Counting Heads: Looking At Civil War Troop Numbers for Wargaming

by Brett Schulte on December 15, 2005 · 2 comments

The genesis of this post occurred several weeks ago. I wanted to make sure I took a thorough look at this subject before creating a blog entry concerning it. As some of you who regularly read this blog may know, I am particularly interested in Orders of Battle (OOBs) that catalog unit strengths down to the regimental level. For that reason, I have created a web page featuring OOBs of this type, gleaned from the appendices of campaign studies and used with permission of the publishers in each case. In each case, I used the Present for Duty (PFD) strengths of regiments because that is the method the authors chose to use. I posted links to this information on some wargaming sites where I thought the readers might find use out of these OOBs for scenario design purposes. One gentleman took exception to the use of PFD numbers for wargaming purposes, and I agree with him to only a small extent. I have divided this blog entry into three parts. First, I hope to present a list of definitions for terms I will be using throughout this entry. Second, I want to talk a little about John Owen Allen’s methods in creating Present For Duty numbers for the Second Manassas Campaign, as that was a point of contention in the disagreement I mentioned above. Lastly, I will discuss the suitability of Present For Duty numbers for use with wargaming, what should be used in place of these numbers, and the specifics of the original discussion. Personal opinions are definitely welcomed here. I’d like to see what wargamers in particular and Civil War buffs in general believe on this subject.

Part 1: Steven H. Newton, Definitions, and Comparisons

In order to better understand his argument, I need to explain the terminology I will be using throughout this piece. Most of the definitions in this paragraph come from Chapter 2 (“Men, Horses, and Guns: Estimating Confederate Strength”) of Steven H. Newton’s Lost For The Cause: The Confederate Army in 1864. In this chapter, Newton describes the different methods for counting heads used by each side, and generally how they compare with each other. Newton gives five major categories for counting troop strengths, and his definitions for these are as follows:

1. Aggregate Present and Absent: all living men currently carried on the rolls of a unit

This would include men in camp, on leave, in hospitals, serving on details, prisoners of war, deserters, and long-term convalescents. Obviously this number really means nothing in terms of how many men were involved in a campaign or battle.

2. Aggregate Present: all the men of a unit who were within the camps of the army or detachment in question

Newton mentions that this term is sometimes used (incorrectly) as a synonym for “ration strength”. This term includes quite a few men who would never see battle, including “those under arrest, detailed as teamsters, clerks, and cooks, or the mildly sick and slightly wounded who had not been shipped off to hospitals in the rear.” Newton mentions that in some cases where a large sample size exists, you can try to estimate a PFD strength for the whole army by taking the ratio of known aggregate present to PFD ratios for units in an army or department and applying that ratio to the whole army. However, he stresses that this is “slippery ground”, due to the different ways each commander used this term. He calls the use of this process a “guesstimate”, and he only uses it in his study when no other way is possible.

3. Present for Duty (PFD): all the officers and men of a unit who marched into combat, and therefore did include a number of noncombatants, such as stretcher-bearers, musicians, and couriers

Newton says this category “most consistently attempted to record the number of men actually ready to participate in battle.” He calls PFD (and I bold part of this for reasons that will soon become clear) “the best consistent standard by which to measure the relative strengths of the opposing armies.”

4. Present For Duty, Equipped: A Union term meaning all officers and men who actually went into battle with appropriate weapons and accouterments

This term was used at the start of the war, but it was gradually phased out during the first two years, and PFD numbers were reported instead on the Union side.

5. Effectives: Confederate term for the number of enlisted men directly in the line of battle, excluding officers, stretcher bearers, and sometimes even senior NCOs or file closers

Newton notes that “effective numbers would therefore be among the lowest strengths reported for a unit, and would not accurately reflect the effectiveness of manpower mobilization.” Confederate leaders tended to count their men in terms of effectives throughout the war.

