"Company C, Fall In!" A primer in forming companies and regiments into line

 In 1901, William Saxton, formerly a captain in the 157th New York, penned a lengthy series of war reminiscences published by his local newspaper, the Edgar Post, in Edgar, Nebraska. Amongst his earliest articles, Captain Saxton explained in great detail how he joined the army, how his company was recruited, and how his regiment was formed.      

    One detail that I found particularly interesting (and something that I always wondered about) was the position of companies within a regimental line. As Captain Saxton explains, the company letters never changed (Company A was always Company A) but the position of the company within the regimental line changed constantly, affected by the seniority of the officers commanding each company.  

    "For instance, if the colonel is killed, the lieutenant colonel takes his place, the major takes the lieutenant colonel’s place, and the ranking captain takes the major’s place, and each of the other officers are advanced in rank one point," explained Saxton. "The captain of Co. B would now be first company, and its position would be on the right of the regiment, and the first lieutenant, promoted to captain, would be lowest in rank and his company would take the position of Co. K, the tenth company. Officers are not always promoted in the order of their seniority in rank. Sometimes a junior is promoted over several seniors. Whatever place the commander of a company holds in regard to his seniority of rank, his company takes the position in the regiment according to his number." 

    Captain Saxton's lengthy and exquisitely detailed reminiscences ran on a weekly basis in the Edgar Post from the January 4, 1901, issue through February 14, 1902. Based largely on a service diary he kept during the war, the memoir follows the travails of the 157th New York through its ill-starred time serving with the 11th Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac through the Chancellorsville and Gettysburg campaigns (a future post will highlight his Chancellorsville experience) and its subsequent service with the Department of the South in South Carolina and Florida. In this post, Captain Saxton explains how he came to the decision to enlist and how his company and regiment was formed in that momentous summer of 1862. 

    In 1995, the Cortland Historical Society published Captain Saxton's diary as A Regiment Remembered: The 157th New York Volunteers

Captain William Saxton (1841-1917) had just graduated from Cincinnatus Academy with plans of becoming a school teacher when he made the decision to enlist in a local company being formed by Frank Place. Saxton began the war as fourth sergeant of Co. C, 157th New York, but was gradually promoted up from the ranks and was commissioned captain in October 1864. Saxton served with the regiment until mustered out in July 1865. In later years, he and his family moved to Illinois then Nebraska and later Los Angeles, California where he died October 30, 1917. 

The Confederate army around Richmond began its northern move which culminated in the Battle of Antietam on the 1st of August and on the 9th, President Lincoln called for an additional 300,000 men. On the night of August 11th, a great war meeting was arranged in the presbyterian church of Cincinnatus, New York. All that day while at work mowing or pitching hay, I was considering the matter of enlisting. Should I give up my plans of being a teacher, or go into the army? Should I offer my services and my life, if need be, to my country?

          I don’t think a young man ever went over all the considerations more carefully than I did, and yet, this is but a single experience of the tens of thousands of young men who went into that war. I realized that it meant an entire change in my plans for life. It might mean sickness, wounds, loss of limbs, and even life itself. It certainly would mean hardships, privations, and suffering. But my country was in danger. Did my country not need me more than I need what I had planned for myself? In fact, if my country was not saved, what would my plans amount to anyway? Others had gone, more must go. Was it not my duty now to go also?

          In the afternoon, the matter was settled. I had arrived at a conviction and a conclusion. My country needed me. It was my duty to respond. I would go. When I came in to supper that night, I told my father my decision and, with tears in his eyes, he said, “God bless you, William. If you have decided it is your duty to go, I shall not say no.”

          That night at the war meeting, after the speaking was over, I went forward and signed the enlistment roll promising to serve my country for three years or during the war. Seventeen others enlisted with me. At Willet, four miles south of us, eleven more enlisted for our company the same night. From August 11-20, the time was occupied in securing the necessary number of enlistments for a full company of 100 men. These were mainly obtained from the surrounding towns of Marathon, Solon, Freetown, Taylor, Pitcher, Willet, and Linklaen.

          During these eight days of probation, I helped my father finish his haying and visited my friends. Arrangements with made with citizens to take the company across the country in wagons to Hamilton in Madison County, about 40 miles from Cincinnatus, where we were ordered to rendezvous. On August 20th, we said goodbye to friends and started off at 7 a.m. Sidney Smith was going to take his brother John P. Smith in a buggy and invited me to ride with them. We stopped for dinner at Georgetown, drove on ahead of the company, and arrived at Hamilton at 3 p.m. We reported at once to the examining surgeon’s office at the Wickwire Hotel, the headquarters of the regiment, where we stripped naked and were examined for physical defects and our heights taken. All of which was accomplished before the company arrived.

          Hamilton was a town of 1,000-1,500 inhabitants in Madison County, northeast of Cortland County. It was a college town; Madison University, now Colgate Academy, was located there. At that time, it had no railroad but a canal ran through it from Utica to Binghamton. Our camp was at the fair grounds north of the village. John P. Smith and I did not report there that night but accepted the invitation of his brother and stayed with him at the hotel. The next day we reported at the camp and found a large circus tent pitched to accommodate the regiment as sleeping quarters. The buildings of the fair grounds were occupied as offices, dining rooms, and guard house.

Captain Frank Place of Co. C, 157th New York was a graduate of Cincinnatus Academy like William Saxton. In July 1862, he was granted leave from his post as quartermaster sergeant of the 10th New York Cavalry to return home and recruit an infantry company for three years' service. Place would be captured at Gettysburg but would be promoted to the rank of major, mustering out with the regiment in July 1865. 

