The history of the United States Army, 1775-1865

This report was written for my American History I class at Delaware County Community College.

The United States Army has seen a multiple array of changes throughout the formation of the first army to the end of the Civil War. From a new-found country and bands of colonials, to the formation of an army, and finally to the army splitting amongst itself, the changes have been forever present. The distinction of officers and enlisted men became present, as well as the impact and roles women played within the army.

The American Revolution: 1775-1783. (

The American Revolution: 1775-1783. (

The American Revolution, fought from 1775-1783, was the nation’s first war for freedom. It set the standard for the future of the United States Army with relation to the enlisted men, officers and women. The Continental Army of the Revolution was made up of a huge mixture of cultures. There were enlisted men, militia volunteers, Native Americans, freed black men, slaves, fifers and drummers, 60-year-olds, 13-year-olds, artillery specialists, French infantrymen, Prussian drill instructors and Polish cavalry leaders. (1) The militia companies were raised locally in towns and villages. The men who joined all came from the same town along with the cousins who lived nearby. (2) At the time of the Revolution, officers had their ranks thrust upon them, so their social class was no different from the enlisted men that they led, although, with his new rank, the officers felt that they were placed in a new social class above the common soldier. The officer rarely would be seen fraternizing with the enlisted men. (3)

The pay given to the different ranks during the Revolution was broken down to this: Lieutenant Colonel (commandant), $50 per month; Major, $45 per month; Captain, $35 per month; Lieutenant, $26 per month; Ensign, $20 per month; Surgeon, $45 per month; Surgeon Mate, $30 per month; Sergeants, $6 per month; Corporals, $5 per month; Musicians, $5 per month; Private, $4 per month. (4) Congress ordered that each man’s weekly food ration should consist of one pound of bread, one half-pound of beef, one half-pound of pork, or one and one-quarter pound of beef if pork was not available. Each month, the men were to receive one and one-half pounds of fish instead of beef. For drinks, they were given one pint of milk and one pint of malt beer. The rations also stipulated that each man receive six ounces of butter and one-sixth pound of soap per week. As the war progressed, the rations began to include molasses, cider, vegetables, rice and Native American meal. (5) Shelters varied throughout the war. The camps were a collection of badly built structures. The enlisted men lived in huts, tents and crudely formed stone, wood and dirt enclosures, which were frequently repaired, especially during the harsh winter months. Officers, on the other hand, were usually quartered in civilian homes, where they helped clean the houses and assist with chores. (6)

The main weapon used during the American Revolution was the musket. Some of the men knew how to load, fire and care for the musket, but others had never handled any type of firearms before. Many accidents were seen throughout the way with misfires and accidental stabbings with bayonets. (7) Troops were drilled periodically each day and a lot of the time in the early months of war was spent teaching the men how to load and fire the muskets and maneuver with the bayonets. (8) The officers, since they were all newly appointed, had no military training. They failed to follow orders to help drill their troops, visit the sick, check the firearms, or supervise the men on duty. (9)

Punishments were seen regularly in camp. The enlisted men would be called out by regiment to witness the flogging of another enlisted man. Flogging was a standard military punishment for a member of crimes, including desertion, insubordination, falling asleep on guard duty, petty theft and many more. The men were tied to wooden stakes or trees and beaten with a heavy lash that ranged from a few dozen to over a hundred lashes. (10) Officers receive lesser punishments for common offenses. (11)

Women during the Revolution also played an important role. Some women traveled with the army to stay close to their husbands, but these were usually only high-ranking officers’ wives. These women would live with them in huts, tents or houses. Few wives of enlisted men marched with the army. These women came to be known as “camp followers.” The camp followers would work for the army as piece-work laborers, washing and repairing clothing and sutlers who sold goods to soldiers and nurses. (12) Prostitutes were also seen during the Revolution. These women fell into three different categories: women who worked out of their own homes; girls who worked at taverns as either visitors or barmaids; or women who lived among the camp followers. Generals usually overlooked the prostitutes, but when their activities proved detrimental to army discipline, they were drummed out of camp in public ceremonies to discourage similar behavior from other women. (13)

The peace time army formed after the American Revolution held many of the same aspects as the Continental Army had during the war. To recruit new men into the army, the parties turned to the masses of men loitering on the city streets. These men had nothing better to do than listen. Some felt that joining the army had everything to gain and nothing to lose. (14) Each state was given the prerogative to appoint its own officers. This effect demoralized the officers who knew that their advancement depended upon their influence within their own state. They knew the only way to advance their military career would be based on political patronage rather than their capabilities as a soldier. (15)

The resolve of 1784 specified that the pay and rations of the new army would be the same as those implemented during the American Revolution, with the higher-ranking officers receiving more pay than the common enlisted man. (16)

The rifle became the most valuable weapon during peace time. Enlisted men soon learned that the outdated muskets failed in comparison to the newly improved rifles. Another weapon used by the enlisted men during this time was fusils. Infantry officers and non-commissioned officers became acquainted with swords. (17) Soldiers were trained to recognize and obey different drum signals and commands, which became a new installment in camp, on parade, during the march and under combat conditions.

