A Short History of the Regulars

The Regulars have long been considered the professionals by those familiar with military matters. These professionals were often the best trained, lowest paid, and longest serving men in our nations' armed services. A look at their battle honors reveals that the regulars have been in the forefront of the action since the beginning of our country. Volunteer regiments have always been our most numerous soldiers, due to the American hesitancy for large standing armies, but were only in service for the duration of the conflict in which they were raised, leaving the Regulars to continue in the service when the crisis had passed. The American soldier, Regular or Volunteer, has always been among the world's best fighting men, and there cannot be a distinction drawn as to which was the most heroic, for the whole of our nation's history, there has always been the Regular Soldier.

Regulars were those men who were enlisted in the service of the United States. These men were not Militia, or National Guards. Their term of enlistment was generally five years, regardless of whether or not the country was at war. The pay in the early 1860s was low, approximately $13.00 per month for a private soldier, and the discipline harsh. In addition, food was sparse and often of poor quality. The living conditions were crude in comparison to the twentieth century. Why, then, would a man elect to serve under such Spartan conditions? Some simply answered the call to serve the flag. For others, it was a way to escape failure, debt or prison. Questions regarding a man's motives were not asked.

For whatever reason come they did, some as young as ten years old. Others as old as they could get by with. All bore the title Regulars with pride. From the reorganization of the new army after the war of 1812 until 1855, there were only seven regiments of Regular Infantry. These were augmented in time of war by Militia units called up, as various crises required. Three Regular Infantry regiments were created 1855 and when war was inevitable in the spring of 1861, seven more were added.

Of the approximately 16,000 men in the Regular Army in December of 1860, just under 1 000 were attached to the Department of the East. The remainder were in the west attempting to keep the peace between the native tribes and the approaching settlers. With the outbreak of the War of The Rebellion in April of 1861 most of the old Regulars were recalled to duty in the east. The second Infantry came from the Department of the West-Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota. The Fourth Infantry came back after ten years of duty in the Pacific Northwest, arriving in Washington City on November 28th. The government was so alarmed that the capital was within easy reach of a bold Confederate stroke, it moved its Regulars east as fast as they could be extricated from their assignments.

To expedite matters, President Lincoln, by his proclamation of May 3, 1861, authorized the raising of nine more regiments of infantry with an approved strength of three battalions of eight companies. Coincidental to this was the patriotic fervor to raise state regiments making it impossible to locate sufficient manpower for more than two weak battalions per Regular regiment.

The first ten regiments, colloquially labeled the "Old Army," would still consist of single battalions of ten companies each. They would experience their own difficulties by the loss of so many officers to the Southern cause. Approximately 30 percent of all Regular Army officers would resign their commissions in the coming months: resulting command shuffle would continue to the close of the war. This transmigration came at a time when effective leadership was most needed. It further protracted the task of consolidating the commands while - much to the Army's credit - only twenty-six enlisted men became documented deserters to the Confederacy out of 15,000 on duty in 1861.

The Regular Army was intended in this crisis to act first as a role model, then to provide a cadre of officers for the burgeoning volunteer army. In both respects it was partially successful although its field contribution must be considered negligible. This can be attributed to two factors. First, the Army's size in 1861 was immediately recognizable as unequal to the task and could not be taken into serious account against the forces of half the nation. Second, being a war of sections with emphasis placed on state sovereignty, the political roots from which grew the larger volunteer army lent a repressive air to the principles that maintained a standing, professional army. The universal attitude of the volunteers was to organize, mobilize and get the job done quickly. They saw no need to be strict or stuffy about it in the Regular sense and resented any attempt to do so.

Furthermore, the immediate rewards of bounties and promotions common to volunteers made recruiting for the Regular service next to hopeless. Such inducements were either poor or nonexistent in that service.

Discipline was notoriously rigid in the regular regiments and a junior officer might wait years for a captaincy or majority that could be easily had with a state regiment. For the first time in 1861, the Army established a commission for the specific purpose of raising worthy noncommissioned officers from the ranks as Regular officers. This would go a long way toward replacing those lost to the South. In the face of this action, the states continued to siphon off many an experienced officer from the Regular establishment, compounding the problem beyond all recourse. The deficiencies of the Army's own system of maintenance became painfully apparent, not to be corrected for years.

The most damaging result of these conditions was the alarming rate of desertion - over 24 percent - compared to an average 6 percent in the volunteer service. The losses can be attributed to a host of reasons not the least of which was the iron discipline of the Regulars, but most of those enlisting responded favorably to the Army code, however rigid, and went on to set an enviable standard for the volunteers throughout the war.

On the credit side of the ledger, Regular troops were far superior in discipline, training, reliability and morale by simple merit of their professional status. Men accustomed to disciplined fighting and the monotonous Army life could maintain unit integrity under far greater stress. The influx of a large number of foreign recruits, primarily Irish and German, gave the regiments a certain confidence inherent with a fresh start and the distinct feeling of pride through association. In a broader sense, the Army was the great leveler of mankind. While foreign recruits were martialed into separate ethnic organizations among the volunteers, They were more readily absorbed and "Americanized" by the Regulars. A considerable number of them were also veterans of European armies, adding a level of expertise that made our own army's standard of discipline appear mild.

In the final analysis, the Regulars were expected to do as they had always done: form the nucleus of defense and spearhead of offense. If events left them behind where publicity was concerned, the quiet efficient execution of duty always put them at the front. The record bears this out.


These last two pages were quoted verbatim from:

Sykes' Regular Infantry Division,1861-1864
A History of Regular United States Infantry Operations in the Civil War's Eastern Theater
By Timothy J, Reese
McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers 1990


Last Updated on 3/29/04


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