Comparing the Union and Confederate Armies: Policies & Members

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  • 0:06 Civil War Armies
  • 0:33 Armies & Theaters
  • 3:14 Men in the Ranks
  • 5:55 Differences & Similarities
  • 7:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Union and Confederate armies were spread out across the nation during the Civil War. They were comprised of soldiers with various reasons for fighting, and had many different factors which influenced their successes and defeats. Learn about both armies and their members in this lesson.

Civil War Armies

During the American Civil War, there were numerous armies fighting on each side of the conflict. Both Northern and Southern states did all that they could to gather together their citizens and form armies to fight for their respective causes. The armies which were created were in many cases quite large, sometimes numbering close to or over 100,000 men. These armies fought in some of the fiercest battles in American history. Let's learn more about their story.

Armies and Theaters

When discussing the American Civil War, it is very common to hear the terms Eastern Theater and Western Theater used. These refer to the different geographical parts of the war. The Eastern Theater was the fighting that occurred in places such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The Western Theater encompassed much more territory, including states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and even Georgia. In each of these theaters, and others as well, there were different armies operating for both the Union and the Confederacy.

In the East, the main Union force was the Army of the Potomac, which fought heavily in battles such as Antietam, Gettysburg, and the Overland Campaign, and was commanded by numerous generals. Opposing them was the Army of Northern Virginia, led primarily by famed Confederate general Robert E. Lee. While Lee had fewer men under his command, he was able to achieve several notable victories that nearly won the war for the Confederacy on several occasions.

In the West, because there was so much more territory, there were numerous armies. On the Union side, the Army of the Tennessee, named after the Tennessee River, was led by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. This army fought at battles such as Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Vicksburg.

In the state of Tennessee, the main Union force was the Army of the Cumberland, which was led by William Rosecrans and George Thomas. This army fought at battles such as Stones River, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. The difference between these armies was largely confined to commanders and the terrain and armies they faced rather than the specific make up. They were each largely composed of Westerners, men from states such as Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

For the Confederates, there were several forces in the Western Theater as well. Among these was the Army of Mississippi, which fought at Shiloh and Corinth and was led by Albert Sidney Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard. Additionally, there were forces defending Vicksburg, Mississippi, during 1863. The most well-known Confederate army of the West was the Army of Tennessee, named after the state, not the river. This army was led by Braxton Bragg and Joseph Johnston for most of the war. It achieved a tremendous victory at Chickamauga, but was ultimately defeated at places such as Atlanta and Nashville.

Men in the Ranks

For the men within these armies, the experience of war was very similar. Marching was the primary means of transportation while on active campaign, meaning miles and miles of walking in the heat, rain, and mud. Food consisted of items such as hardtack crackers, salt pork, salted beef, desiccated vegetables, and whatever could be found by foraging off the land. The common soldier on both sides drank lots of water and coffee, making each a staple of their daily diet.

In the Union armies, soldiers were typically better equipped. Because the North had a surplus of manpower and industry, it was easier for the Union government to get supplies and manpower to the armies at the front line. There were still struggles with rations and supplies during difficult campaigns, but nothing like what Confederate soldiers endured.

In Southern armies, there were more problems with food and supplies. Some Confederate troops ended up barefoot and ragged on lengthy and difficult campaigns, having to make do off of green corn and apples taken from farmer's fields and forests. While it is impossible to ever know exactly how many men served in the Confederate army, a good estimate is that just fewer than one million men of military age took up arms for the Confederacy. Conversely, over two million men fought for the Union, giving the North a significant manpower advantage.

For the common soldiers, there were many reasons to enlist and fight. For Union troops, preserving the Union meant preserving the freedoms of the United States so that their children could enjoy a strong and prosperous nation. Some in the North fought from the beginning to abolish slavery, while others gradually came to adopt abolition as a war aim as the fighting progressed.

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