Civil War Saturday: An Army Travels On Its Stomach

Clerks of the Commissary Depot at Aquia Creek Landing, Va. Taken in February, 1863.

There is a military axiom which says:

Amateurs discuss tactics. Professionals discuss logistics.

Great captains from our earliest days have understood that having an army does you no good if you cannot feed it, clothe it, arm it, and train it. This was a lesson learned, and that right well, by both sides during our own Civil War.

During the Civil War, the daily ration for an enlisted man in the Federal Army was as follows: (from US Army Regulations, (rev) 1863)

Meat:

  • 12 ounces of pork or bacon, or
  • 1 pound and 4 ounces of salt or fresh beef

Bread:

  • 1 pound and 6 ounces of soft bread or flour, or
  • 1 pound of hard bread [hardtack] or
  • 1 pound and 4 ounces of corn meal

To every 100 rations:

  • 15 pounds of beans or peas, and
  • 10 pounds of rice or hominy
  • 10 pounds of green coffee, or
  • 8 pounds of roasted (Or roasted and ground) coffee, or
  • 1 pound and 8 ounces of tea
  • 15 pounds of sugar
  • 4 quarts of vinegar
  • 1 pound and 4 ounces of adamantine, or star candles
  • 4 pounds of soap
  • 3 pounds and 12 ounces of salt
  • 4 ounces of pepper
  • 30 pounds of potatoes. when practicable. and
  • 1 quart of molasses

Paragraph 1191: “Desiccated [dehydrated] compressed potatoes, or desiccated compressed mixed vegetables, at the rate of 1 ounce and ½ of the former, and I ounce of the latter. to the ration, may be substituted for beans, peas, rice, hominy, or fresh potatoes.

MARCHING RATION;

  • Meat and Bread; same as above
  • Coffee, Sugar, and Salt; same as above

For it’s time, the Federal Army ate very well. Even the Confederate Armies ate pretty well, their failures in supply being, in almost every case, the result of a lack of transport rather than of the rations themselves.

The image accompanying this short article is of a group of Clerks of the Commissary Depot at Aquia Creek Landing, Va. It was taken in February, 1863. Even in the CW there were REMF, and from their clothing it appears they lived rather well in the field.

Having said that, I would ask the reader to look at the pile of boxes in the background. Those are boxes of hard bread, the ubiquitous “Hardtack” of so many songs, commentaries, and jokes. It was a cracker made of flour and salt water, about 3” square by ½” thick, baked and then air-dried until it was hard as a rock. A common moniker was “sheet-iron shingle”. It’s advantage was simple: It would provide basic nutrition for a soldier in the field, traveled well, and would last almost forever as long as moisture was kept out of the boxes.

Regardless of the stories, hardtack kept very well, and it became such a staple of the American Diet that one company, Bent’s Crackers, still makes it today.

The boxes in the image each hold 50lbs of hardtack, and are made of white pine board. The ends were strapped with bands made of stripped saplings, and if you look at the ends of the boxes, those dark lines are the bands. Note also on top of the pile that a portion of the tarpaulin which keeps the weather out has been pulled back to show off the pile.

Now, to bring this back to the beginning, chew on this fact: A soldier, being issued 1lb of hard bread a day, requires a steady supply to keep him fed. To ameliorate the problem, 3 days’ rations were issued to the soldiers at a time when in the field. If you look at the 30 June 1863 returns for the Army of the Potomac, you will see there are approximately 85,000 men. That’s 42.5 TONS of hard bread a day just to provide the bread ration. To put it into perspective, that is a train of 50 wagons a day, just to get bread to the army, and those wagons also require forage for their teams. Which means more wagons to haul just forage along the route. Now add the meat and coffee rations, and you begin to understand why accurate maps of road networks, of route of march planning, and the locations of water and rail lines are so vital to a commander.

This was just one army. The Federals also had the armies of the James, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Gulf, and various smaller commands to supply.

This is also why virtually every campaign keeps it’s route of march within 3 days’ march of a railroad. A wagon is useless beyond 3 days’ because you cannot carry enough forage for the teams as well as it’s cargo. You simply couldn’t keep an army in the field for any length of time without adequate resupply, and the only way to maintain momentum and maneuver, and prevent losses due to foraging, was to use the railroads.

