Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation

When students of the Civil War think about that irrepressible conflict, they generally consider political factors that led to war, battlefield tactics and results, and great personalities who held leadership positions during the wartime era.

In reality, each campaign, encampment, march, and battle were shaped by logistics, a behind the scenes element of warfare that is often overlooked.

Armies cannot succeed, let alone function, without earnest attention being paid to logistical factors.

No commander can lead a force to victory without adequate supply lines.

Troops, even the finest of fighters, will fail in a campaign that does not at least adequately address issues of provisions, ordnance, and transportation.

Over the long haul, a nation may experience temporary success in warfare but is unlikely to gain ultimate victory unless it can orchestrate the provision of all the many material needs that an army requires.

In harnessing logistics military forces establish the foundation upon which the temple of victory can be built.

The supremely important but little studied field of Civil War military logistics is the latest writing project taken on by the very talented historian, Earl J. Hess.

In past books, Hess has done a grand job of taking on a number of subjects inclusive of the daily life of Civil War soldiers, campaign histories, and military biographies.

Known for his exacting research paired with the ability to bring to life both common soldiers and leaders, Hess has once again crafted a book that will engage and inform his readers.

Civil War Logistics is a book that looks behind the curtain at a subject of vast importance but one that most Civil War enthusiasts take little heed of.

Yet, as Hess so ably chronicles, logistical matters were essential in terms of how not only individual campaigns or battles played out but also how the Civil War was won and lost.

While Confederate armies, in particular the Army of Northern Virginia, were capable of great tactical success, they finally succumbed to the realities linked to the enormous logistical gap they experienced when compared to their Union counterparts.

As Hess describes in this comprehensive book, the differences in material capabilities and the ways in which the opposing sides produced and transported supplies during the Civil War was a critical factor that determined the war’s outcome.

In fact, and Hess paints a vivid picture of this explanation for the eventual Union victory, the ability to leverage, manage, and apply material resources via logistical capabilities was the means by which the war was won.

In looking at Civil War logistics, Earl Hess addresses several keynote elements of this complicated and strategically essential aspect of the conflict.

River-based systems, and in particular steamships, were an important aspect of warfare.

Particularly in the western theater of operation, steamships ferried supplies, moved armies, and transported wounded soldiers along mighty and secondary rivers. On land, railway systems, and the opposing side’s abilities to use and destroy these vital pathways of transportation, was another aspect of logistics that turned the tide in several campaigns and the war itself.

Likewise, wagon trains and all the impedimenta associated with moving goods, services, and men via roadways that differed in quality from first rate to abysmal, was another way in which battles were lost or won.

Coastal shipping, or the blockading thereof, was yet another component to the logistical requirements that the Civil War bred for its opposing forces. Pack trains with recalcitrant mules and all the requirements necessary to professionally use animals as logistical transport was yet another element in the duties assigned to quartermasters.

Finally, counter measures designed to block the passage of steamships, destroy railroads, smash wagon trains, or capture supply trains were all part of the battle for logistical superiority that was waged throughout the Civil War.

In each instance noted above, Earl Hess does an excellent job of telling the story of how each side approached these logistical challenges and how those efforts mightily contributed to the shape of the Union’s victory.

As in other books written by Hess, readers are provided an in-depth look at his subject while simultaneously reading about experiences of common folk who lived or died during the time period described by this capable historian. Peppered throughout this book are anecdotes, stories, and perspectives of soldiers and civilians who directly experienced the realities of the war.

With a focus on logistics it would have been quite probable that an author with less skill than Hess could well have turned this book into an informative but dry product. Hess avoids that outcome by not only demonstrating a supreme understanding of the factual elements of Civil War logistics but also the human costs attendant to the transportation of enormous quantities of material goods across the United States.

For a farmer in the South to have the Union Army encamp on your land was an experience that changed both your property and your life. As Hess describes, the simple act of having a vast herd of beef cattle housed on your land, with dozens of them slaughtered per day was a dire turn of events.

Hess paints a picture of farmers near Murfreesboro who, after Union troops left the area, were confronted with acres of animal offal in the form of heads, hoofs, and entrails that were piled up in ghastly fashion. Only the threat of disease to other troops resulted in the Federals burying these rotting remains but, for a period of time, life was extraordinarily altered for these farmers.

Likewise, soldiers who were typically men who had hardly traveled any distance from their rural or urban homes, were put on rivers, roads, and rails for epic journeys that they could hardly have imagined before enlistment.

In a nation where going to a county fair ten miles from home was a pre-war treat, Civil War veterans who survived could tell tales of traveling thousands of miles across country they had never even heard of before the war. Life changing stories such as these were part and parcel of the logistical undergirding of Civil War America and are elements that Hess uses to amplify his research.

Civil War Logistics is yet another gem crafted by Earl Hess.

As with other books by this capable writer, Civil War Logistics will both educate and entertain readers. Hess takes a subject that could easily have become of interest only to a niche group of Civil War enthusiasts and opens it up to a much broader readership. By organizing the story of Civil War logistics into topical areas such as railways, river traffic, and roadways transport, Hess breaks down the logistical elements of the war in a way that will inform his readers.

Likewise, Hess effectively compares and contrasts the approaches to logistics used by the opposing forces.

This contrast between not only the resources available to both sides but the way in which logistical preparations, decisions, and applications were made by Union and Confederate leaders sheds light on this strategic element of the war’s outcome.

Earl Hess is a talented historian and Civil War Logistics is another example of how any subject put in the hands of a skillful writer can successfully draw readers into the world populated by our Civil War predecessors.

Title: Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation

Author: Earl J. Hess

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Pages: 341

Price: $45.95

Hard Back