Making Armies and Officers
At the onset of the Civil War, the North's army was small, consisting of just 16,000 men scattered as far as Oregon and California. The newborn Confederacy had no ready army at all. As the inevitability of war became clear, both sides set about bolstering their military might, forming armies made up primarily of volunteer state militia and selecting officers to lead them.
Following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln, believing the conflict would be over fairly quickly, called on the states to provide 75,000 militia at the government's service for a ninety-day enlistment. The call brought a rush of eager young recruits anxious for a little excitement. It also forced the remaining Southern states — Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas — to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. Though their sympathies were with the South, all four states had hoped until the very last moment that the situation could be settled without the risk of bloodshed. That hope was dashed with Lincoln's call to arms.
The Untrained State Militias
The state militias that made up the Northern army at the beginning of the conflict were an interesting but often motley group. Very few of them had received any type of combat training, and most of their drill instruction had been solely for show. In other words, they were civilians playing soldier who had been asked to become the real thing.
The typical militia regiment was made up of companies from neighboring towns, and many of the groups had never even met, much less trained together. This proved to be a serious hindrance because warfare in the mid-1800s required soldiers to engage in highly intricate movements as they went from marching formation to fighting formation. Coordination was essential and could be instilled only through numerous and lengthy drills, something the majority of militiamen had never done.
The population of the Union states at the start of the war was 22 million, with 4 million men of combat age. It had 100,000 factories employing more than 1 million workers, 20,000 miles of railroad, 96 percent of the combined nations' railroad equipment, the majority of coal mines and canals, $189 million in bank deposits, and $56 million in gold.
The individual companies were often led by men with little or no military experience or background. Instead, they were chosen as leaders by popular vote or because they were of higher social status than the others. Field experience would quickly eliminate leaders who were unfit, but in the beginning, the armies of both the North and the South were composed primarily of amateurs leading amateurs.
There were plenty of career soldiers on both sides, though the North had a difficult time deciding how best to use them. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott commanded the Union army at the beginning of the war. Though battle experienced and an able strategist, he was seventy-five years old and in poor health. After a few Union defeats and growing public dissatisfaction, Scott was retired and replaced by George B. McClellan. Lincoln would spend a lot of time shuffling his officers around.
A great many of the Union's best military minds, most of them West Pointers, defected to the South. As a result, Jefferson Davis, himself a West Point graduate with some field experience, planned to use trained soldiers for his general officers as often as he could. One of his first appointees was Robert E. Lee, who had rejected command of the Union's principle army after Virginia seceded. Davis made him a full general in the Confederate army. Other bold Confederate officers included Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, appointed to command the chief Confederate army in Virginia, General Albert Sidney Johnston, and General Joseph E. Johnston. Both Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston would find their military skills hampered by a rancorous relationship with Davis.