The Civil War spawned armies, on the North American landscape, the size of which had never been seen before and, hopefully, will not be seen again. The conflict involved the movement of masses of men on a scale not seen since the Napoleonic Wars. This movement set two variables into play in the tactical equation; the expenditure of energy and the constant change of the army's location. Dealing with the different permutations of this equation as it related to food was the responsibility of the Civil War Commissaries of Subsistence. They had their counterparts in armies from the beginning of organized warfare - not as structured in every case - but an army could not long function without food or its very existence was threatened. Weapons and ammunition are expended only in battle, clothing and shelter can be ignored for long periods of time under the right conditions - even under poor conditions in extreme circumstances; but rations had to be provided often in substantial and nutritious amounts otherwise an army will cease to perform through loss of discipline, energy and morale.
It matters not whether an army be led by Alexander, Napoleon, Washington or Grant; there were only two basic methods for feeding it prior to the twentieth century; foraging or the utilization of depots. The army was either charged with locating foodstuffs within the area it occupied or it had to live off its lines of communication utilizing chains of storage and disbursement facilities.
Jomini, in his "ART OF WAR", deals with the strengths and weakness of both methods which, it should be noted, are not mutually exclusive and ofttimes existed together. Foraging, a procedure which required the individual soldier or representative details to search out provender from the local countryside, is far less efficient than the depot system in certainty and consistency of supply. It is dependent upon the density of population as well as type of country being occupied or traversed; the friendship or degree of enmity of the inhabitants; the speed of the army and, finally, by the proximity of the enemy's main force.
Population density is important in that food supplies were, in most cases, accumulated in direct proportion to population and their prospective needs. Logic would support the premise that urban areas would not support foraging, which upon examination and experience is a false line of reasoning. Rule of thumb is that any populated area will have sufficient store of foodstuff to maintain the population for thirty days. This would be as true in the city as it would be in the countryside. Thusly, if a given area has a population of 5,000 there should be 150,000 daily rations available, enough to feed that many men for one day, half its number for two and so forth. If, however, this area is enemy territory and food is either seized or confiscated utilizing promissory notes or other unbankable funds much of the reserve will be withdrawn or hidden. The army does not necessarily have to be in enemy territory for this effect to evidence itself. During the War, Confederate impressment agents had only government bonds with which to pay for food. Local farmers did not view such instruments as truly bankable funds and refused to offer goods for sale regardless of the price. Only when the Confederate government relented and began to print more money, releasing it for the use of these agents, was subsistence able to be purchased. (The advantage was short lived since inflation took hold and the money became less and less desirable.)
Speed of the army also determines effectiveness of foraging since the support any area can provide is finite. The most equivalent metaphor to a foraging army is that of a plague of locusts, well documented by the experience of the population of Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864 and 1865. Speed coupled with the "march-front" of the army directly determines how effectively an army may support itself in this fashion. The march-front is the forward face of the army perpendicular to the direction of advance and can extend many times more than the battle-front presented by the same force; in fact, it is axiomatic that to forage effectively an army must disperse as much as possible to take advantage of a wider provisionary area. This brings into consideration the proximity of the enemy forces; if they are close, the advancing army must be able to form its battle-front within a short period of time thereby limiting the breadth of its march-front. Additionally, should the enemy be disputing the advance it may force the advancing forces to slow down and maybe even to entrench. At this point foraging no longer remains a viable option for any length of time - a depot system becomes imperative. This point, wherein depots must be utilized, is hastened if the countryside has been traversed by armies since the last harvest. The Army of the Potomac had little if any chance to forage in Northern Virginia, in a countryside that lierally had been a battlefield since the summer of 1861. Even the Confederates, fighting on their own soil with friendly inhabitants had to rely on North Carolina and Georgia to feed them.
The depot system rises and falls on one detail, secure and efficient lines of communication between an army, its depot, and back to its main base or source of supplies. A depot, by its very nature, must be connected to both the army it supplies and to the main base or it loses its effectiveness; it must constantly be replenished while it is continually being drained by the demands of the army - it cannot exist in a vacuum. The depot at City Point, supplying the Army of the Potomac in 1864 and 1865 was an enormous facility with tremendous capacity yet if it wasn't constantly unloading from a vast fleet of ships, steamer and barges the Federal siege of Petersburg and Richmond would not have lasted more than several weeks.