Now that the definitions are out of the way, we need to talk about the use of these terms by either side. After the war, a lot of the “Lost Cause” historians such as Jubal Early and Walter Taylor tended to compare Union PFD numbers versus Confederate Effectives. This had the effect of making the disparity in numbers greater than it truly was. In effect, these men were comparing apples to oranges. Thomas Livermore (and Newton in his research for Lost For The Cause) found that with “amazing consistency”, you can compare PFD and Effectives. They found that typically effectives represented 93% of enlisted PFD strength in the infantry and artillery, and 85% of the enlisted strength for the cavalry. They go on to say that 6.5% should be added to the enlisted PFD strength to account for officers. The formulas, as found on page 23 of Newton’s book, are as follows:

infantry/artillery: (effectives/.93) * 1.065 = PFD
cavalry: (effectives/.85) * 1.065 = PFD

Newton says that this method works with “astounding accuracy” when applied to known Confederate PFD and effective numbers in 1864, and that at the very least it results in a much better comparison than Union PFD versus Confederate effectives. I’m not in a position to agree or disagree with these gentlemen as far as the accuracy of this method goes. I simply present it here as their educated opinion on the subject, and I am inclined to trust their methods for use in counting heads for wargaming purposes.

Part 2: John Owen Allen’s PFD Numbers for Second Manassas

In 1993, John Owen Allen submitted a very interesting Master’s Thesis to the graduate faculty of George Mason University. The Director was Joseph L. Harsh, the same gentleman who is the author of Confederate Tide Rising, Taken At The Flood, and Sounding The Shallows. The thesis was entitled The Strength of the Union and Confederate Forces At Second Manassas. In fact, Harsh uses these numbers in Confederate Tide Rising. Allen came up with Present for Duty strengths down to the regimental and battery level for various days during the campaign. He did this by consulting the muster rolls of these units located in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Allen’s first chapter echoes many of the themes set forth by Steven H. Newton seven years later. Namely, he concludes that Northern PFD numbers were being compared to Confederate effectives because Southern PFD numbers are often missing or were not reported, and historians have chosen to go with what is available. In chapters two and three, Allen discusses the specific numbers for the Second Manassas Campaign. He mentions that using effectives creates significant distortions, and so he chose to use PFD numbers for comparative purposes. He defines PFD as “the maximum number of men who could be taken into battle that day”. He says he used the same methodology for both sides, building PFD strength using company muster rolls and monthly regimental returns. This eliminates any confusion or bias that occurs due to the use of terms which are not synonymous. Here I wish to include a small excerpt of pages 3-5 from Allen’s Thesis in which he describes exactly why it is best to use PFD numbers rather than effectives for proper comparisons.

By the 1870’s, participants on both sides had published many battlefield reports, commentaries, and memoirs. The estimates of force size made by ex-Confederates were consistently lower than those of the Union veterans. Part of the problem lay in the availability , access, and existence of army and subordinate unit returns. The Southerners could not use the documents which had been captured and and were forced to fall back on after-action reports which circulated among ex-participants. Since the Federals kept much better records, the Union archives contained many army and subordinate unit returns. This meant that the size of the Federal armies could be pinpointed with greater precision. This led to a problem which has bedeviled Civil War historians ever since; the difficulty of reconciling unit returns and battlefield action reports.

Battlefield reports often disclosed the number of soldiers actually present and involved in combat: the so-called “effectives”. This figure often widely diverged from the strength recorded on army returns, such as muster rolls and morning reports. The “present for duty” figure given on these returns was generally used to determine army size. Since many army returns for the Confederate forces were not available or had been destroyed, the Southern writers, initially, had little choice except to use battlefield reports. Many of these were highly impressionistic, and were based on ballpark estimates made by commanding officers rather than actual tallies.In general, effective size was less than those “present for duty”, and sometimes, substantially less. Hard marching, hot weather, rain, previous combat, details, and detachments all took their toll, as well as the presence of the ubiquitous slacker.

For example, on August 28, 1862, the 56th Pennsylvania marched down the Warrenton Turnpike, and near dusk fought with Stonewall Jackson’s men in the area around Groveton and Brawner’s Farm. At this time, according to the battlefield report, the 56th Pennsylvania had 180 men. During this brief but bloody encounter, the 56th sustained 62 casualties. After marching and skirmishing on August29, the 56th counted 330 men on August 30. On that day the 56th Pennsylvania participated in the climactic battle of the Second Manassas Campaign, sustaining an additional 64 casualties. On September 1, the regiment mustered 350 officers and men. How many men did the 56th Pennsylvania have during the Campaign of Second Manassas? Those writers who used the strength of the 56th Pennsylvania at Brawner’s Farm (180) as a base for computing its size in the campaign would have been making an error of over 100%. Unfortunately, because of the lack of other data, such situations often confronted Southern writers.

