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At the beginning of the American Civil War, in April, 1861, there were only 16,000 men in the U.S. Army. Of these, many Southern officers resigned and joined the Confederate States Army. The U.S. Army consisted of ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted infantry. The regiments were scattered widely. Of the 197 companies in the army, 179 occupied 79 isolated posts in the West, and the remaining 18 manned garrisons east of the Mississippi River, mostly along the Canadian border and on the Atlantic coast.
With the secession of the Southern states, and with this drastic shortage of men in the army, President Abraham Lincoln called on the states to raise a force of 75,000 men for three months to put down the "insurrection. " Lincoln's call forced the border states to choose sides. Four seceded, making the Confederacy eleven states strong.
The war proved to be longer and more extensive than anyone, North or South, had expected. On July 22, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men. The call for volunteers initially was easily met by patriotic Northerners, abolitionists, and even immigrants who enlisted for a steady income and meals. Over 10,000 Germans from New York and Pennsylvania immediately responded to Lincoln's call, and the French were also quick to volunteer. As more men were needed, however, the number of volunteers fell and both money bounties and forced conscription had to be turned to. Nevertheless, between April 1861 and April 1865, at least two and a half million men served in the Union Army, of whom the majority were volunteers.
Proportions of Professionals on Both Sides
It is a misconception that the South held an advantage because of the large percentage of professional officers who resigned to join the Confederate States Army. At the start of the war, there were 824 graduates of the U.S. Military Academy on the active list; of these, 296 resigned or were dismissed, and 184 of those became Confederate officers. Of the approximately 900 West Point graduates who were then civilians, 400 returned to the Union Army and 99 to the Confederate. Therefore, the ratio of Union to Confederate professional officers was 642 to 283.
One of the resigning officers was Robert E. Lee, who had initially been offered the assignment as commander of a field army to suppress the rebellion. Lee disapproved of secession, but refused to bear arms against his native state, Virginia, and resigned to accept the position as commander of Virginia forces. He eventually became the commander of the Confederate States Army. The South did have the advantage of other military colleges, such as The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, but they produced fewer officers. Only 26 enlisted men and non-commissioned officers are known to have left the regular United States Army to join the Confederate Army, all by desertion.
Participation of African American Soldiers
The inclusion of blacks as combat soldiers became a major issue. Eventually, it was realized, especially after the valiant effort of the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Battle of Fort Wagner, that blacks were fully able to serve as competent and reliable soldiers. This was partly due to the efforts of Robert Smalls, who, while still a slave, won fame by defecting from the Confederacy, and bringing a Confederate transport ship which he was piloting. He later met with Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, to argue for including blacks in combat units. This led to the formation of the first combat unit for black soldiers, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.
Regiments for black soldiers were eventually referred to as United States Colored Troops. The blacks were paid less than white soldiers until late in the war and were, in general, treated harshly. Even after the end of the war, they were not permitted (by Sherman's order) to march in the great victory parade through Washington, DC. The Union Army was composed of many different ethnic groups, including large numbers of immigrants. About 25% of the white people who served in the Union Army were foreign-born.
General Robert E. Lee
General Lee had been offered the command of Union armies but declined when his home state of Virginia seceded. His superior generalship was an important factor in Confederate victories in the Eastern Theater. He was lionized as the embodiment of what had been most noble in the Confederacy.