City Point was, of course, replenished continually with every conceivable item needed by the Union forces facing Lee's army in the trenchlines carved out of the red Virginia soil. Its lines of communication were the most secure type available during the war; the sea. Since the North controlled the shipping lanes they were able to bring shiploads of supplies directly from point of manufacture or processing. Even so, the Confederates found ways to breach the supply line on a couple of occasions. On August 9, 1864 a Confederate agent was able to plant a small bomb on an ammunition barge which, when it exploded, ignited the entire ammunition depot at City Point. Another incursion was made in a more imaginative way; on September 16, 1864 Wade Hampton and his cavalry slid around the rear of the besieging Federals and made off with the entire commissary beef herd grazing near City Point. While these certainly were frustrations for the Union command they represented a momentary blip in the supply process. Union supply capacity was such that the losses were made up in a very short time and had little effect other than to provide General Lee's army with a good beefsteak meal.
Water transportation, so well utilized by the North, was the most efficient method, whether the supplies moved on the open ocean or on inland rivers. At any point on the long Confederate coastline, from Virginia through the Carolinas to Florida and New Orleans the North maintained outposts. The sea was an ally as much as it was to Wellington in his Peninsular Campaign earlier in the century. There the overwhelming might of the British navy allowed the future victor of Waterloo to subsist an army with no direct lines of communication other than the sea.
Rivers were as important to the outcome of the Civil War as was the sea. It was estimated that one Ohio River steamer could carry 500 tons of cargo, enough rations and forage for a 40,000 man army corps and its 18,000 animals. The same transport by land would require, at least, 250 wagonloads which would then, of course, be adding 1000 to 1500 more animals to be fed requiring more transport and so on. The great rivers; the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, provided ready made highways into the enemy's interior. The loss of Forts Henry and Donelson were very significant in that they allowed unlimited access of men and material into Tennessee for an invading army. Fort Donelson was specially vital since it controlled the Cumberland and, once lost, opened the road to Nashville. Eastern Tennessee, for which Nashville was the key, was vital to the Southern cause; it was the meat packing center for the South. Most of the bacon consumed by Rebel armies early in the war came from this area, lost to them at the end of 1862. The rivers of Tennessee, however, did not favor the North completely; once Nashville was reached, any movement South had to be undertaken overland. Leaving Nashville, the Army of the Cumberland bloodied itself several times; at Stones River and at Chickamauga, and then found itself starving, under siege in Chattanooga, trying to survive on what could be hauled over mountains by thousands of hungry, tired and dying army mules.
Returning to the eastern theater, the Wilderness Campaign of 1864, which we examine in detail later, was a masterpiece of logistics on the part of the Quartermaster and Subsistence Departments. Resting his left flank on the ocean or on the numerous rivers flowing eastward, Grant pressed forward while his main depot advanced close behind from Alexandria to Belle Plain, then on to Port Royal, White House and, finally, City Point. His supply trains were efficiently utilized, did not have to travel excessive distances and the men were fed. Jomini sums up, what the North proved so well when he states "The vicinity of the sea is invaluable for the transportation of supplies; and the party which is master on this element can supply himself at will...". Jomini also pointed out a tactical danger of too strong a reliance upon the sea; should the enemy be able to gain a position opposite the coast the army relying on the watery lines of communication could also find itself trapped. McClellan, very providentially for Lee, put himself in such a position during the Peninsular Campaign, limiting his options severely.
Without the water, other methods of transport must be found if an army is to advance. Jomini did not anticipate the great carrying capacity of the railroad but he did anticipate the difficulty of protecting a long rigid line of communication such as the railroads represented. The Civil War was the first in which railroads were used to great effect both tactically and strategically. Mastery of railroad operations coupled with an understanding of their potential was as important to Northern victory as was its control of the sea. It is also quite evident that the South's lack of centralized railroad control contributed significantly to its supply difficulties and ultimately to its defeat.
