Operations plus Geography equals Logistics

Although the term ‘logistics’ has expanded to include general shipping of civilian products to civilian destinations, it is, in fact, a military term.  Generally speaking, though, logistics is the complete methodology of getting something from point A to point B.  If you are talking about a package to your nephew in Colorado, then you call FedEx, or UPS, or take it to the US Post Office for shipping and let them worry about the transportation and delivery of your package to your nephew.  All you had to do was pack and wrap the package and provide an address for it and then connect with a shipper and pay the shipper.  Or, you could take the package to him yourself, but if you live far away, that will require quite an effort on your part.  You must decide how you are going to travel with the package, what route you will take, and if being transported by, say, a bus line or an airline, you must figure your best connection times.

The military definition is: the branch of military science that embraces the details of moving, evacuating, and supplying armies.  [Webster’s: Logistics]

Prior to the American Civil War, the US Army numbered approximately 20,000 men.  Twelve years earlier it had swollen to over 30,000, men, augmented by nearly 60,000 militiamen in state units for the War with Mexico.  For comparison’s sake, the Army of the Potomac that fought at Gettysburg numbered somewhere between 98,000 and 105,000 men.  The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia numbered approximately 70,000 to 80,000 men.  Indeed, the pre-war US Army number of 20,000 was approximately the size of a small US Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac, which had 7 Corps present, plus a Cavalry Corps and a large Artillery reserve.  The numbers are inexact because in many units, the returns from daily musters were inexact due to casualties from previous battles, current injuries and illnesses, and leaves, and the taking of companies or regiments to garrison duty elsewhere.

[A brief review is called for.  The Union Army was organized into geographical areas, named for the principle rivers in those areas, for example, the Department of the Susquehanna, the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the James, the Army of the Tennessee, The Department of the Mississippi, etc.  The armies were divided into Corps, and at Gettysburg there were 8 Corps, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 11th and 12th Infantry Corps, and the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps.  The infantry corps usually was divided into three divisions of three brigades each, with brigades varying from four to six regiments.  On paper, this arrangement called for 1,000 men, in ten companies.  In the Union Army, casualties and transfers and desertions were not made up by replacements.  When a unit got too small to function as a regiment, it was usually merged into a new regiment, or two or more were merged to create a new regiment, with a new number.  The Confederate Army usually replaced their missing men with new recruits.]

Imagine the consternation in Washington when Lincoln called for 100,000 troops in 1861!  Who would command them?  Were there enough officers with the skills and abilities to lead these new men into battle?  As we now know, the answer was that it would take almost two years to go through the senior ranks of the US Army to find the commanders capable of leading such large forces.  But there was another question even more critical, it wasn’t just leading and commanding, it was also moving the men, equipping them, and feeding them, making sure they had enough water for drinking, cooking, and the occasional bath.  That is where logistics comes into the picture.

Moving 20,000 men before the war was never an issue because, with the exception of the War with Mexico, it never really came to moving the entire US Army.  Most units were broken up into regimental or smaller detachments and posted either out west along the frontier fighting Indians and doing some exploring, or at ports and harbors on the east coast building lighthouses, fortifications, and port facilities.  Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was one such fort built by the US Army’s West Point-trained engineers.

So, when the army swelled by roughly five times its size, someone in Washington had to ask, “How do we get that many men from here to there?”  And the army kept swelling in size.  And the headache kept getting larger.  It was the province of the Quartermaster Corps to ensure that the various armies and smaller isolated units were provisioned.  But Armies move.  And the proverbial “armies travel on their stomachs” is just as true now as it was eons ago when the Babylonian Kings warred against their neighbors.

But this is not just the province of the Quartermaster’s Corps.  The General in command of an army had to sit down and plan his movements.  He could not send his entire army over one road, as it would take too long for his entire army to arrive.  He had to pick the roads over which his various units would travel, and be smart about it.  He needed to put the Cavalry out front, as it was, first and foremost, the eyes and ears of the army.  Then, usually, his best troops with his top commanders would come next, and over different roads, so that different top units would arrive at about the same time, and if one encountered the enemy, the others would arrive in a timely manner, as was demonstrated so beautifully by Confederate General Richard S. Ewell on June 30-July 2, 1863, with his divisions led by Major Generals Robert E. Rodes – coming from Carlisle, and Jubal Early – coming from York.

Behind the infantry came the artillery, units usually traveling with each brigade, and division.  The artillery would have on hand enough ammunition and powder to sustain it in a battle until the powder train would arrive, after the last of the troops.  Behind that would be the supply trains – miles long, they would consist of covered and open wagons full of food, fodder for the horses and mules, ammunition, tents and their ropes and pegs, and boards for flooring, spare flags, matches, flints, guns, more ammunition, and hundreds of spare horses and mules.  At the end of the train would be the bullocks for slaughtering to feed the army.

