Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Unit Designations in the Army in the Old West by Gordon Rottman

Occasionally in Western novels and more often in Western history books we come across US Army unit designations. To the uninitiated this can be confusing. Indeed, it was even confusing to soldiers owing to a degree of non-standardization.
This will no doubt be quite tedious to many. Granted, novels seldom mention more than the most elementary identifications of units. This article is provided as an aid to better understand unit designations in the post-Civil War army. If you are anal enough you might love it. We’ll talk a little about Civil War unit designations as that figures into many novels and histories. It is also beneficial to be familiar with the system if using military records for genealogical research. If nothing else, it provides some background to improve your depth of knowledge.
To help you keep unit designations straight, below is a listing of the different unit echelons from smallest to largest. Generally it can be said that there were three subunits in anyone unit, that is, three platoons in a company, three companies in a battalion, etc. However, there could be anywhere from two to six subunits in a given unit. Exceptions to the rule were widespread. The typical commander’s rank is provided. Note that a commander could be a rank higher or lower, even two ranks in some instances.

Unit Echelon                           Commander                Remarks
Platoon                                    lieutenant                    Consisted of 2-4 squads or sections.
Company                                 captain                         Troop in cavalry. Battery in artillery.
Battalion                                 major or lt colonel       Squadron in cavalry.
Regiment                                 colonel
Brigade                                   brigadier general
Division                                   major general
Corps                                       lieutenant general