Strategic understanding of the rail's value was never lacking on either side; one only has to consider the North's constant struggle to maintain the Baltimore and Ohio and the Confederate's efforts to destroy this great east/west route. By the end of the war over 18,000 men were tied down guarding this vulnerable lifeline. Additionally, the transfer of Longstreet's entire Corps over the rickety railroads of the South from Virginia to the Army of Tennessee in September of 1863 countered with the Union's transfer of the XI and XII Corps east to west showed how well the rails could be used strategically by both sides.
Tactically, however, the North used railroads ruthlessly and efficiently. Ruthless, in that no other consideration other than military expediency was paramount. In the South, it was quite the opposite, it was business as usual. The South's great experiment in independence was fueled by "State's Rights". These rights extended down to those of the individual, his property and, by extension, that of the corporation. Despite many attempts to coordinate rail transportation each railroad ultimately did what was in its own best interest; passengers and private freight were shipped right alongside military stores, sometimes taking precedence over them. Civilian control of the rails extended right up to the army's railhead often leaving quartermaster and commissary officers at the mercy of railroad officials, even to the army's detriment. The Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac, for example, was particularly inefficient, much to General Lee's frustration. It was little wonder considering the fact that the superintendent was a Federal agent.
Supply by rail was the optimal method utilized during the war. Water routes were fixed and often did not correspond to the army's needs or direction of advance, wagons were uncertain and experienced a problem of diminishing returns since forage for the teams had to be carried by the wagons and the amount needed was in direct proportion to distance travelled, displacing other freight. Only trains could haul the necessary amount of supplies over land that would allow an army to maintain a strong offensive or defensive capability for an extended period of time.
These trains, however, could not run on bare ground. Right of way had to exist or be prepared, gullies and creeks bridged, hills cut or tunneled and tracks laid, a not inconsiderable effort. In most cases, interior lines of advance or retreat followed existing rail lines, the army feeding off depots set up along the right of way.
Railroads, even during these early years of their existence, had tremendous carrying capacity. One box car carried 50 cubic yards or 10 - 20 tons of stores, a flat car had the same carrying capacity only with greater flexibility as to type of cargo. A flat or platform car could, for example, carry two army wagons filled with supplies as well as whatever miscellaneous goods could be stuffed under and between. It was calculated that, with efficient facilities to load and unload coupled with adequate rolling stock, a single line railroad could accumulate provisions for an army of 300,000 for 4 to 5 days within a twenty four hour period.
Sherman's army was supplied entirely by rail as it feinted with Joe Johnston's forces among the Northern Georgia hills. Nashville was fed by the Louisville and Nashville which. in turn, forwarded supplies over the 151 mile Nashville and Chattanooga to the Georgia line where the Western and Atlantic took over. All was single track, over 450 miles of it, and yet Sherman received over 400 tons of supplies per day. Sherman himself estimated that, to replace the railroad, he would have had to employ 36,800 six mule wagons hauling their load twenty miles per day; an admitted impossibility.
In the winter of 1983/64 the Army of the Potomac received all of its provisions over the Orange and Alexandria line to Culpepper where the supply trains took over distribution to the troops.
Unlike rivers or the ocean, railroad infrastructure is vulnerable to temporary disruption through enemy action. The burning of a trestle or the destruction of track halts all supply efforts over the affected road. In spite of massive distribution of troops to provide protection, the railroad raid was a major factor and consideration in all Civil War logistics. Throughout the War, both sides utilized cavalry in attempts to disrupt enemy communications; the troops became quite proficient in destruction of the rails. Herman Haupt, head of the Military Rail Road in the east, even developed a simple tool which could twist a rail beyond the capacity of anything other than a rolling mill to repair. He even published an illustrated guide which effectively showed the most efficient methods of destruction as well as repair. The Military Railroad yards in Alexandria were full of twisted iron shipped in from the latest Rebel attempt at disruption. Crews worked continually straightening these rails for reuse. Flying crews were created under Haupt in the east and under General Dodge in the west to repair breaks in the lines.
