The Volunteer Army began forming in November/December 1917 under the leadership of Gen. Mikhail Alekseyev in Novocherkassk and Gen. Lavr Kornilov and his supporters. Initially it included volunteering officers, cadets, students and Cossacks. Of the first 3,000 recruits just 12 were ordinary soldiers; the rest were officers, some of whom resented having to serve as privates. On December 27, 1917 (January 9, 1918), the creation of the Volunteer Army was officially announced. Alekseyev became its overall leader, Kornilov its Commander-in-chief, Gen. Alexander Lukomsky its Chief of Staff, Gen. Anton Denikin commander of the 1st Division and Gen. 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 units of Gen. Aleksei Kaledin's forces. 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 maneuver 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 Gen. Viktor Pokrovsky joined the Volunteer Army on March 26, 1918, increasing its number to 6,000 troops. The Volunteer Army's attempt to capture Yekaterinodar between April 9–13 was a disaster, with Gen. Kornilov being killed in battle. Gen. Denikin took over command of the remnants of the Volunteer Army and left for the remote stanitsas beyond the Don region. In June 1918 3,000 men under the command of Col. Mikhail Drozdovsky joined the Volunteer Army, bringing its strength to between 8,000-9,000 men. On June 23 the Volunteer Army began its so-called Second Kuban Campaign with support from Gen. Pyotr Krasnov. By September 1918 the Volunteer Army was up to 30,000–35,000 men thanks to the 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 United States increased their material and technical assistance to the Volunteer Army. With the support from the 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 Gen. Denikin. In late 1918-early 1919 Denikin defeated the 11th Soviet Army and captured 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 Gen. Vladimir May-Mayevsky.
The White Army was accused by the Soviets of cruelty in its conquered territories, usually against the workers, and 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 captured Red Army soldiers. During the Red Army's counteroffensive (October 1919), the Volunteer Army sustained a decisive defeat and rolled back to the south. In 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 Gen. Alexander Kutepov.
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.