Punishments were handled differently than the Revolution. Drunkenness, petty thievery, swearing at officers and other minor offenses were punishable by whippings. However, desertion, stealing the government property, murder, aiding a prisoner’s escape, major thefts and other major offenses were punishable by execution, running the gauntlet and being drummed out of the service, or by major whippings being carried out over days. (18)

War of 1812: 1812-1815 (

War of 1812: 1812-1815 (

When the War of 1812 broke out, the Army saw an increase in pay: Sergeants, $9 per month; Corporals, $7 per month; Privates, $5 per month. (19) Rations during this war consisted of twenty ounces of beef, eighteen ounces of flour, rum, vinegar, salt, soap and a candle. This ration provided protein, calcium, thiamine and niacin, but lacked in vitamins A, riboflavin and vitamin C. (20) The shelters used were the basic tents, otherwise known as the “common tents.” These were made of canvas and could fit five men in each. Officers received the same type of tent, but larger in size and it was occupied by one officer. (21)

Punishments dealt out in the War of 1812 varied from the type of offenses to who committed said offense. Flogging was the most common form of punishment for small offenses. Other punishments included dishonorable discharges, demotions, fines and confinement. Officers could receive suspensions from commands. (22)

The weapon used during the War of 1812 was a copy of the French “Charleville” muskets, which they provided for the American soldiers during the Revolutionary War. These would come to be known as the Springfield 1795 muskets. (23) Swords were standard issue for the officers and musicians. (24)

Women were also present during the war. Wives were chosen by a lottery system to be allowed to stay in camp with the men. Women were also employed as nurse maids, seamstresses and laundresses. (25) On the battlefield, women helped by passing water along to the soldiers. Women could also be seen stationed in high-ranking officer’s houses and worked as servants and cooks. (26)

Mexican-American War: 1846-1848 (

Mexican-American War: 1846-1848 (

The Mexican War saw an influx of well-trained officers. These men were new graduates from the West Point Military Academy. Although well trained at the school, they had never had experience in the field. (27) Enlisted men came from the low end of the socioeconomic ladder. Approximately forty percent of the men were immigrants and at least one-third of them were illiterate. (28)

To entice men to join the Army for the war, Congress settled on privates receiving $7 per month. The basic ration a soldier received during the war consisted of beef or pork, hard bread, peas, beans or rice, and a little salt, sugar and coffee, if available. Soon, the men began to turn to foraging the landscape and sampling local foods, which they found to be too spicy. (29) Enlisted men and officers both found themselves in ordinary tents. As time passed, men were put to work getting timber to build huts and officers, as well as enlisted men, enjoyed the comforts of these huts. (30)

Soldiers that committed offenses faced court martial, but the Articles of War gave the courts a considerable amount of leeway when assessing penalties. Therefore, two soldiers who committed the same crime, tried by two different courts, may receive two very different punishments. The sentences varied from running the gamut to death by hanging for desertion. (31)

The main weapons used during the war differed between the infantry soldiers and the dragoons. Infantrymen were armed with flintlock muskets and bayonets while the dragoons were equipped with carbines, pistols and sabres. (32)

Women did not play as major a role in the Mexican War as they did in previous ones. However, there were still women involved. There are records that some women became principle cooks in various forts. Also present were women who disguised themselves as men and enlisted in the Army beside their husbands. (33)

Civil War: 1861-1865 (

Civil War: 1861-1865 (

The Civil War saw the majority of soldiers as white, native-born, Protestant, unmarried and young. The soldiers also consisted of immigrants from Ireland and Germany and, officially beginning in 1863, freed black men. (34) The pay of the soldiers was as follows for the Union: Three-star Generals, $758 per month; Two-star Generals, $457 per month; One-star Generals, $315 per month; Colonels, $212 per month; Lieutenant Colonels, $181 per month; Majors, $169 per month; Captains, $115.50 per month; First Lieutenants, $105.50 per month; Second Lieutenants, $105.50 per month; Privates, $13 per month. The Confederates received roughly the same amount during the war, although it varied because of inflation. (35) During the war, there were many times that regiments would have to go long periods without their pay. Officers were expected to purchase their own meals, which caused some months to be grave. The lack of money caused foraging, theft and plunder. (36) At the outset of the war, the daily ration for a Union soldier was at least twenty ounces of fresh salt beef, or twelve ounces of salt pork; more than a pound of flour; and a vegetable. Coffee, salt, vinegar and sugar were also provided. The Confederate troops received a similar ration. (37) Soldiers initially slept in the Sibley tent, which could fit a dozen men. After some time, the Sibley tent was replaced with a similar, wedge-shaped tent and dog tents. During the winter months, the soldiers would cut down trees and create quarters made of logs and dirt. (38)

