The Volunteer Army began forming in November–December 1917 by General Mikhail Alekseyev in Novocherkassk and General Lavr Kornilov and his supporters. Initially, the Volunteer Army included volunteering officers, cadets, students and Cossacks. Of the first 3,000 recruits, just 12 were soldiers, the rest were officers. Some of them resented having to serve as privates. On December 27, 1917 (January 9, 1918), the creation of the Volunteer Army was officially announced. Alekseev became its overall leader, Kornilov - its Commander-in-chief, General Alexander Lukomsky - its Chief of Staff, General Anton Denikin – commander of the 1st Division and General Sergey Markov – commander of 1st Officers regiment. They also created the so-called Special Council at the headquarters, which included prominent civilian politicians such as Peter Struve, Pavel Milyukov, Mikhail Rodzianko, Sergey Sazonov and Boris Savinkov.
In early January 1918, the Volunteer Army numbered approximately 4,000 men and fought against the Red Army together with the units of General Aleksei Kaledin. In late February, the Volunteer Army had to retreat from Rostov-on-Don due to the onset of the Red Army and left for Kuban in order to unite with the Kuban Cossack formations, a manoeuvre known as the Ice March. However, most of the Kuban Cossacks did not give their support to the Volunteer Army. Only a small unit (3,000 men) under the command of General Viktor Pokrovsky joined the Volunteer Army on March 26, 1918, increasing its number to 6,000 people. The Volunteer Army's attempt to capture Yekaterinodar between April 9 and April 13 was a fiasco, costing Kornilov his life. General Denikin took the command over the remnants of the Volunteer Army and left for the remote stanitsas beyond the Don region. In June 1918, 3,000 men of Colonel Mikhail Drozdovsky joined the Volunteer Army. On June 23, the Volunteer Army (8,000-9,000 men) began its so called Second Kuban Campaign with the support from Pyotr Krasnov. By September 1918, the Volunteer Army had already had 30,000-35,000 men thanks to mobilization of the Kuban Cossacks and "counterrevolutionary elements", gathered in the North Caucasus. Thus, the Volunteer Army took the name of the Caucasus Volunteer Army.
In the Autumn of 1918, the governments of Great Britain, France and the USA increased their material and technical assistance to the Volunteer Army. With the support from Entente, the forces of the South Russian Whites were combined into the so-called Armed Forces of South Russia (Вооружённые силы Юга России, or Vooruzhenniye sily Yuga Rossii) under the command of Denikin. In the late 1918 - early 1919, Denikin managed to inflict a defeat on the 11th Soviet Army and capture the North Caucasus region. In January 1919, the Caucasus Volunteer Army was divided into the Caucasus Army and the Volunteer Army, which would later be joined by the Don Army, created from the remnants of Krasnov's Cossack Army. After capturing Donbass, Tsaritsyn and Kharkov in June 1919, Denikin began to advance towards Moscow on June 20 (July 3). According to his plan, the main blow to Moscow was to be inflicted by the Volunteer Army (40,000 men) under the command of General Vladimir May-Mayevsky.
The White Army was accused by the Soviets of cruelty in its conquered territories, usually against the workers, for which the Soviet historiography would dub this regime "Denikinschina". Some of the units and formations of the Volunteer Army possessed good military skills and fighting strength due to a large number of officers in its ranks, who hated and despised the Soviets. However, the Volunteer Army's fighting efficiency started to decrease in the summer of 1919 in light of significant losses and conscription of mobilized peasants and even Red Army soldiers in captivity.
During the counter-offensive of the Red Army (since October 1919), the Volunteer Army sustained a decisive defeat and rolled back to the South. In the early 1920, it retreated to the areas beyond the Don region and was reduced to a Corps of 5,000 men under the command of General Alexander Kutepov.
- "Many of the Cossacks were far from having any ideology. The more educated ones had some ideas, some convictions, and the majority of them were against the Bolsheviks, of course. Though there were also those who believed that you could somehow come to terms with the Reds. By the way, anti-Semitism was unknown among the Cossacks. The Cossacks never saw any Jews. Jews weren't allowed to live in Cossack regions. And then later in life when they met up with Jews they'd see they were people like anyone else. In the Crimea I ran into a Lieutenant I knew and asked him, 'What are you doing here?' And he says, 'I'm staying with some Jewish friends.' And I said, 'But you're an officer in the White Army!' It turned out he was a Jew himself, he'd fought with the Volunteer Army, and had been promoted to officer for merit in combat."
The Volunteer Army has been criticized for its treatment of political prisoners (and the prisoners' respective communities). K. N. Sokolov, an anti-Bolshevik activist and Kadet politician who advocated for the Russian government's movement toward a constitutional monarchy, lambasted this characteristic of his own organization. He wrote, "The uncontrollable robbery of the population by our military forces, the debauchery and repression by military officials in local areas, the unbelievable corruption of the representatives of power, their open speculation, venality, and, finally, their unrestrained arbitrariness prevailing in their counterintelligence organizations, here were the ulcers of our regime, compelling the population to say: no, this is not the regime that can save Russia."
Edward M. Dune, a member of the Red Guard, the organization that eliminated the Kadets' power after the Russian Revolution in 1917, compared the Red Army's behavior to that of the Volunteer Army. For instance, in reference to the Kuban Cossacks rebellion, Dune explains, "Our actions … differed little from the behavior of the White Army during the war itself."
Although "Volunteer Army" is often used as a shorthand description for all the White Russian forces in the area, the actual names are as follows.
- From its inception until January 23, 1919, this formation was named the Volunteer Army.
- From January 23, 1919, until May 22, 1919, this formation was named the Caucasus Volunteer Army.
- On May 22, 1919, this formation was split into two formations:
- Caucasus Army, disbanded on January 29, 1920 and replaced by the Kuban Army, the remnants of which surrendered on April 18–20, 1920.
- Volunteer Army, the remnants of which were evacuated March 26–27, 1920.
- White movement
- West Russian Volunteer Army
- Russian Civil War
- Russian Liberation Movement
- Russian Liberation Army
- Russian Corps
- Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War