The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Union Army

The Union Army refers to the United States Army during the American Civil War. The Union Army is also known as the Northern Army, and the Federal Army.


History of the Union Army

Formation of the Union Army

When the American Civil War began in April 1861, there were only 16,000 men in the U.S. Army, and many Southern soldiers and officers were already resigning and joining the new Confederate Army. (One of the resigning officers was Robert E. Lee, who had initially been offered the job as commander of the Union Army; Lee would go on to become the commander of the Confederate Army instead).

With the rebelling Southern states declaring independence and declaring war, and with this drastic shortage of men in the Army, President Abraham Lincoln called on the states to provide 75,000 men for three months to put down the insurrection in the South. The war would prove to be longer and bigger than anyone had expected, and on July 22, 1861, Congress authorized a volunteer army of 500,000 men.

At first, the call for volunteers was easily met by patriotic Northerners, abolitionists, and even enthusiastic immigrants who enlisted with the hope of fighting for liberty. Over 10,000 Germans in New York and Pennsylvania immediately responded to Lincoln's call for volunteers, and the French were also among those quick to volunteer. As more and more men were needed, the number of willing volunteers fell, but nevertheless, between April 1861 and April 1865, at least two and a half million men would serve in the Union Army. The vast majority were volunteers.

Major Units of the Union Army

The Union Army was composed of numerous units, mostly divided into departments, which were organized geographically, and armies, which assumed geographical names, but could operate over wider areas. Each of these major units was usually commanded by a major general. Some of the most prominent units were:

There was a general tendency to name Union armies after important rivers in their areas of operation, although exceptions existed. (Confederate armies were generally named after states.)


Several men served as commanders of the Union Army throughout its existence: Winfield Scott, George B. McClellan, Henry W. Halleck, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Scott was an elderly veteran of the Mexican-American War and could not perform his duties effectively. The war did not go well for the North in the first two years, and many people blamed the over-cautiousness and poor strategy of Scott's successor, Maj. Gen. McClellan, for this. McClellan led the disastrous Peninsula Campaign and was replaced by Halleck as general-in-chief. Although he was extremely popular among the soldiers, McClellan was relieved from duty because of his over-cautiousness and his contentious relationship with his commander-in-chief, President Lincoln. Halleck arrived with a successful record in the western theater, but was more of an administrator than a strategic planner and commander.

Ulysses Grant was the final commander of the Union Army. He was already famous for his victories in the West when he was appointed Lieutenant General and general-in-chief of the Union Army in March 1864. Grant supervised the Army of the Potomac (which was formally led by his subordinate, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade) in delivering the final knockout punches to the Confederacy by decisively defeating Confederate forces in many fierce battles in Virginia, eventually capturing the capital of the Confederacy itself, Richmond. He developed the strategy of coordinated simultaneous thrusts against wide portions of the Confederacy, most importantly the Georgia and Carolinas campaigns of William Tecumseh Sherman and the Shenandoah Valley campaign of Philip Sheridan. These campaigns were characterized by another strategic notion of Grant's—deny the enemy the supplies needed to continue the war by widespread destruction of its factories and farms along the paths of the invading Union armies.

Grant had critics who complained about the atrociously high numbers of casualties that the Union Army suffered while he was in charge, but Lincoln would not replace Grant, because, in Lincoln's words: "I cannot spare this man. He fights."

Union Victory

Grant's decisive victories ensured that the Civil War ended with the unconditional surrender of the rebelling Southern states. (Northern newspapers of the day hailed U. S. Grant as "Unconditional Surrender" Grant). Southern diplomats had been desperately trying to negotiate terms of peace, or even conditional surrender, ever since the decisive defeat that the Confederate Army suffered at Gettysburg in July 1863, but Northern leaders would not hear of it. The prevailing opinion among Northern leaders was that the Union Army would have to defeat the Confederate Army in the field of battle and stop the rebellion. Anything short of that would be a failure.

That goal was finally achieved on April 9, 1865, when Confederate commander Robert E. Lee officially surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Court House. Although there were other Confederate armies that would surrender in the following weeks, such as Joseph E. Johnston's in North Carolina, this date was nevertheless symbolic of the end of the bloodiest war in American history, the end of the Confederate States of America, and the beginning of the slow process of Reconstruction.


