Monday, February 8, 2010

Determining the Value of a Military Unit

How do you measure the true worth of a Civil War unit? One of my favorite Civil War books is Regimental Losses in The American Civil War, 1861-1865 written by Union veteran William F. Fox in 1898. The bulk of the book is devoted to Fox’s “Three Hundred Fighting Regiments,” the Union units “that sustained the heaviest losses in battle” (p. 122). However, Fox had a caveat about this list when he stated, “It may be suggested that large casualty lists are not necessarily indicative of the fighting qualities of a regiment; that on many occasions regiments have rendered valuable service and achieved a brilliant success with but slight loss” (p. 122). It is certainly true that the heavy losses of a particular unit may have had little to do with their “fighting qualities” and instead may be more indicative of “bad luck” or even poor leadership. I suspect you can readily come up with a list of regiments that suffered heavy losses because they were simply in that wrong place at the wrong time.

So, which regiments in the trans-Mississippi “rendered valuable service and achieved a brilliant success with but slight loss”? And on a related topic was it possible for a regiment to have great success with either little or no loss of life due to battle? After reading Andrew E. Masich’s The Civil War In Arizona: The Story Of The California Volunteers, 1861-1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006) I would like to nominate the California units that he chronicled for their impact on an entire region. Masich notes that these units suffered few combat casualties but summarizes their impact by stating: “Besides blazing trails, developing roads, and making maps, army supply contracts for forts along the Colorado River and isolated interior posts bolstered the economy of the fledgling [Arizona] territory. The military occupation also kept criminals and Apache raiders at bay, encouraging settlement and resulting in a population boom during the war years. Both officers and enlisted men publicized the territory’s mineral wealth as well as its climate, geography, and cultures. The Californians took an active role in the establishment of the new territory, and many would return after their military service to settle and further shape Arizona’s future” (p. 112). As an aside, in spite of the value of their service, these California units are not mentioned at all in Colonel Fox's book.


  1. A friend told me of your blog--I think your take is spot on. The contibutions of the California Volunteers should not be underestimated. James H. Carleton, commander of the Column from California, was the first to proclaim Arizona a U.S. territory. He gave California officers furloughs in order to run for public office in Arizona and he ordered California Volunteers to pan for gold, record their findings, and then helped to promote the Territoy's wealth to encourage capital investment. This was happening at the same time the California troops were destroying the war-making capabilities of the Navajos and several Apache bands (a tragic part of the war in the territories).

    The California Volunteers' impact in the Far West (especially Arizona, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon) extended beyond the battlefields of the Civil War.

    Andrew E. Masich

  2. I am so pleased to hear from the author himself! Your book highlighted a fascinating part of the war, and I thank you for educating me on the important role of the California Volunteers. Your comments in the book about the great logistical challenges of campaigning in the Far West were of great interest as well. Thanks for your comment.