Saturday, July 11, 2009

Civil War Logistics

You read that title above and you say, “What a boring subject!” Am I right? In my own military career, I knew many logisticians, who we affectionately termed “loggies.” Their job seemed mundane to me, a plodding discipline without any attraction. However, Napoleon once said, “amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics” and there is much truth in that statement. Logistics can be, and often has been, a determining factor in warfare. In the Civil War, the role of logistics, which I will define as including technology, industry, and transportation, was a vital factor in the development of strategy and played a critical factor in the outcome of the war .

Union Commissary clerks Of the three defined logistical factors, technology clearly had the smallest role in the Civil War. The North had the clear advantage in terms of technology over the South. This was due to Northern industrialization and the large role technology and technological innovation played in it. To be certain, however, there were technological innovations during the war. For instance, the North developed multiple-shot, breech-loading carbines, the South actually fielded an operational submarine, and both sides developed ironclad naval vessels. In fact, the first large scale production of made-to-size clothing and shoes was a product of wartime innovation. But, by in large, their technological base remained the same and neither side gained an advantage from it. Thus, while there were technological advances, none of the new weapons developed by either side came to the forefront and profoundly influenced the outcome of the war.

Massachusetts Factory Meanwhile, industry and industrial capacity was a major element in the war and in its outcome. Here, the North also held a considerable advantage over the South. The North entered the war with numerous iron works, arsenals, shipyards, and factories, as well as the raw materials to feed them and a ready supply of cheap immigrant labor to work in them. Further, the North not only utilized what it had in terms of industrial capacity, it expanded its industrial base to meet the needs of the war. Thus, they could produce almost anything needed to fight the war in terms of weapons, ammunition, uniforms, wagons, rolling stock, telegraph wire, or rail tracks. By the war’s end, the Northern industrial juggernaut was producing more materiel than their armies could use.

Georgia Textile Factory As a largely agrarian society, the South had industrial capabilities that were almost primitive by comparison. They began the war with only a few small iron works, even less arsenals, few factories, and no ready supply of industrial labor or raw materials, except for cotton. Their culture remained resistant to industrialization and there was little, if any, industrial expansion during the war. As a result, they were barely able to produce what their armies in the field needed, even the clothing they would wear. Only the limited abilities of their existing industries and blockade runners kept their armies supplied, which would not be enough over the long haul.

Thus, by the war’s end, industrial capabilities played a crucial role. For every round of ammunition the North fired, for every wagon or train locomotive damaged or destroyed, or simply for every Union uniform worn out, there were many replacements. But this was not the case for the South. Thus, the war of attrition Grant exercised in the last year of the war was as much about materiel that could not be replaced as it was the men lost in battle.

Union Army Supply Wagons Transportation also played a key role in the conduct and the outcome of the war and also exercised significant influence on its strategy. A fascinating transportation rule of thumb I once heard was that, for every wagon required to support a column of Civil War troops, another wagon was required just to carry the fodder needed for the horses of the wagons. So, you can imagine how massive the transportation requirements of an army on the move might be, just to supply itself.

As with industry, the North had the advantage in this area was well. The North had a far better network of roads, bridges, and, especially, railroads than did the South. They also had strong engineering skills that went with it and were, thereby, able to lay lines of track and erect bridges with great speed and efficiency.

U.S. military train locamotive The South had a much poorer transportation infrastructure in all areas, especially the railroads. However, at times, they would use the latter with great efficiency and maximize its use, especially in the movement of troops. The best examples of this were the movement of Johnston’s army to Manassas in 1861 and the rapid shift of Longstreet’s corps to Georgia in time for the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863. However, in the ability to consistently move large amounts of war materiel, which what was mattered most, the South could never meet the needs of its armies with the rail system that existed during the war. This was complicated by the fact that Southern rail lines had numerous gauge differences, meaning that materiel had to be transferred as it moved from one line to another, slowing the shipment and causing manmade chokepoints.

But, the South’s lack of infrastructure and the North’s reliance upon transportation to supply its large armies became something of a Southern advantage, which would influence both sides’ strategies. As the North penetrated deeper into the South, they found themselves confronted with longer and longer supply lines, stretched over the South’s limited transportation network. As a result, their armies became more and more dependant upon bases of supply, which had to be re-established as they moved forward and from which they could not operate at any great distance.

Union fortifications on rail bridge The South, meanwhile, could fall back upon its transportation system and lines of supply, and complicate the North’s problems by destroying rail lines and bridges as they retreated. But, even more effective, was the Southern strategy of raiding. Using either local forces or cavalry, the South would raid behind Northern lines, destroying rail facilities, bridges, and depots. This became highly effective and actually stalled several major Northern operations. The North, meanwhile, would become highly adept at rebuilding rail facilities, laying track, building bridges, and putting down wooden corduroy roads out of necessity. But, the large number of troops required to patrol thousands of miles of railroad tracks and guard hundreds of bridges created a much larger problem. It was not only ineffective, to a great degree, it was inefficient in that it tied up thousands of troops who otherwise could be used fighting the enemy.

In fact, historian Archer Jones argues that much of the war’s entire strategy was based firmly upon logistics. In his book, Civil War Command and Strategy: The Process of Victory and Defeat, Jones repeatedly describes the war’s strategies in logistical terms. He believes that concentration of forces in time was the most effective strategy but that logistical problems made it difficult to achieve. In addition, he sees the Union use of concentration as having evolved out of their assessment of the difficult logistical problems they faced in invading and occupying an area as large as the Confederacy.

Remains of the Atlanta rail depot In fact, both sides’ strategies can be seen as logistically based. The South was determined to defend logistically important territory and the North was determined to take and hold that territory in what Jones termed a “persisting strategy.” The North discovered, however, that they could not efficiently occupy enough territory to deny the Southern armies their supplies. Therefore, they also turned to a strategy of raiding. However, Union "raiding" was done on a massive scale, attacking the Southern industrial and economic infrastructure, as well as the Southern armies themselves. Luckily for the North, Grant had the foresight to realize that the industrial revolution had made logistics a cornerstone of military operations and that attacking that aspect was as important as trying to destroy the enemy’s armies in battle.


  1. Thanks Bob, a nice piece!
    I'm fascinated with logistics during this period.
    I marvel at how much was envolved in moving a Corps (let alone an entire army) on a day's march.
    I don't deny that railroads were critical to supply, I don't think they were much of a factor in moving armies, with a few notable exceptions. Moving an army on the primitive road network boggles my mind. Add to that the complexity of providing all the necessities and coordinating all that without copy machines, phones, etc.
    My questions go on and on and I can't imagine how this can't help but be a fascinating subject for anyone interested in the CWar.

  2. Thanks for posting this! Writing a research paper on logistics in the civil war for my Army Transportation Corps training and used your ideas to know how to research my paper.

  3. GOOD JOB, it really helped me study for my history exam!

  4. thank you very my very really helped me in studying about my project..

  5. Very interesting article . I've thought over the years that more emphasis should be made on procurement , supply and logistics during the Civil War . It's interesting that both armies were trained in the same supply doctrine but faced very different means of implementation . I'm hoping that someone will eventually write a definative (yet readable) book on the subject . I have a great title for them ...
    " Feeding The Beast : Supplying the armies of the American Civil War ".