2.5 million men served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Of these, about 390,000 died in combat, from injuries sustained in combat, from disease, or from other causes; and 280,000 were wounded. More than 1 out of every 4 Union soldiers was killed or wounded during the war (for the Confederate Army it was even worse--1 in 3 Southern soldiers were killed or wounded). This is by far the highest casualty ratio of any war that America has ever been involved in. For comparison: In World War II, 1 out of every 16 American soldiers was killed or wounded, and in Vietnam, 1 out of every 22 American soldiers was killed or wounded.

In total, 680,000 men died during the Civil War. This is made all the more devastating by the fact that there were only 34 million Americans at that time, so 4% of the American male population died in the war. In today's terms, this would be the equivalent of 5.9 million American men being killed in a war.

Ethnic Groups in the Union Army

The Union Army was comprised of many different ethnic groups, including large numbers of immigrants. About 25% of the whites who served in the Union Army were foreign-born.

Of the approximately 2.2 million Union soldiers:

  • 1 million (45% of all Union soldiers) were Native-born Americans of British ancestry.
  • 516,000 (23% of all Union soldiers) were Germans, with about 216,000 being German-born.
  • 210,000 (10% of all Union soldiers) were Black. Half were freedmen who lived in the North, and half were ex-slaves or runaway slaves from the South. They served in more than 160 colored regiments (one such colored regiment is dramaticized in the film Glory).
  • 200,000 (9% of all Union soldiers) were Irish.
  • 90,000 (4% of all Union soldiers) were Dutch.
  • 50,000 (2% of all Union soldiers) were born in Canada.
  • 50,000 (2% of all Union soldiers) were born in England.
  • 40,000 (2% of all Union soldiers) were French or French Canadian. (About half were born in America, the other half in Quebec)
  • 20,000 (1% of all Union soldiers) were Scandinavian (Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes)
  • 7,000 were Italian
  • 7,000 were Jewish
  • 6,000 were Mexicans
  • 5,000 were Poles
  • 4,000 were Native American
  • Several hundred were: Hungarians, Portuguese, Chinese, Indians (born in India), and other nationalities.

Many immigrant soldiers formed their own regiments, such as the Swiss Rifles (15th Missouri); the Gardes Lafayette (55th New York); the Garibaldi Guard (39th New York); the Martinez Militia (1st New Mexico); the Polish Legion (58th New York); and the Scandinavian Regiment (15th Wisconsin). But for the most part, the foreign-born soldiers were scattered as individuals throughout units.

For comparison, the Confederate Army was not very diverse. 95% of Confederate soldiers were of British Isles extraction, and only 4% were foreign-born.

Desertions and Draft Riots

Desertion was a big problem in the Civil War for both sides. The daily hardships of war, forced marches, thirst, suffocating heat, disease, delay in pay, solicitude for family, impatience at the monotony and futility of inactive service, panic on the eve of battle, the sense of war weariness, the lack of confidence in commanders, and the discouragement of defeat (especially early on for the Union Army), all tended to lower the morale of the Union army and to increase desertion.

In 1861 and 1862, the war went badly for the Union Army, and there were, by some counts, 180,000 desertions. In 1863 and 1864, the bitterest two years of the war, the Union Army suffered over 200 desertions every day, for a total of 150,000 desertions during those two years. This puts the total number of desertions from the Union Army during the four years of the war at nearly 350,000. Using these numbers, 15% of Union soldiers deserted at some point during the course of the war. Official numbers put the number of deserters from the Union Army at 200,000 for the entire war, or about 8% of Union Army soldiers. It is estimated that 1 out of 3 deserters returned to their regiments, either voluntarily or after being arrested and being sent back.

Of all the ethnic groups in the Union Army, the Irish had the highest number of desertions per capita by far, by some accounts they deserted at a rate 30 times higher than Native-born Americans.

The Irish were also the main protagonists in the famous "Draft Riots" of 1863 (the film Gangs of New York is a dramatization of this event). As a result of the Enrollment Act , rioting began in several Northern cities, the most heavily hit being New York. What happened was that a mob, started by and consisting principally of Irish immigrants, rioted in the summer of 1863, with the worst violence occurring in July. The mob set fire to everything from African American churches and an orphanage to the office of the New York Tribune. The principal victims of the rioting were African Americans and activists in the anti-slavery movement. Eventually the Union Army was sent in and had to open fire to quell the violence and stop the rioters. By the time the rioting was over, 1,000 people had been killed or wounded.

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Last updated: 05-11-2005 07:59:54
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04