Sometimes a good story can miss the mark when we lack the minutia of details that can transport the reader or give our plot realism. Sometimes these details are elusive unless time has been spent living the life we wish to portray. Although a brief article on civil war or military parlance can’t make up for having lived it, I will outlay some things that I hope will be helpful in creating realistic scenes, dialogue, plots, and character arcs.
I have always been a military history buff, the American Civil War being my favorite area of research but most periods of wars have drawn my interest. I’ve also been both a Civil War and WWII reenactor for over ten years.
One thing, no matter what period one is writing about, it was probably an era of conflict. What we see in movies and television is often inaccurate or cliché. Until the Second World War introduced a large and permanent standing army, our wars were fought by volunteer armies raised from state levees and disbanded as soon as peace was achieved. This brings the type of movie character we are familiar with, the fatherly sergeant, the young and inexperienced privates, into conflict with a very real dynamic that existed between soldiers and the command structure used at the time. For the Civil War time period, picking one or two published journals like Hardtack and Coffee by John Billings or Company Aytch by Samuel Watkins will give you an idea of soldier life. Another great resource is The Life of Billy Yank and The Life of Johnny Reb by Bell Irvin Wiley.
Do not assume that the army organization and functionality has remained static. Organization and how armies were used changed with tactics and wars. Here’s a quick guide to the basic elements of an army unit. These exist in any branch of the army (cavalry, artillery).
For Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican American War, Civil War, and Spanish American War the basic element was the company. The reason for this is that fire is massed in a tight formation, two ranks. The smallest element in the company was the comrades in arms, a group of four men who made up a skirmish group.
The next formation up was the battalion, a grouping of companies under the second in command of a regiment. It is rare that this unit is separated from the regiment but a battalion could be sent off on a small mission where it is not expected to run into much resistance. Picket (a string of vedettes along a long line like on a river bank separating forces or spread out along a line of miles whose purpose is to be an early warning for the larger force behind it) and garrison duty would be the only reason a battalion might be separated from their regiment.
The primary unit of all of these time periods was the regiment, made up of 10 companies that march, bivouac, and fight together. Volunteer regiments (as opposed to regular army regiments) were raised by the states and federalized for national service. They retained their state designation and the governor of each state had the power to grant commissioned officers. Volunteers were raised from each county in the state, sometimes from specific counties in the state and the volunteers being formed into companies from those who volunteered from that county, so that one served with men one knew already. This was a consistent practice up to WWII. Officers and noncommissioned officers would be elected after the formation of each company or the captaincy of each company would be commissioned by the governor and other commissioned officers by the same process. When writing about soldiers in these time periods, it was the regiment that held their allegiance most and governed their daily lives.
The next unit of note was the brigade, made up of between three to four regiments. When reading about these various wars and battles, one often runs into the brigade being mentioned most as tactics governed the movements of brigade sized units about the battlefield.
The third and fourth unit was the division (made up of three to four brigades) and the corps (made up of three to four divisions). These are forces made up of thousands of men and controlled by the commander of the army.
The last organization is the army, a grouping together in a geographical theater of operations (a term meaning anything from a state to a region to an entire continent). An army was usually comprised of a variety of organizational schemes. For instance, as the civil war progressed and the need to control the vast armies grew, army commanders used a variety of methods to group regiments and brigades together. Up until 1862 the largest designation was the division or, as at Fredericksburg, Right, Center, and Left Grand Divisions made up of several divisions. After the Union disaster of Fredericksburg, Corps were formed and Union armies kept these designations and organization for the duration of the war. The Confederate forces used different means of organizing itself and never adopted the Corps structure.