Confederate efforts at maintaining right of way were no less strenuous but they worked with far fewer resources and often had to steal iron from less important lines to repair those whose use was more urgent. The one fact in favor of Confederate transportation was that, in most cases, it extended through friendly territory and constant vigilance against guerrilla activity was not a concern.
No successful extended campaign was fought without access to water routes or a railhead. The notable exception being Sherman's march through Georgia to the sea. Here, however, Sherman faced no foe of any import which eliminated the need to replenish ammunition stores. His army was able to march in two columns at a rapid pace utilizing a wide march front. The swath he cut through the South was thirty to sixty miles wide. A march front of one mile was considered sufficient to maintain provisions for a force of 5000 men; Sherman's men ate quite well. Only when they stalled in the rice country surrounding Savannah did the quantity of rations suffer.
Once a depot had been established at railhead or water landing considerable effort was still required to distribute supplies directly to the troops in the field. Often the main body of the army, or a goodly portion, was considerable distance from the point where supplies were concentrated.
In the first chapter an example was given of distribution on the simplest level. Since the battle was less than one day from Washington which, along with Alexandria, was the main base of supply no complex supply system had to be established. A few competent officers with the proper authority and motivation were able to, with approximately 200 wagons, transport sufficient rations for McDowell's army.
This transport conceivably would have been barely adequate for several days, 200 wagons transporting between 75 and 100 tons of foodstuffs per day plus the accompanying cattle, but would have soon degraded as teams and teamsters wore down. Had McDowell prevailed, this system would not have been adequate to feed an advancing army.
Curtis' efforts at Fairfax Station had the goal of eventually replacing horsepower with that of steam. Once the Federal forces were victorious Fairfax Station and more distant points would have become advanced depots from which Clarke would have operated his wagon trains. This did not happen; in fact, only one relay of wagons was accomplished before the Union rout.
The actual resupply was somewhat disorganized since requisition was from base of supply rather than at advanced depot. Anytime supplies are loaded and designated for specific units the risk is run that these units will have moved creating the situation that Bell found himself in, heading the wrong way looking for Hientzelman's division. The further the distance the more chance for miscue. In this resupply effort, some troops received an excess while others went without for a period of time. In such a short campaign as Bull Run this was of little consequence but should a large army need to be provisioned for weeks at a time, while campaigning, more than a simple series of uncoordinated wagon trains would be required.
As an example, a six horse wagon will carry a maximum of 2000 pounds, less if the teams are new and pulling over rough and hilly terrain. Counting ammunition, food and medical supplies each man required four pounds of transport capacity per day translating into one wagon per 500 men only if the wagon can make one round trip per day from base of supply to point of distribution. Increase the distance to one day each way and the number of men supplied by each wagon drops to 250 and two days equates to 125 per wagon, on the face of it a simple mathematical equation. It is easy to see, however, that the increased distance coupled with a large army could easily out strip the capacity of a combatant to supply teams and equipment. Under this formula, an army of 100,000 men, ten days by wagon road from its base of supply, would require 4000 wagons, a large number yet it falls in the upper range of the number utilized by the Army of the Potomac.
This simple equation, however, fails to make provision for fodder either for the animals attached to the army or for the supply teams. Each animal needed approximately 40 pounds of fodder per day. Since, in most cases, the supply teams had to carry their own, either individually or in specific trains, each day a team was away from the base it had to carry 240 pounds of its own food, reducing its capacity by 60 men. Diminishing returns legislates that eventually the teams will only be able to pull their own fodder.
Supply is, in essence, based on mathematical formulas of which many were developed during the Civil War. In the above example, the actual numbers required to supply the average Civil War army of 100,000 with its attached cavalry and artillery ten days distant from supply base would be computed at 10,975 wagons utilizing 68,850 draft animals. This does not take into account wagons required to distribute supplies to the brigade level.
By melding water, rail and wagon transport the Civil War supply effort was able to develop to such a level where it was able to feed enormous armies engaged in one of the most sanguine wars in man's history.