Supplying Hell: The Campaign for Atlanta
by LT Nick Overby
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin-Winter 1992
“War is Hell” – the famous quote attributed to Major General William T. Sherman – was an understatement for the time and a reality for the soldiers of the Civil War. Unfortunately, historians and others have primarily highlighted the tactics of war without considering the logistics. In other words, people have ignored how an army got to the field and survived. This article will examine the supply system of General Sherman’s army in his campaign for Atlanta, GA.
In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant received a promotion to Lieutenant General and Commander of all Union Armies. At the same time, he placed the Armies of the Cumberland, the Tennessee and the Ohio under the command of General William T. Sherman. Grant instructed Sherman and his army to invade the South through Georgia and destroy the Confederate forces and inflict damage to their war resources. Sherman realized that the nature of his armies’ campaign would be a matter of supply and mobility and that his operations through hostile territory would he difficult. He faced a mammoth task of supplying his soldiers on the march. His maintenance of supplies and transportation would be difficult. He was now facing an enemy to his front plus hostile partisan guerrillas and cavalry to his rear. Sherman immediately began planning and supervising his logistics system for the coming campaign.
The base of operations for the campaign for Atlanta was set up by Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Union Army. Meigs set up the principal depot at Louisville, KY, with an advance base of operations at Nashville, TN. General Meigs made sure that the western theater of operations had exceptional Quartermaster leadership by assigning his best Quartermasters to restore an efficient logistics system. The Quartermaster Department command for the Atlanta campaign was set up with Brigadier General Robert Allen as chief Quartermaster and his base of operations at Louisville, KY. LTC James Donaldson was the commander of the advance depot at Nashville, TN. Each army had a chief Quartermaster. The Army of the Cumberland’s chief Quartermaster was Major Langdon Easton. The Army of the Tennessee’s chief Quartermaster was LTC J. Condit Smith, and the chief Quartermaster of the Army of the Ohio was LTC C.W. Schofield. Each division of these armies also had chief Quartermasters. The bulk of the supplies were carried in the supply trains of the various divisions and supervised directly by the division Quartermasters. General Sherman took a special interest in the supply of his armies. He directed the organization of his trains to the point of managing down to the depot level to ensure the sustainment of supply of his armies.
The procurement activities for the Atlanta campaign had their basis in the open markets of large cities, for example, Louisville, KY, and St. Louis, MO. The Subsistence Department, a separate entity from the Quartermaster Department, controlled all procurement of rations. Joseph P. Taylor was the Commissary General of the Subsistence Department until he died in June 1864. By promotion, Amos Eaton took over as the head of the department. During the Atlanta campaign commissaries procured supplies in bulk. The supplies would then be packaged and the Quartermaster Department would transport the supplies to the warehouses and depots in field locations such as Nashville and Chattanooga. Beef on the hoof was an exception. Cattle were purchased under contract and then delivered to gathering points by drivers or other means of transport. The cattle would then travel along with the armies.
The focus point of the union supply system for the western theater was in Louisville, KY. Supplies flowed from the northern industrial and agricultural areas primarily via the Ohio River to Louisville. The logistics then moved from Louisville on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to Nashville, location of the main supply depot where the union army constructed warehouses for storage. These warehouses covered whole blocks, with corrals and stables by the acres, but supplies were still stored outdoors on raised, covered platforms. The next stop was the advance depot at Chattanooga, TN, via the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad or the Cumberland River by steamboat or barge. Here the storage of supplies and the availability of services for an army was necessary before moving to the front lines via the Western and Atlantic Railroad to temporary field depots. These depots existed along the way closer to the front.
They helped to ease supply problems when lines of communications or supply were temporarily cut off, because Quartermasters would store supplies, equipment and maintenance materials along with maintenance teams. Wagons could upload from the depots and deliver to the front lines. Sherman himself pushed the depots up to the rear of his army to facilitate supply and to guarantee readily available maintenance services.
The railroad system in the South was not adequate for a large-scale logistics system necessary to maintain effective tactical operations against the South. The three major railroad systems in the western theater of war were the Louisville and Nashville, Nashville and Chattanooga and Western and Atlantic. Brigadier General Daniel McCallum was the head of the Office of Military Railroads for the Union army. His department fell under the supervision of the Quartermaster Department. Under the U.S. Military Railroad Department were the Construction Corps and the Transportation Corps. The function of these two corps were to run, maintain, construct and repair railroads for the government. By mid-1864, most of General Sherman’s railroad capacity was completed either by construction or repairs. Sherman established a major supply depot at Ringgold, GA, the farthest point of union occupation at the time. Along the routes he established small detachments of soldiers to protect track, depots and communications. With the garrisoned detachments were construction corps personnel to maintain and repair the railroads. As the army moved farther south, the detachments moved with it. These detachments stockpiled such repair equipment as spikes, bridge timbers, cross ties and rails. The construction personnel would repair from both ends by carrying construction cars with the repair equipment. The railroad network helped the forward movement of supplies to the front. Without the sufficient rail operations and railroad maintenance, the distribution of supplies would have been impossible.
