Military Unit Organization and the Civil War: Why the North Won?

I don’t really think it’s a groundbreaking argument I’m about to make here, but I believe that throughout history different militaries, commanders and generals have had great success just because they had an Army that broke down on organizational lines that better suited their situation. It’s a pretty simple concept, which is probably why someone much smarter and more studied than me hasn’t felt the need to argue it before. My point: If you organize your Battalions to have 4 companies, and your enemy organizes his Battalions to have only 3 companies, you’ll have 1 more company in a battalion on battalion fight, allowing you to have more manpower, firepower and flexibility. Compound this across the board when there might be 6 or 7 battalions spread out across 2-3 brigades and you can see how the numbers add up to favor the bigger battalions.

napoleon 1

“God Favors Those With The Biggest Battalions” Military Maxim commonly attributed to Napoleon.

Those of us who do not geek out all day probably want a decent explanation of the lines along which a military organization breaks down around:

The modern US Army and many foreign militaries (to include the Russian and Chinese models) build their Armies around the concept of a squad: 6-14 man elements that can act relatively independent and have a flexible, sufficient amount of firepower. Take 3-4 of these squads and you get a platoon, 3-4 platoons make up a company, 4-6 companies make up a Battalion, 3-4 Battalions make up a Brigade… The point is not to outline force structures but to see how militaries organize themselves; smaller independent units form the building blocks for bigger units that disseminate commands and manage the warfighting. These units can have different purposes and specialties, and throughout history have varied in size and name.

Using our earlier example, a Battalion with 4 companies has quite a numbers advantage over a Battalion organized with just 3 companies. That is the “science of war”: 4 is larger than 3 so it must win, right? Why not have 5, or 500 companies in a battalion then? The “art of war” comes into play when you have to find the sweet spot that effectively organizes units around a number that can be led and managed competently. No Battalion Commander is going to effectively lead 8 subordinate companies. The organization is just too big and massive to manage. But a good commander should be able to lead 4 or 5 companies. It gets even more complicated as you incorporate larger forces: if you have a battalion with 4 companies but can only manage to have 10 brigades (the next higher level of force) but your enemy who has 3 company battalion has 15 brigades, who wins in a brigade level fight? The trick is to organize around lines that make sense for the whole military and command structure while also gaming the numbers a little bit in your favor.

It is imperative to bring the most amount of force possible to the fight in the quickest time possible. Sometimes, unit organization can help a commander do this almost more than anything else. How so?

Looking at a few (of the many) historical examples out there will help illustrate this point. These examples are limited to the Civil War, but in the future I’ll post some updates from Ancient History, Modern History and stuff from in between.

8 thoughts on “Military Unit Organization and the Civil War: Why the North Won?

  1. Paul Callahan

    As a history guy, who doesn’t have military background but is fascinated by battle history, I have a gap in my full understanding of tactics. this short article presented an accessible and informative guide to how armies are organized and utilized. Would like to read more about how this structure has worked successfully and why other organizations haven’t worked. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the feedback and for reading my article Paul, I really appreciate it. The themes covered in this article are recurring throughout history and I will be doing some more in depth looks at military unit organization throughout history and the why’s and how’s of the failures and successes. Stay tuned!


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    1. Regiments were a bit more fundamental than Brigades and Divisions, so they were not as prone to changing in manpower and organization. The Confederacy still used the Regiment as one of their basic warfighting units, while The Union relied on Brigades and Divisions much more.


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