Breaking a Civil War code

In this photo, taken at Plymouth Street Peddler Days in Hanoverton, the first sergeant of artillery can be identified by the red three-stripe chevron with the diamond.

I watched a round of Civil War movies last week: “Gods and Generals,” “Gettysburg” and “Glory.” (What’s with all those “G” movies?) I enjoyed the movies, but I was hampered a bit by my ignorance of soldiers’ ranks, so I embarked this week on a study of Civil War army structure and rank, focusing mainly on the North.
From what I’ve learned so far, organization of armies and insignia of rank were about the same North and South. Northern armies took their names from rivers and Confederate from regions, thus the North, for example, had Army of the Tennessee and the South had Army of Tennessee.
An army was divided into corps, which were given Roman numerals and were composed on average of three divisions and contained about 36,000 men. Divisions consisted of two or more brigades and had about 12,000 men. Generals commanded armies, corps and divisions. A brigadier general commanded a brigade, which contained on average four regiments and consisted of 4,000 men.
A regiment, commanded by a colonel, consisted of 10 companies and about 1,000 men, although wartime attrition drastically reduced its numbers. The North raised new regiments rather than replenished existing units, so unit strength could be greatly reduced by battles. Regiments were numbered by state, and companies were lettered A through K, omitting J because it was similar to I. Strength of a Union company ranged from 83 to 101 officers and men. A captain commanded a company. Companies in artillery units were called batteries. Cavalry regiments were divided into battalions, each divided into four companies sometimes called troops. Remember the television comedy “F Troop”?
That was the easy part. I learned the organization of the Civil War army. Now to identify soldiers. I learned that several parts of the uniform indicated rank and branch of service, and this was more complex. I’m still learning, uniforms showed much inconsistency, and I’m not sure yet about variation between North and South.
The first clue is the rectangular patches on the shoulders. A lieutenant general, such as U.S. Grant and Stonewall Jackson, had three stars; a major general, two stars; and a brigadier general, one star. The colonel’s shoulder bar showed a spread eagle; lieutenant colonel and major, leaves of slightly different configuration; captain, two bars at each end of the shoulder board; first lieutenant, one bar at each end; and second lieutenant, no bars, just a blank field. The color of the field indicated branch: medium blue for infantry, yellow for cavalry, red for artillery, and dark blue for staff, generals and medical staff. These colors were also used on hat decorations. Noncommissioned officers wore rank indicators in the appropriate color for the branch of service on the sleeve. A sergeant major had a three-stripe chevron with an arched top, a first sergeant a three-stripe chevron with a diamond in the top of the “V,” a sergeant had a simple three-stripe chevron and a corporal had a two-stripe chevron. At left is Stonewall Jackson (Michael Lawson) at the Hale Farm 2010 Civil War weekend. You can see the stars on his collar, the braid on his sleeve, and the button pattern.
Many officers wore ornate knotted braidwork on their sleeves. The number of stripes indicated rank: four parallel stripes for a general, three for a colonel, two for a captain and one for a lieutenant. Some uniforms included rank indicators on the collars. Higher officers wore sashes, buff for general officers, crimson for line and staff officers, emerald for medical officers and black for chaplains.
The arrangement of buttons on the front of the jacket could also indicate rank. A major general wore a double-breasted frock coat with three sets of six buttons, a brigadier general with four sets of four, and a colonel two rows of seven. Below those ranks, frock coats had one row of buttons, usually nine. The decorations on the buttons sometimes indicated branch of service. In the North, most common was the spread eagle, but buttons also had an eagle with a letter in the middle: I for infantry, C for cavalry and A for artillery.
As I learned this military code — for a code it is, a system of shapes, colors and letters that quickly imparts a wealth of information to those who know the code — I studied books and photos I took at reenactments, quizzing myself and checking my reference sheet, and I saw all these indicators on uniforms that I had barely noticed in the past. Suddenly a new world opened to me. It was like learning a language. So next time I watch a Civil War movie, I’ll know an officer by his uniform, and I look forward to the next Civil War reenactment, when I can greet a soldier by his rank. “Good afternoon, colonel. How goes the battle?”
Camp Chase Fifes and Drums performed at the 2010 Hale Farm Civil War weekend. The director’s frock coat has the infantry-blue chevron of a sergeant major, and he wears a crimson sash.

You can see the stripes of an infantry sergeant on the coat hanging from the lean-to pole.

The soldier at left is a first sergeant in the infantry.

This Confederate rider wears a cap of yellow and black and has cavalry-yellow collar trim.

In front at left is a first sergeant, and in the middle is a captain. I’m not sure about the man at right; perhaps a major? Behind him you can see the two-stripe chevron of a corporal.

To the right you can see the blue-striped chevron of a sergeant major of infantry.

At left and middle (carrying the colors) are corporals.

In the middle is a first sergeant, behind him is a corporal, and at right is, I think, a colonel, wielding a sword. You reenactors are encouraged to confirm or correct my observations. This is a learning experience (a fun one).

All photos were taken at Hale Farm in 2010. My appreciation goes to the reenactors.

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