After a string of Federal battle defeats, in 1863 the Union Army had a large number of men suffering from injuries caused by battle wounds or illnesses. Instead of simply discharging these men and drafting replacements, it was decided to create the Invalid Corps to use them in limited duty assignments. They were assigned as prison guards, garrison troops, guards for prisoners coming back from the front, escorts for draftees going up to their units, hospital attendants and guards, cooks, clerks and many other non-battle, non-combatant duties. These assignments relieved other fully capable men for front-line duty. Later re-named the Veterans Reserve Corps, over 60,000 men saw honorable service while finishing out their tour of enlistment in the Union Army. The RACW uses the Invalid Corps members in similar non-battle scenarios.
An article from our volume VI, number 1, by Philip Katcher
The general was worried as he stared through his binoculars across a hot plain towards earthworks lined with muskets and cannon. It was July 11, 1864. The war was gong badly for the south, but the gray-clad general thought that here, just outside Washington, D.C., he had a chance to turn the tide.
Down in Petersburg, Virginia, the bulk of the famed Army of Northern Virginia was pinned in its trenches, watching its strength slowly ebb away. In desperation, Robert E. Lee had sent his Second Corps under Lieutenant General Jubal Early to drive down the Shenandoah Valley, clearing it of Union forces, and then moving on, and possibly even capturing, the enemy's capital. This would, at the very least, scare the Federal high command enough that they would recall all those troops who had been stripped from Washington's defenses and sent to join the Army of the Potomac, thus reducing the pressure on Lee's beleaguered army
The first part of Early's orders had been followed to the letter. In a campaign that followed in the footsteps of the famed Stonewall Jackson, the Confederates drove the Union troops out of the Valley and, after a stiff fight at Monocacy, began marching towards the line of forts that surrounded the Federal capital city. Would Early's 8,000 men arrive before veteran troops from the Army of the Potomac could be shipped back from Virginia?
John Worsham, 21st Virginia Infantry, recalled later how they reached the city's outskirts: "We soon came in sight of the Soldier's Home, where the enemy had a signal station. We could see the fortifications on each side of the road...and the men marching into them. Their dress induced us to think that they were town or city forces, for some of them looked as if they had on linen dusters, and none of them had on regular uniform."
These oddly clad troops lined the walls of the city's forts, including Fort Stevens in the center of the southern axis of advance. Major General Robert Rodes, whose division lead the southern host, was ordered by Early "to bring it into line as rapidly as possible, throw out skirmishers, and move into the works if he could."
But the men in the Union lines didn't act like local militia. Instead of running at the sight of tough Confederate veterans, they fixed bayonets and charged into the southern ranks. Three times they attacked, driving the Confederate skirmishers back to the protection of their main line.
Rodes reported that he couldn't take the forts, and Early decided to wait until he could get all his men into line the next morning before attacking. When dawn came, however, he learned that two veteran corps of Union troops had just arrived outside Washington. Early hesitated, then postponed the assault and called a meeting of his top commanders to discuss the situation.
One of those oddly clad defenders, Alfred Bellard, later recalled that on the morning of the 12th his regiment "...went out on the skirmish line, as the rebels were now on our front, and the artillery had got to work. By this time the 6th and 19th corps from the army had arrived and went into action at Fort Stevens. Our line was on a range of hills that surrounded the city and was well fortified with earthwork forts, armed with siege guns, the entire chain of forts being connected with rifle pits. In the afternoon our Regt. was ordered to relieve the 6th on the skirmish line. Advancing to the edge of the hill, we were deployed out as skirmishers with our company on the extreme left.... After we had scrambled over lots of brush wood, we finally reached our position on the crest of the hill, and saw the rebel skirmishers posted on a range of hills in front of us, but out of range so far as we were concerned, as we were armed with smooth bore muskets, while the rebels had long range rifles."
There Bellard's regiment waited for an attack, but none came. Instead, alarmed by reports of Union reinforcements and probably surprised by the aggressive defense of the day before, Early abandoned, as he later wrote, "the idea of capturing Washington (and) ... determining to remain in front of the fortifications during the 12th and retire at night."
Bellard recalled that on "the morning of the 13th every thing was quiet along the line and scouting parties were sent out. They were soon marching over the ground lately held by the rebs, but not one could be seen, with the exception of two dead ones, who had been left unburied. The enemy had fled."
Who were these men who were not in "regular" Union army uniform but had acted so aggressively against veteran Confederate troops? For the most part they were men of three regiments of the Veteran Reserve Corps, veterans themselves of many hard-fought battles, although the Confederates didn't know that. They were men who had been wounded or became ill and were considered no longer capable of hard campaigning or prolonged exposure to the weather, but who could still serve their country.
The Veteran Reserve Corps (V.R.C.) was created on April 28, 1863, as the Invalid Corps under the command of the Provost Marshal General. Its recruits were to come from general hospitals and convalescent camps. They were divided into three categories. According to recruiting instructions, "recruits of the 1st Battalion should be capable of using a musket; those of the 2d Battalion are to have the use of one of the upper extremities; those of the 3rd Battalion are to have use of at least of one of the lower extremities." In actual practice only 1st and 2d Battalions were formed; enough one-legged recruits still willing to serve could not be found to fill out the 3d Battalions.
