Background to important 117th Illinois Infantry letter

Several months ago I posted the transcript of a letter written by a 117th Illinois soldier Thomas A. Whitesides. It is quite an interesting letter. I’m going to break this letter down in a series of successive posts so we can glean every nugget from this fine letter.

Before I get into the actual letter content it is important to lay the foundation in this post.

I previously stated the following about the letter writer and his regiment:

It was written by a 117th Illinois Infantry soldier named Thomas A. Whitesides. It is dated Nashville, Tenn., December 6th, 1864. This letter was written just six days after the Battle of Franklin (30 November 1864). The 117th was not engaged at Franklin.

Whitesides wrote this letter to his wife who was living in Belleville, Illinois. Belleville is just a little southwest from St. Louis. Records indicate that Belleville sent nearly 1,300 men into the Civil War. 921 out of 1,291 mustered out; 51 were killed or mortally wounded, 2 died as POWs, 52 died of disease, 69 were disabled, 49 deserted and 55 were discharged.

Thomas A. Whitesides enlisted August 12, 1862 as a Corporal. On September 19, 1862, he mustered into Company H of the 117th Illinois Infantry at Camp Butler in Springfield, Illinois. He mustered out on August 5th, 1865, having served nearly three years in the service for the Union. He died in 1919.

Whitesides would have seen action with the 117th in places like Vicksburg (summer 1863); western Tennessee chasing after Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry (Dec 1863); the Red River expedition and the Battle of Pleasant Hill (Feb 1864); the Battle of Nashville (Dec 15-16th, 1864), and the pursuit of Hood (Dec 18-27th, 1864).

Whitesides was a sergeant at Nashville (15 Dec 1864). What was the role of a sergeant in the Civil War?

A regiment, like the 177th Illinois Infantry, was original staffed by close to 1,000 men. By the war’s end it was not uncommon for a regiment to only field several hundred men on the field of battle.  It was not uncommon for one-half of an entire regiment to be unavailable for battle due to disease or a myriad of other reasons.

A regiment was made up by companies. At the start of the war, a Company (led by a Captain) was fielded by 80-100 men, almost all in that given Company were from the same county, sometimes even the same town.  Relatives – brothers, cousins, uncles, father-sons – often served in the very same Company. Most regiments had 10 Companies, starting with Company A and possibly going all the way through Company K (skipping “J”).  Whitesides was a member of Company H of the 117th Illinois.

Late in the war, again, it would not be uncommon for a Company to be reduced to 30-60 men at full strength.  Companies were further subdivided by platoons, usually two platoons per company. One platoon originally equaled 50 men.

Platoons were further broken down by sections, or four sections per Company. Each section was made up of two squads, led by a Sergeant.

About eight squads originally made up a platoon. The squad was the most basic and smallest size unit of soldiers fighting together during the Civil War.   A Corporal usually led a squad.

When Thomas A. Whitesides wrote his letter of 6 December 1864 at Nashville, he was a Sergeant in Company H of the 117th Illinois Infantry, which means he probably led roughly 10-20 men at Nashville.

It was very common for a company to lose a disproportionate number of Sergeants because they were key leaders on the very front line of battle.

Thus, here is the basic breakdown of the Company (100 men) during the Civil War:

Captain (1), 1st. Lieut. (1), 2nd. Lieut. (1)

1st Sgt. (1), Sgts. (4) and Corporals (8).

Plus 2 musicians.

And of course, around 80-100 men – privates – at original full strength.

8 thoughts on “Background to important 117th Illinois Infantry letter

  1. My Great Grandfather Served in the 117th Illinois Infantry, Company I Many of the battles you spoke of was ones he was engaged in. Thank you so much for the info you posted. It was a great help in verifying.

  2. I have a Civil war picture and ring that was Valentine Rapp’s. He was in the 117th infantry Company H. He is my great great grandfather on my Mother’s side.

  3. My great, great grandfather James Monroe Griffin was a cpl in the 117th, company K from St Clair county, cousins with the Whitesides.

  4. My 3rd great Grandfather, William Fleschert, and his son, my 3rd great Uncle,Henry Fleschert were in Company H. I am trying to find a photo of the unit or individual. Probably hopeless, but I will keep digging.

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