          After breakfast, Captain Frank Place came with the “descriptive lists” and other papers to be made out. I helped at that during the forenoon with several others. In the evening, the company went downtown to a war meeting at the Baptist church. Later we came back to camp and slept in the tent. Probably 500 of the regiment were already there and what one could not think to do 499 others could. You may imagine the performances; it passes my power of description. This was before general military discipline had gotten hold of us and straightened us out. The officers, except the officer of the guard, stayed downtown at the Hotel Wickwire. Some of us Cincinnatus boys got passed out at night and slept in somebody’s hay mow, coming back to camp at 5 a.m. the next morning.

          After breakfast, an announcement was made in regard to the officers of the company. The commissioned officers were Captain Frank Place, First Lieutenant James A. Coffin, and Second Lieutenant Job D. Potter. I found myself appointed fourth sergeant. A full company consisted of three commissioned officers and 100 enlisted men. From these men were selected the non-commissioned officers, five sergeants and eight corporals. The formation of a company in line is in two ranks 13 inches apart called the front rank and rear rank, the men touching each other’s elbows. The eight corporals are placed in the front rank as follows: the tallest corporal is place on the right, and the tallest man behind him in the rear rank. Each front and rear rank man is called a “file.” The next two tallest men are placed to the left of the first file and so on down to the left of the company and so on down to the left of the company whose last file is the shortest corporal and shortest man. [Hardee's tactics from 1855 stated that officers were to ensure that the rear rank men were slightly taller than the front rank men to allow the rear rank to safely discharge their weapons without interference from the front rank men.] 

          The company is divided in the center from right to left, and the right half is called the first platoon, the left half, the second platoon, each of these platoons are divided in the center in the same manner into sections. So we have in the company two platoons composed of four sections. The corporals are placed at the right and left of each section according to height. The captain’s position is on the right of the company in the front rank, touching with his left elbow the right of the tallest corporal. The first sergeant is immediately in the rear of the captain in the rear rank.

The remaining officers and sergeants are posted as “file closers” and are two paces behind the rear rank. The first lieutenant’s place is opposite the center of the fourth section. The second lieutenant’s place is opposite the center of the first platoon; the second sergeant’s opposite the second file from the left of the company; the third sergeant opposite the second file from the right of the second platoon. The fourth sergeant, my position, was opposite the second file from the left of the first platoon while the fifth sergeant was opposite the second file from the right of the first platoon. A company formed in this manner is said to be “in line” or “in line of battle.” The right end of the line is the right flank and the left end the left flank.

157th New York monument at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania marking the regiment's heaviest sacrifice of the war. Captain Frank Place led Co. C into action that afternoon with 46 officers and men; Sergeant William Saxton led the six surviving privates out that evening. The regiment as a whole went into the fight with 375 men and by the end of July 1st, only 125 remained in the ranks, the rest casualties on the field. 

On September 13, the colonel came back from Albany and on dress parade announced that our regiment would be the 157th New York Volunteers. Five companies of our regiment were raised in Cortland County and five in Madison County. Our company was Co. C, the color company, and our captain third in the rank of captains. A new infantry regiment was composed of ten companies, and each company is lettered A-I, and K. The captains of the companies take their places according to the company letters. The captain of Co. A is first in rank, Co. B is second, and so on.

When a regiment is formed in line, each company takes its place according to the rank of its captain in following order (in parentheses) from right to left:

B (2), G (7), K (10), E (5), H (8), C (3), I (9), D (4), F (6), A (1)

          The letters of a company never change but the numbers are constantly changing. For instance, if the colonel is killed, the lieutenant colonel takes his place, the major takes the lieutenant colonel’s place, and the ranking captain takes the major’s place, and each of the other officers are advanced in rank one point. The captain of Co. B would now be first company, and its position would be on the right of the regiment, and the first lieutenant, promoted to captain, would be lowest in rank and his company would take the position of Co. K, the tenth company. Officers are not always promoted in the order of their seniority in rank. Sometimes a junior is promoted over several seniors. Whatever place the commander of a company holds in regard to his seniority of rank, his company takes the position in the regiment according to his number.

          A regiment is divided in the center into two wings, the same as a company is into platoons. The right and left wings, the division occurring between companies No. 3 and 8, or C and H in the original formation. In each regiment, there is a color bearer and color guard, to be selected by the colonel. The color bearer is a sergeant and the guard is composed of eight corporals. The front rank is composed of the sergeant and one corporal on each side. The rear rank is of three corporals and the remaining three corporals will be on the line of the file closers. The position of the color guard is on the left of the right center company and in maneuvers is attached to that company. That is why our Co. C (No. 3) was called the “color company” when the regiment was organized. The color bearers have a belt around their waists with a socket in it in which to insert the end of the flag staff to carry it on parade.

          Besides the battle flag, the United States flag, the different states furnished their regiments with a state flag. New York’s was a handsome dark silk flag with the coat of arms of the state of new York handsomely painted on its sides and embellished with plenty of gold leaf. Truly these two handsome flags were wonderfully beautiful when fluttering in the breeze in the center of a thousand young men, decked out in Uncle Sam’s new uniform of dark blue. They looked quite different now from what they did at the end of three years when we returned them to the state soiled, ragged, and battle-scarred, but they were a thousand times more dear to us for this baptism of blood. There are oil cloth cases for them, when they are furled, to protect them from soil and storms.

For a few additional perspectives of introduction to army life during the Civil War, check out these posts: 

The 13th Ohio and the School of the Soldier

Armor of God: The Union Blues of Marietta Go to War

Sources:

War Reminiscences of Captain William Saxton, Co. C, 157th New York Volunteer Infantry, Edgar Post (Nebraska), March 1, 1901, pg. 4; March 8, 1901, pg. 8

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