In the post-war army there were no corps, divisions, or brigades as formed in the Civil War, unless temporarily formed for exercises or campaigning such as the 1898 Spanish-American War. Divisions and brigades were usually numbered, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, for example. Generally there were three to six brigades to a division with three to six regiments to a brigade. The division might have a small cavalry unit attached for reconnaissance and some artillery units varying widely in numbers. There was no set standard of how many soldiers were assigned to divisions and brigades. Corps were even larger commands with two to four divisions. By the way, “corps” is spelled with an “s” whether singular or multiple. Either way, it is pronounced “core.”
During the Civil War each of the named armies—usually named after a river or region—Army of the Cumberland or Army of the Potomac—might have several corps, each with several divisions or a smaller army might consist of divisions only, all numbered in sequence at each echelon. This means there were numerous divisions designated the “1st” as were 1st Brigades. Corps were designated by Roman numbers, but are often seen in books with Arabic numbers. To fully identify a unit, all the higher units it was assigned to have to be included in the designation, for example, 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, III Corps, Army of the Tennessee. To prevent confusion it was required for the commander’s name to follow the unit’s designation, for example, “2nd Division (Richards)” or “Smith’s Corps.” This also served to remind higher commanders who their subordinates were. One brigade might be chosen to lead the attack because it commander was notoriously aggressive, while a less aggressive commander’s brigade might be ordered to protect the attacking brigade’s flank.
As mentioned earlier, there were no corps, divisions, or brigades fielded in the Old West era. One will encounter the term “department” though as a regional administrative command, “Department of Texas,” for example.
In peacetime the largest serving units of the infantry and cavalry were “regiments” commanded by colonels. An infantry regiment had ten nominal 100-man companies: A to H and J and K. There was no Company I as “I” and “J” were handwritten the same in the 1800s. Only “J” was used to prevent confusion. There is a rumor that there is no Company J because an unidentified Company J once lost its guidon in some unnamed conflict. That story is not true. Companies can be called “Company A” or “A Company.” There was no standard, but the former preferred.
It did not take long for a 1,000-man regiment to become drastically understrength as 100-man companies dwindled to 40 to 60 men or fewer lost to combat deaths and wounds, captured, died or injured in accidents, died from disease or illness, hospitalized for the same, confined, on leave, deserted, or detailed to special duties. It was not uncommon for regiments in the field to number just 200 to 300 men with a corresponding number of companies or the authorized ten companies, but very small.
In some instances not all of a given regiment’s companies might be active. They were also dispersed widely between different posts. There might be only two companies at some posts and maybe six at another. They could be separated from one another for years. These detachments might be commanded by the regiment’s second-in-command, a lieutenant colonel, or the regimental major, or simply the senior company commander, a captain or lieutenant. I mention this in my sequel to The Hardest Ride, Ride Harder. The lieutenant commanding a detachment of Troop A, 8th Cavalry at Camp Del Rio, Texas plays an important role in the story. While Western novels and movies often highlight the cavalry, infantry was very much present way out West. Their utility was limited though because of their 10 to 12-mile a day rate of march, about the same as a cattle drive.
As an aside, there is a difference between camps and forts. Camps were temporary posts, although some were essentially permanent after years of existence and some were upgraded to forts. Forts were permanent posts. By the way, most forts and camps in the Southern states established since the Civil War were named after Confederate generals—Camp Polk established in 1941 was named after General Leonidas Polk, a minister and Confederate lieutenant general. In 1955 it was renamed Fort Polk.
In the Old West there were no permanent battalions within regiments—From World War I regiments were organized into three battalions with four companies each. It was different earlier on. If fighting as a regiment, which seldom occurred in the Old West, the regiment’s companies in the frontline were called the “battalion.” sometimes two battalions were organized, one under the regiment’s second-in-command, a lieutenant colonel, and the other under the regiment’s major. The number of companies varied. “Reno’s Battalion” is an example. During the pre-battle reconnaissance it consisted of six companies and three weeks later during the battle he was detailed three companies.
Regular Army regiments were designated, for example, 5th US infantry Regiment or 7th US Cavalry Regiment. Often “Regiment” was not included in the designation—simply 18th Infantry, for example. Militia regiments were designated in numerical sequence as raised within their state and designated, for example, 5th Texas Infantry Regiment. The state militias were renamed the National Guard in 1903. The practice of including the state name in National Guard regimental designations ceased in 1917 when the Army and the National Guard were reorganized for World War I with regiments numbered in sequence whether they were Regular Army, National Army (conscripts and volunteers), or National Guard. For example, the 3rd Texas Infantry (National Guard) was redesignated the 143rd Infantry.
There was also the Volunteer Army of the United States, a volunteer force outside of the militia organization and separate from the Regular Army, but under Army command. They were only raised in wartime. Probably the best known is the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry, the “Rough Riders.”
The US cavalry regiment was of the same echelon as an infantry regiment, although the number of battalions/squadrons and companies/troops actually assigned or authorized to be manned varied over the years. Full-strength cavalry regiments were typically authorized 10 or 12 companies. The term “troop” was occasionally used to identify companies, but “company” was the more common designation for the 40-100-man units commanded by captains. After the Civil War the cavalry regiment was standardized with 12 companies, although peacetime regiments may have been authorized as few as four. Battalions and squadrons were not standing units, but temporary groupings of companies. Some cavalry regiments during the Civil War formed squadrons of two companies—commanded by the senior company commander—and two to three battalions of two squadrons commanded by majors or captains. Others used battalion and squadron terms interchangeably with two to four companies each.
From 1873, only the term “troop” was used in documents, but “company” remained in common use. Even after 1883 when “troop” was specifically directed, “company” remained in use by the cavalry until around the turn of the century. Some regiments even mixed both terms. Remember the TV comedy, “F Troop”? Eventually “troop” and “squadron” were the only terms used for company and battalion equivalent cavalry units.
While there were artillery regiments, they normally operated as battalions with three batteries—equivalent to a company or troop. A battery usually consisted of four guns, but could have only two if heavy artillery or even up to 12 in some instances.
I apologize if you found this boring and your head now hurts. If you have any questions, just email me back-channel.
Next month we’ll look at army rank titles and insignia of the Old West era and how the titles originated.


  1. Great info for those who never served in the military (I did). Adding the history to unit designations made it more interesting. Thanks, Gordon.

  2. Thanks Frank. Designation practices changed over time too. Its easy to mess it up.

  3. A little bogged down towards the end, but such valuable information. I take it dragoons were completely gone by the Civil War and after. They still had dragoons in the Mexican-American War, but never found out why that designation fell out of use.

  4. The US Regiment of Dragoons was raised in 1833 and redesignated the 1st Regiment of Dragoons in 1836 when the 2nd Regt was raised. Dragoons were basically mounted infantry, they rode to the fight and then fought on foot. In 1861 the US cavalry was reorganized and to simplify things all units were designated cavalry and terms such as dragoons and mounted rifles were retired. The 1st Regt of Dragoons became the 1st Regt of Cavalry in 1861.

  5. George Hand's autobiography provides little on ranking, but is a comical exposition of his Army time during and after the Civil war. He owned a bar in Old Tucson afterwards. He didn't write it as a comedy, though.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing this! I've always been interested in the subject of cavalry in the West, and would like to read more—both fiction and nonfiction—about it. It's always nice to have details like this clarified.