23rd Virginia Infantry

History of Virginia Volunteer Forces

On April 17, 1861, the day on which the ordinance of secession was passed, the Convention of Virginia passed an ordinance authorizing the Governor to call into the service of the State as many volunteers that might be necessary to "repel invasion and protect the citizens of the state in the present emergency." The ordinance provided that the volunteers were to be received in companies, to be organized into regiments, brigades and divisions. It also contained authorization for the appointment of the general, field, and staff officers for the volunteers. The ordinance authorizing the call for volunteers was kept secret until April 20. This was done in order to allow time for the volunteer companies which had been alerted beforehand, to seize the Federal installations at Harper's Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth.

In pursuance of the call for volunteers made on April 20, Governor Letcher, on April 21, issued a proclamation ordering every armed and equipped volunteer company of artillery, infantry and riflemen in the counties between Richmond and the Blue Ridge, and in the valley from Rockbridge County to the Tennessee line, to hold themselves in readiness for immediate orders. The mobilization of the volunteers, however, was not accomplished in the orderly fashion such as the proclamation of April 21, and the calls that followed might suggest. In addition to the volunteer companies that had been called upon to seize Harper's Ferry and the installations at Norfolk many companies had since assembled at these points, apparently without proper orders. On the very day of the Governor's call of April 21, Maj. Gen. Kenton Harper, in command at Harper's Ferry, informed the Adjutant General that the force there numbered about 2,000 and that 500 more were expected the next day.

Meanwhile, on April 19, the Convention passed an ordinance providing for the appointment of a "commander of the military and naval forces of Virginia" with the rank of major general. On April 23, 1861, the office was formally accepted by Robert E. Lee, whose choice by Governor Letcher had been unanimously approved by the Convention. Lee was commissioned as a major general in the volunteers and in the Provisional Army of Virginia. Both commissions were dated April 24, 1861.

Under an ordinance adopted by the Convention on April 21, and amended on the 24th, the adjutant general's, quartermaster's, subsistence, medical, and pay departments, and an engineer's corps, were set up. The Adjutant General's Department was distinct from the office of the State's Adjutant General, William H. Richardson, whose functions were restricted to the militia. General Richardson, however, occasionally signed for General Lee as Assistant Adjutant General. The State's Ordnance Department, authorized on January 25, 1861, and under the able leadership of Col. Charles Dimmock since March 26, 1861, functioned for all components of Virginia's forces. On April 25 the following staff officers to head the departments were appointed and commissioned: Col. Robert S. Garnett, Adjutant General; Maj. George C. Hutter, Paymaster;. Col. Charles B. Gibson, Surgeon General; and Maj. Eugene E. McLean, Quartermaster. Other staff members appointed at various dates were: Maj. James R. Crenshaw, Subsistence Department, and Col. Andrew Talcott, State Engineer. Minor changes were to occur in the staff by the time they were transferred to the service of the Confederate States. 

In late April steps were taken to strengthen Norfolk and Harper's Ferry and instructions for mustering troops were sent to the officers commanding at Wheeling, Weston, and in the Kanawha valley.On May 1 Lee directed Col. Thomas J. Jackson, commanding at Harper's Ferry, to call out volunteer companies from the counties of Morgan, Berkeley, Jefferson, Hampshire, Hardy, Frederick and Clarke. Jackson was instructed to select, as far as possible, uniformed and armed companies and to organize them into regiments.

A general mobilization of volunteers had boon postponed because of the limited supply of arms and equipment and the time needed to sake the necessary preparations for the maintenance of a large army. By the first of May, however, it was felt that further delay in mobilizing the volunteers would be dangerous as the prospect of an invasion of the State appeared imminent.