The wonder is not how well those planners and supply folks provided for the armies. The wonder is that they were able to do it at all.

Comments

  1. If I had to do it all over again, I would go NROTC and get into the logistics field.

    Even in the CW there were REMF, and from their clothing it appears they lived rather well in the field.

    I think that, for the time, Aquia Creek would not have been the field but a base area. But yes, they do look rather natty.

    I wonder if they didn’t put on their best for the picture?

  2. Yeah, it’s staggering to think of the amount of materials that are actually needed to supply an army once you put it into numbers, much less transport everything.

    Do you know if the numbers of support personel were similiar to the ones figured today? The latest I had read was somewhere around 7:1 support:combat for modern armies.

  3. It’s worth noting that logistical issues are a major problem when it comes to increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan today. Right now around 70% of NATO logistics come through Pakistan. Convoys have been ambushed recently.

    It’s been nice to see that a number of pundits have brought this aspect up recently.

  4. Grey,

    What is even more amazing to me, and I’ve been doing this research for more than 30 years, as that the majority of the support personnel were ad-hoc appointments.

    The US Army had no concept of what would later become the staff corps, and of professional officers serving in other than the major combat arms branches. The job, for example, of Commissary officer for a battalion was usually done by a LT appointed from one of the companies as a collateral duty. He would have 1 or 2 men detailed as clerks to assist him. At the company level, rations were handled by the 3rd sergeant (there were 5 to a company, and the senior was the “1st Sgt” which is why he is still called that today.

    I did a statistical review of the 3rd Army Corps during the Gettysburg Campaign many years ago. One of the interesting things was that, because so many detailed men were needed to perform the support duties, that fully 22% of the available manpower in each battalion had been lost due to collateral assignments. Tasks such as clerks, medical orderlies, commissary details, ordnance details, Quartermaster details, baggage train guards, etc, had to be filled from the ranks because there was no system in place to train and provide men for those specific tasks.

    As to other eye-opening stats, think about this: The 3rd Corps on June 30, 1863, showed slightly more than 10,000 men and officers fit for duty in 2 Divisions. If you placed the corps on the road, marching in column 4 abreast, with the artillery and ambulance trains with them, you would have a column 2.75 miles long. Behind that would be the trains carrying medical, commissary, quartermaster, Ordnance, baggage, etc, for a distance of 17.5 miles. 20 miles for just ONE army corps, and the 3rd is one of 7 Corps, plus the Cavalry Corps and Artillery Reserve that made up the Army of the Potomac.

    Staggering. Now think about communications done almost soley in the field with mounted couriers and written instructions.

  5. Nothing was mentioned about the whiskey ration, which, in my opinion, should be brought back. ;)

    It’s amazing how much effort it takes to arrange for the movement of even one mechanized infantry brigade, and a relatively short distance of 30 miles at that. I took part in such a logistical exercise in the early days of Desert Shield, and it was a lesson in coordination.

    Gus Pagonis, btw, did a fantastic job handling the logistics throughout the deployment, he really stayed on top of things, with the help of a dedicated cadre of logistics officers and NCOs.

  6. Jerry,

    One of my favorites stories from the Civil War involves Hood’s Texas Brigade. In J B Polley’s history of the Brigade (he was a member of the 4th Texas), he talks about their crossing at “Point-Of Rocks” Maryland into northern soil. One of the Officers had procured a hogs head of Whiskey, stove in the top, and set it beside the road for the Texans for to quench their thirst(s). It seems that the day was rather warm, the boys hadn’t eaten for a few hours, and none had had a drop of liquor for several weeks.

    Those that imbibed plunged their cups into the barrel and them what didn’t also filled theirs and passed it to those what did. Soon enough, the natural results kicked in, and the Texans finished their hike with a “spirited” step. Many of the men later remarked that it was the longest march the brigade ever made. Not so much because of the LENGTH of the road, but because of it’s WIDTH. :)

    I have often likened road marches to herding cats. Beautiful to watch when it all comes together. A real Chinese Fire Drill when it doesn’t. And you are correct: Not near enough attention is given to those who make it all work. Seems they only get noticed when something bad happens, and that’s a damned shame.

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