It is tough enough to haul around such equipage for 20,000 men, but what about 100,000 or more?  More often than not, such equipage came directly from contractors to a central distribution point for each Army.  Canned foods were just coming into use and the truck farms of the northeast and Midwest supplied such as canned vegetables albeit in small quantities and late in the war.  Much fresh food was gathered locally, for a price, when in friendly territory.

As noted in an earlier post, supply trains could get in the way, such as Ewell’s train blocking both McLaws Division [Longstreet’s First Corps, Army of Northern Virginia] and Johnson’s Division [Ewell’s Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia] on the Chambersburg-Gettysburg Pike on July 1st.  Indeed, Johnson, [McLaws made way for Johnson to get ahead of him], followed the train almost all the way to Gettysburg, further delaying his arrival so that he was too late for the first day’s fight.  That train, which Johnson’s Division passed just west of Gettysburg, was sorely needed to provide food and ammunition to Ewell’s soldiers, and fodder for the horses of the officers and the artillery.  It was these two late arrivals on July 1st that played a major part in Ewell’s decision not to attack Culp’s and Cemetery Hills that evening.

Logistical management, the movement of men and supplies from point A to point B, played a major role in the first day’s fight.  Additionally, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia found itself running low on artillery ammunition by the third day of the fight, as Lee was very far from his supply base in Winchester, Virginia.  Some supplies were in the pipeline up the Cumberland Valley and then east toward Gettysburg, but far too little to make a difference.

On the retreat on July 5th, some of the trains and troops, mostly carrying wounded and prisoners, moved west on the Chambersburg Pike in the early morning darkness.  The rest of the Army of Northern Virginia moved southwest toward Fairfield, and then west over South Mountain at Fairfield Gap and Monterey Pass.   It was at Monterey that Kilpatrick’s cavalry, the advance under the command of Brigadier George Armstrong Custer, attacked the rear guard in the darkness and the driving rain.  West of Monterey was some 30 miles of trains, belonging to the Army of Northern Virginia.  [Brown, pp126 ff]

Lee was limited in his choice of routes over which to retreat, as his army was concentrated at Gettysburg, and the roads leading west were limited in number.  Wherever there were forks and alternate routes to take, the columns were split and spread out on separate roads so as to speed their progress.

Logistics — often, along with terrain, is the least talked about topic for any battle, and often less than the terrain or the weather.  But it is as important as troop strength, weather, terrain, and other aspects of combat.  Poor logistics results in late arriving troops, and supplies, and thus limits the length of time one army can fight, and whether enough of it has arrived to make that fight.  So logistics are integral to any combat action, from the standard infantryman’s load to wagon trains that span 30-40 miles in length, to the pontoon bridges General Burnside was expecting at Fredericksburg seven months earlier, that delayed his attack for days with the enemy in his immediate front.

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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4 Responses to Operations plus Geography equals Logistics

  1. Pat Young says:

    Good to see your new blog. Interesting points on the battle.

  2. Bruce says:

    Feels like I just sat in on a lecture by William C. Davis….you left little undisturbed ground here. Well
    researched and easily digestable to the less than military saavy folks.

  3. francis gallo says:

    This is certainly a thorough and and informative overview of the battle and, under the guise of it’s title, a convincing one. However I am convinced that the author has much more to say about some of the inner workings, the details, of the battle. For example the Sickles decision to move forward and place Birney and Humphries from Hancock’s left flank into the fateful salient at the Peach Orchard. And the brigades under Richard Anderson from Hill’s 3rd Corps who, on July 2nd, penetrated the Union lines (however briefly) and must have given hope to Lee and in fact the much of his army that Lee’s bold strategy to attack the center, which had worked to the Confederate advantage on more than one occasion (if memory serves me), would work again.. It must also be considered that the Old Pete, from all descriptions of his mood during the Gettysburg campaign, was not his usual self. Remember three of his four children died of scarlet fever in early 1862. This sort of personal tragedy tends, I would think, to return to a man’s heart from time to time. Assume for a moment that Longstreet may have been a greater military strategist than Lee himself. While Lee certainly led his army to many important victories, at Gettysburg we see a side of him that belies his this great reputation. For example, while Meade is having a council of war at a critical moment during the campaign, Lee is by himself content to leave the command and movements of his army to his generals.
    I am not in any way a military strategist and I claim no expertise in the Gettysburg campaign or any other for that matter. But I am convinced that had Lee listened to Longstreet, or had perhaps been fully aware of the tacit agreement he made NOT to pursue an offensive position in that particular theatre, the campaign would have had a different outcome. Had the possibility of penetration of the Union center never had been given the glimmer hope demonstrated by Wilcox, Lang and Wright in that momentous hour on Cemetery Ridge, perhaps even Lee may have changed his strategy. Had the battle been withdrawn to and fought on South Mountain, as I believe was his sentiment, I believe Gettysburg would not have been the site of such unnec-
    essary slaughter. I quote from Shelbe Foote’s Magnum Opus; “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions and armies, and should know as well as anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that (the Union center) position.” And he was right.
    So, as I said at the beginning of this comment, I am convinced the author has much more to say. Let us have it.

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