Sherman’s next project was getting railcars. Sherman’s goal for logistical sustainment was 130 loads of supplies forward to the front daily. He had only 600 cars and 60 locomotives to achieve his goal. This was estimated as insufficient. So Sherman issued orders to acquisition railcars and locomotives for the army coming from Louisville to Nashville. This method acquired a fleet of some 1,000 cars and 100 locomotives. General Sherman’s line of communications ran along the single track of the Western and Atlantic Railroad. Sherman ensured protection of this line of communications. He left garrisons of soldiers along the way. At all times Sherman could communicate with his rear headquarters to respond to any message except when disrupted by partisan guerrillas or cavalry.
In link with the rail network were the steamboats. Steamboats and barges carried bulk supplies down the Ohio River and Cumberland River. LTC Lewis Parsons was the Chief Quartermaster of western river transportation. The efficiency of the steamboat system contributed to the success of Sherman’s army. Steamboats transported bulk supplies to Louisville and Nashville where railcars carried the supplies to the depot for storing or transporting to the front.
The last link in the supply line of Sherman’s army was the mule and wagon. The wagon payload was normally forage, baggage, rations, medical supplies and ammunition. The average load was about 2,500 pounds per wagon pulled by six mules or oxen. Sherman was aware of the problems of marching a heavy army. He understood the hindrance of too much unnecessary baggage. He set up guidelines for the coming campaign for the army to ensure the lightest maneuver elements for mobility. Each regiment was allowed one wagon of baggage and one ambulance for the wounded. The officers of an infantry company could have one mule for personal effects. Other soldiers and officers could have clothing, rations and ammunition to be brought with themselves. Foraging for the Atlanta campaign was used to supplement supplies received along the lines of supply. Brigadier General Meigs had urged Sherman and others to use foraging of the countryside to aid in sustaining their soldiers. Organized foraging parties would be sent out to gather meat and vegetables for soldiers and forage for animals as the armies marched. Foraging became handy, especially when bad weather or the enemy slowed supply transport to the troops.
Protection and Repair
Logistically, General Sherman’s primary problems were in the sustainment, protection and repair of his supply line and line of communications. Sherman’s task to keep his supply and communications lines open was monumental. Sherman’s army was attacked daily from the rear by mostly partisan guerrillas. These factions would destroy railroads, bridges or trains. Sherman began a training program for construction crews, emphasizing railroad and bridge repairs and rapid reconstruction. These crews acted quickly in repairing or rebuilding. Sherman then created a separate division under Major General James Steedman to systemize communications under one authority. This division’s mission was to keep the railroad and telegraph communications open with railroad garrisons for protection. Weather was another problem that Sherman’s armies encountered on their march towards Atlanta. The heavy rains the Union army endured caused transportation problems for mule- or oxen-pulled wagons. Sherman remedied the problem by ordering the armies to keep a 20-day supply of rations on hand and beef on the hoof to compensate for any delays caused by weather or any other disruptions.
General Sherman realized before the beginning of the campaign for Atlanta that the question of supply would determine his success or failure on the battlefield. As a commander, Sherman personally was involved with his supply system to ensure sustainment. On occasion, General Sherman would threaten his Quartermasters to emphasize the importance of their duties. In applying the imperatives of sustainment to Sherman’s campaign, we can understand the success of his army. For anticipation, Sherman estimated correctly the problems he would encounter as his army marched into Georgia. He anticipated the need to protect his supply line and lines of communication and the need for a quick repairing capability to ensure sustainment. He successfully integrated his capabilities at the depot
level to supply, maintain and repair at a one-stop shop. For continuity, Sherman made sure that the interruption of his supply line and lines of communication would be minimal by using fast construction crews to ensure less downtime of rail, bridge and telegraph. He responded to the mobility of his forces by pushing his depots to the rear of his army. For improvisation, he made sure that the field soldiers were full on a basic load of 20 days so that they would not go short during periods of interrupted sustainment.
As time separates us from historic events, we can look back upon those events that influenced military history. For logisticians, only technology has changed for supplying the force: the thinking process stays the same. Making logistics happen for the soldiers in the field ensures success in battle, now as always. The commanders of today must take an interest, as did Sherman, to connect logistical sustainment and military success. All the factors of logistics, storage, procurement, security, communications and mobility are the same as in Sherman’s time. We, as logisticians, must understand that soldiers in combat cannot wage war without our effectiveness. Planning and establishing the support of a force in the field has always affected armies. Sustained logistics does not just happen. Sustained logistics requires the detailed interest of the field commander and the coordination of all logisticians.
At the time this article was written LT Nick Overby was a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. He is also a graduate of the Transportation Officer Basic Course and Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course. His previous assignments include Platoon Leader with the 786th Transportation Company, Mississippi Army National Guard (MSARNG). He currently is serving as Commander, Headquarters, Headquarters Detachment, 150th Quartermaster Battalion, MSARNG.