George Patton famously said that “an army is a team.” Often, this statement is taken in terms of commanders and units working together, but there is another essential element that makes an army (or any headquarters) work: the command staff.
A headquarters is often perceived as simply the location of the commander’s tent or the building in which the commanding general’s office is; in reality, it is the team of people who exist to translate the commander’s thoughts into action and ensure the supplying and functioning of the command. Staff officers are also a communications link between different headquarters, and are often considered personal representatives of the commanding general.
Counting orderlies, teamsters, and other functional personnel, a Civil War headquarters could range in size from a handful of people for a regiment to a few score for a corps or army. (For comparison, in 1945 Lieutenant General Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army headquarters numbered 1,700 people; today a comparable headquarters contains over 2,500 personnel.) Staff work can appear unglamorous, but is essential to the proper functioning of a military organization in the field. Like many logistical processes, it is out of view except when it doesn’t function properly.
Today’s U.S. Army staff structure was borrowed from the French in 1917; it features deputies for administration (S-1 in battalions, regiments, and brigades; G-1 in higher HQs), intelligence (S-2/G-2), operations (S-3/G-3), and logistics (S-4/G-4). Top-level headquarters often add additional departments for finance, information technology, plans, and the like, while also maintaining a Special Staff (Chaplain, Judge Advocate General, Surgeon, etc).
Compared to the Army’s modern staff structure, Civil War staffs were considerably smaller. A commander’s staff in the 1860s consisted of deputies for personnel, ordnance, medical, provost, and subsistence; higher-level staffs also had an engineer section that covered mapmaking and other support. General officers were authorized aides, one for a brigade commander and up to four for an army commander; these could be supplemented by “volunteer aides.” Generally, the lower one went in the command chain, the smaller a commander’s staff; most staff departments did not exist below corps level.
Note that virtually all of the staff positions listed above fall into the 1 and 4 categories on a modern staff. A Civil War commander was in effect his own operations officer and intelligence officer at the same time, which placed a strain on the senior leadership. Some commanders (most notably Joseph Hooker in the Army of the Potomac and W.S. Rosecrans and George H. Thomas in the Army of the Cumberland) created intelligence bureaus at army level to assist them, with some success. Other commanders (such as Robert E. Lee, Braxton Bragg, and Philip Sheridan) improvised by hiring spies and using cavalry to scout, but that was often a poor substitute for a full-time intelligence officer gathering and analyzing information about the enemy. Engineers often played an intelligence role, which is why G.K. Warren was atop Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. But many commanders scouted on their own: Generals Jesse Reno, John Sedgwick, Phil Kearny, and Stonewall Jackson all were killed or mortally wounded while on reconnaissance.
These multiple roles also meant that senior leader casualties would sometimes cripple a formation’s combat effectiveness in battle. Today, an operations department would brief the new commander and ensure continuity of battlefield leadership; in the Civil War there was no such redundancy. That fact helps explain why leader casualties either disorganized units (John B. Hood at Gettysburg) or blunted momentum (Israel Richardson at Antietam).
This post can only give a short overview of a very complex topic, but one that is essential to understanding how Civil War armies moved and fought. For additional information, see William P. Craighill’s Staff Officer’s Guide published in 1862 and since reprinted.
Top Image: Headquarters Army of the Potomac at Massaponax Church, Virginia, in May 1864. Included in this group were Lieutenant General U.S. Grant and several officers from Headquarters Armies of the United States.