On May 3, 1861, Governor Letcher authorized General Lee "to call out and be mustered into the service of Virginia, from time to time as the public exigencies may require, such additional number of volunteers as he may deem necessary. Lee, on the same day, sent orders to Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cocks, commanding at Alexandria, authorizing him to call out and muster into State service volunteer companies from the counties of Alexandria, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier, Rappahannock, Culpeper, Madison, Greene, Orange, Albemarle, Nelson, Amherst, Campbell, Bedford, Roanoke, Botetburt and Craig. As far as possible in organizing the volunteers into regiments, companies from the same section of the State were to be kept together. Similar orders were sent to Maj. Gen. Walter Gwynn at Norfolk and to Brig. Gen. Daniel Ruggles at Fredericksburg. At length, in May, the calls for volunteers were extended to cover all parts of the State.

The State Convention in April, 1861, formed an agreement with the Confederate States to place troops of the State under the control of the President of the Confederate States. On June 6, 1861, Governor Letcher, by proclamation, transferred to the Confederate States, by regiments, all the volunteer forces which had been mustered into the service of Virginia. The proclamation further provided for a like transfer of all "regiments, battalions, squadrons and companies, of all volunteers or militia, ' as the same shall be formed, and their services may be required." General Order No. 25, Headquarters Virginia Forces, dated June 8, 1861, announced that in compliance with the Governor's proclamation the command of the military and naval forces of Virginia were transferred to the Confederate States. The departments of the staff were directed to continue their functions under the control of the President of the Confederate States. The Virginia organizations, however; were not actually accepted into Confederate States service until July 1, 1861, the first day of a new quarterly administrative and pay period.

The term of service' for the Virginia volunteers called into service under the ordinance of April 17 was 12 months from the date on which they were mustered into State service. In fact, the Provisional Army of the Confederate States consisted largely of men enlisted for one year and as their terms were about to expire in the spring of 1862 it was feared that many would not re-enlist. Such a calamity was foreseen before the end of 1861. The Confederate Congress, in hopes of saving the army from disintegration, passed a furlough and bounty act on December 11, 1861. This act allowed one-year men a bounty of $50 and a 60-day furlough if they would re-enlist for two more years. Furthermore, it permitted the re-enlisted companies, battalions, and regiments to reorganize themselves and elect new officers. By this provision, efficient but unpopular officers might well be replaced by popular but worthless, officers. There were many, including Lee who viewed this as a destructive law for it permitted the army to disintegrate for two months. An act passed on January 23, 1862, authorized the President, at his discretion, to call on the states for any number of troops-for three years' service, and an act of January 27, 1862, authorized recruiting three years' volunteers for one-year companies then in service. On January 29, 1862, an act was passed which mentioned drafts by the states to fill the President's requisition for three-year men. Under these acts troops enlisted for less than three years were refused by the Confederate States except those raised for local defense service.

On April 16, 1862, Congress passed a law providing for the conscription of troops. It placed all between 18 and 35 years of age, not legally exempted, in service and also provided that all soldiers within that age group who were already in service should continue to serve for three years more. Congress amended the act on September 27, 1862, increasing the age limit from 35 to 45. The age limits for conscription were again changed on February 17, 1864, when they were established to extend from 17 to 50 years of age. However, those under 18 and over 45 were placed in a reserve for State defense. The law also extended the time of all soldiers in service to the end of the war.



Infantry Prior to The Civil War


Infantrymen were the foot soldiers armed with the musket, or rifle, and bayonet. It was upon the infantry that the strength of the other arms of the service was based: When the infantry volunteer companies were mustered into active service in 1861, their rolls quite often designated companies as light infantry or riflemen. These terms were a carry-over from the years before the war when most infantrymen were armed with the smoothbore musket. The troops comprising the infantry were divided into heavy and light; these distinctions arising partly from the kind of weapon they carried, and partly from their role on the battlefield. There were normally two companies of light infantry or riflemen in a regiment of ten companies. The heavy infantry was known as the infantry of the line, and the light as the light infantry and riflemen. Riflemen, armed with rifles, with the light infantry, were charged with the responsibility of opening an engagement and covering the front and flanks of the infantry of the line. With the advent of the rifled musket, however, the distinction between the classes of infantrymen became nominal. After their muster into service in 1861, these terms all but disappeared.

Virginia infantry regiments and battalions in 1861 and 1862, were officially called " Regiment of Virginia Volunteers," or "Battalion of Virginia Volunteers."


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