Top 20 Famous Civil War Units: The Best of the Best

The Civil War was a time in the history of the United States when family, friends and neighbors took up arms against each other.

I know that when I review my heritage on my Mother’s side, we had soldiers on both sides, but the majority were with the Union. My Father’s side barely had any people in the U.S. as they fled Belgium when Germany began to sweep across it in World War I.

Chuck proposed today’s post.

The Civil War in the United States began in 1861, after decades of simmering tensions between northern and southern states over slavery, states’ rights and westward expansion. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 caused seven southern states to secede and form the Confederate States of America; four more states soon joined them. The War Between the States, as the Civil War was also known, ended in Confederate surrender in 1865. The conflict was the costliest and deadliest war ever fought on American soil, with some 620,000 of 2.4 million soldiers killed, millions more injured and much of the South left in ruin. ~ History

As a person who loves to research, I grabbed hold of this with elated energy.

It can be quite difficult to put any certain military unit above another, but using various opinions and looking at battles and numbers of casualties, I am going to provide a list of the best of the best… The top 20 famous Civil War units.

top civil war units

We will start at #20 and work our way to #1.

#20: 5th New York Volunteer Infantry – Union

Led by Colonel Abram Duryée, this unit was known as Duryée’s Zouaves. Zouave comes from the French Zouaves who were fearless soldiers.

The 5th was formed in April of 1861. They were considered the best disciplined unit in the Army by General George McClellan.

The 5th participated in

  • The Battle of Big Bethel
  • The Peninsula Campaign
  • The Battle of Gaines’s Mill
  • The Second Battle of Bull Run
  • The Battle of Antietam
  • The Battle of Fredericksburg
  • and the Battle of Chancellorsville

#19: Louisiana Tigers – Confederate

This was another unit who used the French Zouaves depiction. After all, the French were quite populous in Louisiana.

These soldiers were mean and fearless. They were a part of many battles throughout the Civil War.

Originally formed in 1861, they did merge with the Army of North Virginia during the War.

They saw action in all of these:

  • Battle of Somerville Heights
  • Battle of Front Royal
  • Battle of Middletown
  • First Battle of Winchester
  • Battle of Mount Carmel
  • Battle of Cross Keys
  • Battle of Port Republic
  • Battle of Cold Harbor
  • Battle of Marven Hill
  • Battle of Cedar Mountain
  • Battle of Bristoe Station
  • First Battle of Manassas
  • Battle of Chartilly
  • Battle of Harper’s Ferry
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Battle of Maryes Heights
  • Battle of Salem Church
  • Second Battle of Winchester
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Battle of Raccoon Ford
  • Battle of Mine Run
  • Battle of Rappahannock
  • Battle of the Wilderness
  • Battle of Spotsylvania
  • Battle of Hanover Junction

#18: 21st Ohio Infantry – Union

The 21st was formed in 1861 with primarily volunteers from the Ohio vicinity. This unit fought mostly in the Western theater in the Civil War.

The 21st participated in:

  • Battle of Stones River
  • Battle of Chickamauga
  • Atlanta Campaign
  • Sherman’s March to the Sea
  • and the Carolina’s Campaign

#17: 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry – Union

Also formed in 1861, the 1st Minnesota were a very brave and fearless bunch of soldiers. They had high casualty rates because they were so fearless.

Battles they were in were:

  • First Battle of Bull Run
  • Battle of Ball’s Bluff
  • Battle of Seven Pines
  • Savage’s Station Battle
  • Battle of Glendale
  • Battle of Malvern Hill
  • Second Battle of Bull Run
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Second Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Battle of Bristoe Station
  • Mine Run Campaign

Civil war units

#16: 2nd Florida Infantry – Confederate

Brought into Confederate service in 1861, the 2nd Florida were in service all throughout the war. They fought in nearly every important battle there was on the Eastern theater. Several recognized leaders commanded the Florida troops with Edward Perry being one.

#15: 26th North Carolina Regiment – Confederate

This infantry regiment is known to have the highest casualties of all units, both North and South, during the Civil War. Started in 1861, the 26th participated in:

  • Seven Days Battles
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Battle of Bristoe Station
  • Battle of Wilderness
  • Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
  • Battle of Cold Harbor
  • Siege of Petersburg
  • Battle of Five Forks
  • Battle of Appomattox Court House

#14: Minty’s Brigade – Union

Colonel Robert Minty put together this brigade which was known as the Saber Brigade. It consisted of:

  • The 4th Michigan Cavalry
  • The 7th Pennsylvania Cavalry
  • and the 4th U.S. Cavalry

This Brigade was phenomenal. With 900 men, they held off 5,000 infantry by using mounted saber charges at Reed’s Bridge in the Battle of Chickamauga.

#13: 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment – Union

What was so cool about this regiment was Old Abe. Old Abe was a captured bald eagle that went with the regiment into battle.

The primary battles the 8th participated in was:

  • Battle of Iuka
  • Battle of Corinth
  • Siege of Vicksburg
  • Red River Campaign
  • Battle of Nashville

#12: 31st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment – Union

They were a rough and tough bunch. Nicknamed Dirty First, the 31st fought hard in these Civil War battles:

  • Battle of Belmont
  • Battle of Fort Donelson
  • Battle of Champion Hill
  • Battle of Big Black River
  • Siege of Vicksburg
  • Battle of Kennesaw Mountain
  • Battle of Atlanta
  • Battle of Jonesboro
  • March to the Sea

#11: Alabama 26th Infantry Regiment – Confederate

Formed in 1862 to add troops because of the capture of 2 battalions, the 26th fought in:

  • Battle of Seven Pines
  • Battle of Mechanicsville
  • Battle of Gaines Mill
  • Battle of South Mountain
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Bristoe Campaign
  • Atlanta Campaign
  • Battle of Franklin
  • Battle of Nashville
  • Carolinas Campaign

#10: The Michigan Brigade – Union

They were also known as Custer’s Brigade. Newly promoted George Custer led these soldiers into various battles that included:

  • Battle of Hanover
  • Battle of Hunterstown
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Bristoe Campaign
  • Mine Run Campaign
  • Raid on Richmond
  • Battle of Haw’s Shop
  • Battle of Fisher’s Hill
  • Battle of Cedar Creek
  • Battle of Five Forks
  • Battle of Sayler’s Creek

#9: 140th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment – Union

Known as the Rochester Racehorses, Captain Hiram Smith was given the go-ahead to form a regiment in 1862.