Bellard, who had been in the 5th New Jersey until wounded in the leg at Chancellorsville, described how he ended up in the V.R.C.: "There were two boards of surgeons, whose duty it was to examine all the men as to their fitness for the service, whether for active service with their regts. in the field, and if not, but still able to do duty round hospitals or cities, to determine whether they should go into the first or second battalions of invalids, if not fit for either, to grant their discharges. After being examined by the first board, I was sent back to my quarters as not being fit for active service, and on going before the second board, they had quite a discussion whether to discharge me or not. They finally came to the conclusion to put me in the first battalion of invalids. Accordingly I changed my quarters to the invalid barracks, there to stay until the company was full."
Eventually, able-bodied men who had seen front line service and been discharged were allowed to join the V.R.C. First Battalion men served as guards of government property, railroads and bridges, as well as over prisoners of war going to he rear and draftees going to the front. Second Battalion men served as clerks, cooks, and nurses.
Because the letters I.C. stood not only for the Invalid Corps but also for "Inspected, Condemned," the mark stamped on worn-out army equipment, the men took some ribbing from other soldiers. "The boys called us Condemned Yanks," Bellard recalled.
A song about the Invalid Corps became popular at the front: "So now I'm in the Invalids/ I cannot go and fight, sir./ The doctor told me this is so,/ and of course the doctor's right, sir."
After a year of this, the Invalids were renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps on March 18, 1864.
V.R.C. members stood out, as Early's Confederates noticed, because of their unique uniforms, possibly the most handsome in the Union army. According to General Orders No. 124, issued May 15, 1863. "The following uniform has been adopted for the Invalid Corps: Jacket: Of sky-blue kersey, with dark-blue trimmings, cut like the jacket of the U.S. Cavalry, to come well down on the loins and abdomen. Trousers: Present regulation, sky-blue. Forage cap: Present regulation."
In fact the jackets were not identical to those issued to mounted men in design or cut. The number of buttons varied.
Bellard described his jacket as being "made of light blue cloth with black braid for trimmings and nine small burtons down the front." Other examples show 10 and 12 buttons also being used. Moreover, the jackets had trimmed epaulets on the shoulders rather than brass shoulder scales. The collars were cut lower, with only one line of dark blue worsted lace forming a false buttonhole. There were no belt support pillars or trim on the back, and most jackets had slits on each side like chasseur jackets. Hues varied according to maker, ranging from violet to sky-blue.
V.R.C. troops also wore standard dark blue fatigue blouses from time to time. Standard forage caps were to be decorated with the brass infantry horn, regimental number, and company letter.
Officers also wore sky blue; a frock coat "Of sky-blue cloth, with dark blue velvet collar and cuffs, in all other respects according to the present pattern for officers of infantry. Shoulder straps were also to match current patterns but "worked on dark-blue velvet." Officers of the 24th Regiment, V.R.C. also wore gold epaulets on parade.
Eventually officers were allowed to wear the standard dark-blue frock, ostensibly because sky-blue frocks soiled easily. Some officers had their frocks cut down to make uniforms or shell jackets. By the war's end, however, the Army was still making sky-blue officers' frocks.
Because they represented he Provost Marshal's office, men of the V.R.C. often came under stricter dress discipline than did men in line units. According to Bellard, "We were not under strict military rule, not being allowed to wear anything that was not issued by the government, even to our shoes. When out on pass we must have our jacket buttoned up to the chin, waist belt on and also white gloves. Our major ... was an officer in the regular army, and had but one eye. While I was walking along Penn. Ave. one day out on pass I had my old corps badge and shield on my jacket, and that was unbuttoned, when who should come along but the major, who ordered me to take off my badges and button my jacket. I did neither (except for) when I was in his sight.
An occasional duty for the V.R.C. was supplying music for parades and hospital concerts. These bands were often elaborately dressed, their being no special regulations governing their attire. In Bellard's regiment, the 1st, "Our band ... were handsomely attired in (sky) blue jackets trimmed with black facings and three rows of brass buttons shake hat with plume, and brass eagle ornament, epaulettes, and black pants with blue, black, and gilt stripe down the seam. They looked very gay, but the company funds had to sweat in rigging them out. The officer paid an assement for that purpose and the funds did the rest." The shakos were imported from France.
Weapons for the V.R.C. were not as fancy. Most regiments carried smoothbore muskets, either the U.S. M1842 or imports from Austria, France, or Prussia. Only the 6th, 9th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 22d, and 24th Regiment received the latest model Springfields, while the 8th was armed with Enfields. Second Battalion men, most of who had use of but one arm, received swords, probably N.C.O. or musician's models, and pistols. The pistols were largely Lefaucheux, Savage, and Starr.
Originally the V.R.C. was organized into independent companies. Between October 10, 1863, and February 24, 1864, some 240 of these companies were organized into full two-battalion regiments. Twenty-four V.R.C. regiments were stationed throughout the North from Minnesota and Iowa to New England and the nation's capital. An additional 18 independent companies were not assigned to regiments.
Except for the defense of Washington, the V.R.C. saw little combat. Its men had already done so, of course, before joining the V.R.C. They continued to serve their country, freeing able bodied men from rear echelon assignments for combat duty.
The last V.R.C. company was discharged in October 1866. They had served well. As Bellard recalled, when Early's threat had ended and Bellard's regiment returned to the capital, "The citizens of Washington were glad to see the Regt. back again, as they were well thought of for their efficiency and soldierly bearing