Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2018-035
25 Apr. 2018
Review by Christopher Rein, Combat Studies Institute, Army University Press
Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation
By Earl J. Hess
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2017. Pp. xx, 341. ISBN 978–0–8071–6750–2.
Descriptors: Volume 2018, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

The adage "amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics" was coined before prolific historian Earl Hess[1] (Lincoln Memorial Univ.) turned his expert attention to the logistical triumphs that ensured Union victory in the Civil War. As he explains,


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Privately owned rail lines provided a huge proportion of the logistical needs of both the North and South from 1861 to 1865, along with river steamers and coastal shipping. Neither the American government nor its army worked out any plans to do so before the conflict erupted, but the end result (at least in the North) was an impressive logistical achievement. Rails played an important role in sustaining four years of massive campaigning by an army that numbered more than 1 million men by 1865. The Americans put together an improvised system of rail, boat and ship transportation for their military needs, but in general that system worked extremely well for the North and at least reasonably well for a time in the South. (15)

Far from espousing a "Lost Cause" explanation of northern material superiority, Hess demonstrates that the Confederacy's poor decisions about what to nationalize, how to organize its government, and how to attack northern supply lines doomed its aspirations to establish an independent nation. In contrast, in the North, superior financing, acceptance of greater federal control of rail and shipping networks, and recruitment of African-Americans to protect vulnerable supply lines yielded decisive victories in the campaigns of 1863–64. The capacity to move and sustain massive armies deep in the Confederacy's interior taught southern commanders and civilians that their cause was hopeless.

Chapter 1 of Civil War Logistics, "The Logistical Heritage," is an instructive survey of military logistics from ancient times through the Crimean War that would make for excellent supplementary reading[2] in an upper-level course in military history. Chapter 2, "Quartermasters North and South," rescues from obscurity such men as Montgomery Meigs, Robert Allen, Lewis Parsons, Hermann Haupt, George Wise, and Charles Sawtelle, who proved that individuals and their leadership skills can make a difference, even in mass social movements like America's sectional conflict.

Hess then briefly details the five main modes of transportation available to Civil War logisticians: "The River-Based System" (chap. 3), "The Rail-Based System" (chap. 4), "The Coastal Shipping System" (chap. 5), "Wagon Trains" (chap. 6), and "Pack Trains, Cattle Herds and Foot Power" (chap. 7). In the process, he reminds his reader that, despite the transportation revolution provided by steam power, most troops and supplies still had to complete at least part (and sometimes all) of their journeys on foot or hoof. Troops marched from rail-heads or steamship landings to the battlefield. Their cannons, supply wagons, and beef-cattle were conveyed by draft animals, which required huge supplies of grain, forage, and water, further straining the system.

The remaining chapters are more analytical. Chapter 8, "Troop Transfers," clarifies how logistical superiority translated into battlefield advantage for Civil War armies. One example was Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker's rapid redeployment of his corps of the Army of the Potomac to Chattanooga after Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's victory at Chickamauga, facilitated by the movement of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's troops along interior lines from Virginia. The latter was the only major shift of Confederate forces between theaters during the war. By contrast, Union general A.J. Smith's XVI Corps traveled over much of the western theater and the trans-Mississippi during 1864.

The two final chapters are particularly strong. Chapter 9, "Targeting Steamboats," reveals that, except for a few high-profile examples like Brig. Gen. Stand Watie's capture of the steamboat J.R. Williams on the Arkansas River in 1864, such assaults were merely a nuisance to Union logisticians. In fact, the western rivers became highways for the Union, enabling its armies to make rapid advances up and down the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers, a boon to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's military career.

Chapter 10, "Targeting Railroads, Coastal Vessels, and Wagon Trains," covers much ground with great concision and clarity. The Confederacy's decision to focus on distant commerce raiding effectively ceded to the US Navy uncontested control of coastal shipping lanes, allowing it to blockade southern ports and deliver troops anywhere from Norfolk, Virginia, to Brownsville, Texas, as well as conduct surprise attacks all along the southern coast. Without this network, the Union could not have maintained the expansive Department of the Gulf in Louisiana throughout the war. Hess points out that, though wagon trains were frequently targeted by both armies at places like Poison Springs and (inexplicably omitted) Cabin Creek in the Indian Territory, their proximity to the front meant they were usually well guarded.[3]

