes were made before the final answers came. The most significant of all emergent facts was this: that though the officers who had been regulars before the war did not form a hundredth part of all who held commissions during it, yet these old regulars alone supplied every successful high commander, Federal and Confederate alike, both afloat and ashore.

The North had four times as many whites as the South; it used more blacks as soldiers, and the complete grand total of all the men who joined its forces during the war reached two million and three-quarters. But this gives a quite misleading idea of the real odds in favor of the North, especially the odds available in battle. A third of the Northern people belonged to the peace party and furnished no recruits at all till after conscription came in. The late introduction of conscription, the abominable substitution clause, and the prevalence of bounty-jumping combined to reduce both the quantity and quality of the recruits obtained by money or compulsion. The Northerners that did fight were generally fighting in the South, among a very hostile population, which, while it made the Southern lines of communication perfectly safe, threatened those of the North at every point and thus obliged the Northern armies to leave more and more men behind to guard the communications that each advance made longer still. Finally, the South generally published the numbers of only its actual combatants, while the Northern returns always included every man drawing pay, whether a combatant or not. On the whole, the North had more than double numbers, even if compared with a Southern total that includes noncombatants. But it should be remembered that a Northern army fighting in the heart of the South, and therefore having to guard every mile of the way back home, could not meet a Southern one with equal strength in battle unless it had left the North with fully twice as many.

Conscription came a year later (1863) in the North than in the South and was vitiated by a substitution clause. The fact that a man could buy himself out of danger made some patriots call it “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” And the further fact that substitutes generally became regular bounty-jumpers, who joined and deserted at will, over and over again, went far to increase the disgust of those who really served. Frank Wilkeson’s “Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac” is a true voice from the ranks when he explains “how the resort to volunteering, the unprincipled dodge of cowardly politicians, ground up the choicest seed corn of the nation; how it consumed the young, the patriotic, the intelligent, the generous, and the brave; and how it wasted the best moral, social, and political elements of the Republic, leaving the cowards, shirkers, egotists, and moneymakers to stay at home and procreate their kind.” That is to say, it was so arranged that the foggy-witted lived, while the lion-hearted died.

The organization of the vast numbers enrolled was excellent whenever experts were given a free hand. But this free hand was rare. One vital point only needs special notice here: the wastefulness of raising new regiments when the old ones were withering away for want of reinforcements. A new local regiment made a better “story” in the press; and new and superfluous regiments meant new and superfluous colonels, mostly of the speechifying kind. So it often happened that the State authorities felt obliged to humor zealots set on raising those brand-new regiments which doubled their own difficulties by having to learn their lesson alone, halved the efficiency of the old regiments they should have reinforced, and harassed the commanders and staff by increasing the number of units that were of different and ever-changing efficiency and strength. It was a system of making and breaking all through.

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The end came when Northern sea-power had strangled the Southern resources and the unified Northern armies had worn out the fighting force. Of the single million soldiers raised by the South, only two hundred thousand remained in arms, half-starved, half-clad, with the scantiest of munitions, and without reserves of any kind. Meanwhile, the Northern hosts had risen to a million in the field, well fed, well clothed, well armed, abundantly provided with munitions, and at last well disciplined under the unified command of that great leader, Grant. Moreover, behind this million stood another million fit to bear arms and obtainable at will from the two millions of enrolled reserves.

The cost of the war was stupendous. But the losses of war are not to be measured in money. The real loss was the loss of a million men, on both sides put together, for these men who died were of the nation’s best.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2018.

About the Author –  The Combatants is the second chapter in William Charles Henry Wood’s Captains of the Civil War, A Chronicle of the Blue and the Gray, published in 1921 by Brook Glasgow in Toronto, Canada. Woods also authored a number of other books including The Father of British Canada: A Chronicle of Carleton, The Great Fortress: A Chronicle of Louisbourg, The Passing of New France: A Chronicle of Montcalm, The Winning of Canada: A Chronicle of Wolfe, and many others.



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