He built a solid infantry volunteer force who were in many battles that included:

  • Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Battle of the Wilderness
  • Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
  • Battle of Totopotomoy
  • Battle of Cold Harbor
  • Siege of Petersburg
  • Battle of Weldon Railroad
  • Battle of Hatcher’s Run
  • Appomattox Campaign

#8: The Stonewall Brigade – Confederate

General “Stonewall” Jackson formed this strong Brigade from undisciplined men and turned them into fighting machines.

This Brigade fought bravely in many battles and campaigns. While Jackson was promoted, he always stayed close in leading his brigade.

Many died and when they surrendered at the end of the Civil War, there were only 219 soldiers left.

#7: Lightning Brigade – Union

Formed by Colonel John Wilder, this was a fierce brigade that showed determination and skill throughout the Civil War.

Colonel Wilder was able to get the new Spencer Repeating Rifles for his men which gave them a huge advantage.

One of their most pivotal Battles was at Chickamauga when other Union units were being driven back, the Lightning Brigade drove forward.

battle of chickamauga

#6: 1st North Carolina Cavalry Regiment – Confederate

These soldiers fought hard and did not fear death.

To list all the battles and skirmishes the 1st were in would take several pages. I will just tell you that when the 1st North Carolina Cavalry Regiment surrendered in 1865, there were only 8 men.

#5: 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment – Union

We have written about the 20th and their famous defense at Little Round Top under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Their bayonet charge will always be remembered in history books.

Battles the 20th Maine were in:

  • Antietam
  • Fredericksburg
  • Gettysburg
  • Spotsylvania Court House
  • Petersburg
  • Five Forks
  • Appomattox

#4: 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment – Union

An all African-American unit, the 54th was commanded by white officers.

They fought hard knowing their freedom was a great thing after being enslaved.

Battles these soldiers were in:

  • Battle of Grimball’s Landing
  • Second Battle of Fort Wagner
  • Battle of Olustee
  • Battle of Honey Hill
  • Battle of Boykin’s Mill

#3: Texas Brigade – Confederate

Known as Hood’s Brigade since he was given command of these hard fighting soldiers.

These troops were so mean, they were considered “shock troops.”

Battles the Texas Brigade were in:

  • Battle of Eltham’s Landing
  • Battle of Seven Pines
  • Battle of Gaines’ Mill
  • Second Manassas
  • Antietam
  • Fredericksburg
  • Gettysburg
  • Chickamauga
  • Wilderness
  • Cold Harbor

#2: Iron Brigade – Union

Known for their distinctive uniforms, especially their black hats, the Iron Brigade gained their nickname because of their dispositions.

Soldiers in this Brigade came from Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.

They showed their gusto in:

  • Northern Virginia Campaign
  • Second Battle of Bull Run
  • Battle of Antietam
  • Battle of Fredericksburg
  • Battle of Chancellorsville
  • Battle of Gettysburg
  • Battle of Mine Run
  • Overland Campaign
  • Siege of Petersburg
  • Battle of Appomattox Court House

#1: The Irish Brigade – Union

Made up primarily with Irish-Americans who would fight like no one else could, their war cry was Faugh a Ballaugh which meant, Clear The Way!

This brave unit had its lineage carry on with the New York National Guard’s Fighting 69th.

I believe the Irish Brigade greatly earned their place as #1 on this list.

Northern victory in the war preserved the United States as one nation and ended the institution of slavery that had divided the country from its beginning. But these achievements came at the cost of 625,000 lives–nearly as many American soldiers as died in all the other wars in which this country has fought combined. The American Civil War was the largest and most destructive conflict in the Western world between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914. ~ American Battlefield Trust

Final Thoughts

What are your thoughts?

Do you agree with my list? Why or why not?

The history of the Civil War is both interesting and sad.

Please leave your thoughts below.

Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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5 thoughts on “Top 20 Famous Civil War Units: The Best of the Best”

  1. Thomas Rutledge

    What about the 124th Regiment, New York Volunteers (also known as the “Orange Blossoms”). Formed in 1862, they fought their way throughout the entirety of the Civil War and were even present for General Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox (after fighting in the Appomattox Campaign). This Regiment was in MANY significant battles and even had a soldier who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. If you aren’t familiar, take time to look them up…Wikipedia has a very nice summary article listing their movements and battle history.
    I’d really like to know your thoughts on this so please feel free to email and tell me how you see this Regiment and their place in history.

  2. You got that one right, at least in terms of the Irish Brigade & Iron Brigade having earned the top 2 spots on that very distinguished list👍👍 And let it be said that no one fought harder or more tenaciously nor stood their ground in the face of murderous fire more bravely nor drove home the point of a bayonet attack with greater ferocity & determination than the legendary Irish Brigade, the best of the best & one of the finest fighting units that ever took to the field of battle in all of American History! The Union’s fiercest shock troops, & perhaps the most formidable & fearsome soldiers in the whole World at that time (the Scottish Highland regiments & Gurkhas from Nepal excepted). Amazing!

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