Rail lines, in contrast, proved to be the greatest vulnerability in Union logistics; a single break at any point could upset the entire system. Hess, however, minimizes the importance of Confederate raids, arguing that skilled repair crews could put a line back in operation in days, if not hours. But attacks on Union lines earlier in the war, notably during Grant's overland approach to Vicksburg in fall 1862, influenced outcomes. Protecting rail lines would have severely drained Union manpower without the United States Colored Troops who carried out this vital mission. Witness the 2nd Regiment, West Tennessee Infantry, African Descent's defense of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad bridge over the Wolf River in Moscow, Tennessee (Dec. 1862).

As Confederate raiders grew less effective at disrupting the Union rail system, federal cavalrymen were able to cut southern rail lines at critical moments. To cite one example, Maj. Gen. Lovell Rousseau's raid severed the Montgomery and West Point line at Opelika (July 1864), as the siege of Atlanta neared its peak. In short, Hess concludes, "The Federals won the struggle to see which side could achieve more success in destroying their [sic] opponent's logistics, and that was an important factor in their winning the war" (259). The Confederacy's refusal to nationalize rail lines was another critical factor:

Lack of resources, ranging from funds to iron, impeded Confederate logistics, but, at heart its failure lay in an administrative malaise centered in Richmond. Jefferson Davis was never willing to appoint a transportation czar with real power to keep the wheels moving. He was not willing to seize privately owned railroad companies and put capable railroad men in charge of the rolling stock, with full authority to do what was needed to feed his armies. And this failure was not Davis' alone, for the entire Confederate government was loath to exercise the extraordinary power displayed by the Federal government during the Civil War. (32–33)

While "excessive concern for private property and states' rights lay at the heart of this reluctance to exercise power" (108), Union railroads' cooperation with federal quartermasters ensured that the North's troops were better fed and supplied than their southern counterparts. Things might have been different, had the Confederates put more funding into the national rail system instead of the hugely expensive ironclads that contributed so little to their cause.

Hess discusses how the war's logistical aspects impacted the nation's future and the future of warfare generally. Although European planners ignored many lessons of the US Civil War, the Germans made very astute use of railroads in winning the wars of unification, though that precedent fostered an ill-advised belief in the feasibility of a knockout blow in the Great War. Federal pressure on railroad companies in the North led to some consolidation and ultimately a truly national rail system that undergirded the nation's impressive postwar industrial growth. And the massive federal investment in the southern rail infrastructure benefited the "New South's" coal- and iron-producing regions of the southern Appalachians. Birmingham, Alabama, little more than the dusty crossroads of Elyton when Maj. Gen. James Wilson's raiders passed through in March 1865, became an industrial colossus because it straddled the state's primary north-south and east-west rail lines.

The author perceptively highlights the potential for irregular attacks to disrupt logistics networks and the difficulty of managing contracts with the civilian shipping companies that possessed much of the spare capacity mobilized in wartime. He reveals many cases from the Civil War when unscrupulous contractors cheated inexperienced quartermasters and attempted to defraud the government, yet another timeless bane of military endeavors. Hess also describes the destruction inflicted by Confederate agents who burned a number of steamboats on the St. Louis waterfront, but states that these "limited assaults on shipping … failed to curtail or even seriously impair Yankee logistical support" (233).

Earl Hess's informative, well written new book now represents the gold standard for studies of Civil War logistics, admittedly not a terribly crowded field of study.[4] One hopes his thorough macro-level analysis will spawn detailed works on individual campaigns and battles and commanders—for instance, U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Grenville M. Dodge—who excelled in meeting their logistical challenges.

[1] Among his many other books, Civil War Infantry Tactics (Baton Rouge: LSU Pr, 2015) won the Society of Civil War Historians' Tom Watson Brown Prize.

[2] Alongside Martin van Creveld's Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 1977).

[3] On the difficulties of managing large wagon trains, even before the Civil War, see Percival G. Lowe, Five Years a Dragoon ('49 to '54) and Other Adventures on the Great Plains (Norman: U Okla Pr, 1965).

[4] But see William G. Thomas, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War and the Making of Modern America (New Haven: Yale U Pr, 2011), with my review at MiWSR 2014-018.

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