Part 3: Using PFD Numbers For Wargaming

I believe that using PFD numbers for a given day (let’s say August 29, 1862, the first day of Second Manassas) to represent the troop numbers in scenarios is perfectly acceptable, mainly because the number of troops . A gentleman who responded to one of my posts in a wargaming forum believed that Allen’s numbers for Kettle Run (a small fight which occurred just before Second Manassas) were useless. He formed this opinion by comparing Allen’s PFD numbers to two reports of Union Colonels whose “engaged” strengths (taken from the battlefield reports Allen mentions above) were considerably less than those PFD numbers. If you’ve read the two sections above, you can see why this might have occurred. Let me be clear when I say that I agree if the numbers of troops engaged are known for the majority of units engaged, then these numbers should be used and the units whose numbers are not known can be “guesstimated” by whatever method a scenario designer chooses. However, especially in late war situations like the siege of Petersburg, these numbers are simply not available for perusal. In those cases, I argue that PFD strengths should be used. This is the only fair way to compare the strengths of both sides and to make sure we are not inflating or deflating one side or the other.

The person who replied to my email also took issue with the validity of Newton’s and Livermore’s method of converting PFD numbers to effectives and vice versa. I cannot make an argument on the validity of their methods because I’ve never done years of research on the subject. If others who have done this would like to comment I’d love to hear it. At the time, I was a little annoyed by the fact that Allen’s Thesis would be called into question for use as a source for making wargaming scenarios. I had copied the numbers in my own spare time and made its numbers (and those of other authors) freely available to whoever wanted to use them. My personal biases or opinions did not enter the data, and the person seemed to imply that they did. He also made a comment about “trusting your sources”. In the end, I’m glad the person responded, because this blog entry is the result. And I do “trust my sources” as far as the PFD numbers for Second Manassas and the other battles go for the most part, with the exception of the Osprey books. I have personally verified some of the mistakes they have made, especially with regards to artillery tube types and numbers. Until this person (or anyone for that matter) can produce “engaged” numbers for 75% or more of the regiments and batteries at Second Manassas, I see no choice but to use and be happy with the PFD numbers of Allen, Newton, Livermore, Harsh, et al.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Kucinic July 18, 2008 at 5:32 pm

Following a review I did in another forum on the aforementioned Karsh book a discussion arose as to how exactly unit PFD numbers were ascertained. No conclusive answers were forthcoming. Having spent a brief time as a company clerk in the US Army I understood the importance of the Morning Report. Unimaginatively of course I assumed that there had ALWAYS been a morning report and that both the Union and CSA PFDs would reflect this. How else do you apportion rations and pay. After all, presumably they were teaching other things at West Point besides engineering, horsemanship and sword-play. In any event, do you know something more on this issue? Newton’s categories are all well and good, but how EXACTLY did they arrive at any individual category?


admin July 20, 2008 at 7:05 pm



In answer to your question about how PFD numbers are arrived at, the answer lies in the Consolidated Morning Reports. Take a look at the following web page while reading the rest of my email:

This site is absolutely unbelievable. The guys there digitized the existing CMRs for the 91st Pennsylvania and placed them online. I only wish this was being done for more regiments. This particular example is from September 26, 1863. In the consolidated morning report, you will see the following categories under the PRESENT heading:

1. For Duty
2. Special Duty
3. Extra and Daily Duty
4. Sick
5. In arrest or confinement

The grand total from these columns is the number PRESENT, separated into commissioned officers and all others. The combined number of officers and men PRESENT minus the number of officers and men listed in 2-5 above was the number of officers and men PRESENT FOR DUTY (217 men and 16 commissioned officers for a grand PFD total of 233). This is how you arrive at the PFD number for a regiment on any given day. You can guesstimate a day if you have two days near that day, preferably before and after. This way you can calculate any casualties incurred as well. Let me know if this is enough detail. I am going to write up a blog post highlighting your comment and the web page I just directed you to and post it probably in the last week in July 2008. Thanks for commenting! I often find some of my best ideas for posts are handed to me in the form of a question in my comments. This time proved no different. I hope this post helps!



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