Soldiers began the war with the smoothbore musket, which had a limited range and accuracy. Shortly afterward, a new rifle-barreled musket came into effect. It was still a muzzle-loader, but the distance and accuracy greatly improved. Officers were equipped with a similar rifle-barreled pistol. (39) During a typical day, after every two hours, the company guard was changed and throughout the day, sometimes as many as five times, the men drilled. Sometimes the sessions would last as long as two hours. (40) In some camps there were special night schools to enable officers to learn what they would teach their troops the next day. (41)

Punishments ranged during the Civil War. Lesser offenses usually carried a punishment dependent on the whim of the commanding officers. Physical attacks on officers found the offender either imprisoned or drummed out of the service with a dishonorable discharge. The traditional ceremony for this was the guilty party having his head shaved and his buttons and insignia torn from his uniform in front of the entire regiment before proceeding to march out of camp between his former comrades. The most common punishment for slight offenses like drunkenness and insubordination was a few days in confinement. (42)

Women during the Civil War were seen throughout the war. Wives and children of officers often lived at camp during the tranquil months between campaigns. (43) Early on in the war, it was seen as improper for a woman to work in a hospital, but in August of 1861, the U.S. Congress allowed the use of female nurses. (44) Camp wives, although very few in numbers, could be seen around camp repairing clothing and cooking food for the soldiers. (45) Prostitution was also common during the Civil War. These women usually hung around the cities near war zones and at time flooded the camps. Any prostitutes caught in camp were tried, and most of the time found guilty and were imprisoned. (46) Women also became highly useful for the armies of both sides, sometimes acting as spies. (47) Even more resourceful were the women who disguised themselves as men and fought on both sides during the war. (48)

The changed from 1775 to 1865 proved to set the standards followed by the present day Army. Without the foundations of our past Army, we would not have the knowledge and experience currently available to us.

(1) Chadwick, 48; (2) Chadwick, 42; (3) Chadwick, 28; (4) Guthman, 6; (5) Chadwick, 25; (6) Chadwick, 19-20; (7) Chadwick, 26-27; (8) Chadwick, 21; (9) Chadwick, 28; (10) Chadwick, 24; (11) Chadwick, 47; (12) Chadwick, 178; (13) Chadwick, 181-182; (14) Guthman, 22; (15) Guthman, 3; (16) Guthman, 5; (17) Guthman, 94-100; (18) Guthman, 12-13; (19) War of 1812 Basics; (20) Rations; (21) The 17th Regiment of U.S. Infantry; (22) Military Justice; (23) War of 1812-1814; (24) A Soldier’s Story; (25) Little Known Facts of the War of 1812; (26) Upper Mississippi Brigade; (27) War; (28) War; (29) War; (30) Personal Memoirs; (31) War; (32) Weapons – Overview; (33) Women Were There; (34) Robertson, 26-29; (35) Boatner, (36) Robertson, 63; (37) Robertson, 85; (38) Robertson, 45-46; (39) Civil War Potpourri; (40) Robertson, 49; (41) Robertson, 52; (42) Robertson, 65; (43) Robertson, 60; (44) Robertson, 98; (45) Women of the American Civil War; (46) Robertson, 60-62; (47) Women of the American Civil War; (48) Robertson, 27


“A Soldier’s Story: Weapons.” (

Boatner, Mark M. “The Civil War Dictionary: Soldier’s Pay in the American Civil War.” (

Chadwick, Bruce. The First American Army. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005.

“Civil War Potpourri.” (

Guthman, William H. March to Massacre. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.

“Little Known Facts of the War of 1812.” (

“Military Justice: Military Punishment.” (

“Rations.” (

Robertson, James I. Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life. Alexandria, Virginia. TIME-LIFE BOOKS, 1984.

“The 17th Regiment of U.S. History.” (

“Ulysses S. Grant: Personal Memoirs.” (

Upper Mississippi Brigade. “The Roles Women Played in the War of 1812.” (

“U.S. Regiment of Rifles: War of 1812 Basics.” (

“War: A Call to Arms – The American Army.” (

“War: A Call to Arms – Life in the U.S. Army.” (

“War of 1812-1814.” (

“Weapons – Overview.” (

“Women of the American Civil War.” (

“Women Were There.” (


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Categories: History, Military, Research

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