The Quartermaster’s Department and the Mexican War
By Dr Alvin P. Stauffer
Quartermaster Review, May-June 1950
When the American mail arriving in London late in May 1846 brought England its first word of the outbreak of the Mexican War, The Times immediately noted that the United States Army had only 7,200 men as compared with the Mexican Army’s 32,000 and was in other respects ill prepared to wage war. This great English newspaper, which in those years seldom found anything laudable in the United States, then sarcastically concluded that the “conquest of a vast region by a state which is without an army” would be “a novelty in the history of nations.” Some days later, in a more realistic mood, it pointed out that the Americans would operate at vast distances from their main supply sources and in uninhabited country lacking resources essential to an army. “The want of water, local supplies, or carriage roads, and the scarcity of beasts of burden,” it maintained, made a campaign in Mexico “a matter of extreme difficulty, not to say impossibility.” The organization of “a tolerable American Army,” capable of taking’ the field, would be, it predicted, “the work not of months but of years.”
The logistic problems foreseen by The Times were not mere figments of a biased imagination. They were realities that were suddenly dumped into the lap of Brig. Gen. Thomas Sydney Jesup, whose Quartermaster’s Department provided the Army with clothing and equipage, with horses for the cavalry and the artillery and with transportation by both land and water–a responsibility that included not only the procurement of river craft, sailing boats, steamships, wagons, carts, horses, mules, and oxen but also the operation of these means of transportation. No military task was of greater significance than this Quartermaster responsibility for transportation, for an army without the means of transportation is an army without supplies and equipment, a toothless aggregation, incapable of fighting.
The execution of the Quartermaster mission presented the problem of finding how to remedy, in a few short months, a long existing lack of military preparedness. In May 1846 the Army, in Jesup’s words, was completely unprepared “in the means of equipment and movement.” Restrictions, imposed on the Quartermaster’s Department for many years, did not permit the accumulation of more than a six-month supply for the small standing army. Funds which Jesup had requested from Congress “for the purpose of filling the store-houses with military supplies had been refused.” Even after the outbreak of war his appropriations were never adequate for the task in hand, and a niggardly Congress, adhering to peacetime conceptions of rigid economy, closely scrutinized all his expenditures. Jesup was nonetheless expected to furnish, almost overnight, clothing, equipage, and transportation for three widely separated armies–Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor’s Army on the lower Rio Grande; the Army of the Center, concentrating at San Antonio, Texas; and the Army of the West, gathering at Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri. These forces together had many times the few thousand men who had composed the peacetime Army.
Procurement of supplies and equipment in proper quantities was by no means an easy task, even without the handicap of inadequate funds. The American industrial economy was still in a highly rudimentary and decentralized stage of development, and wartime economic controls were as yet unknown. Producers and distributors were numerous and widely scattered, and, since this was a period of civilian prosperity, not particularly interested in obtaining Government contracts. Telegraphy, having but recently been perfected, linked only a few major cities, and knowledge of the supply requirements of distant field forces waited upon the uncertain mail and the slow courier service of the period. The procurement process itself was of necessity carried on largely by tedious correspondence.
The procurement of wagons illustrates the problems encountered in dealing with the essentially local industry of the time. These vehicles were manufactured by hundreds of small plants; these plants were, indeed, so numerous that hardly a village was without its wagonmaker. Yet few wagons were available commercially, and their purchase consequently required the canvassing of the entire country and the formulation of contracts with scores of manufacturers, who often produced only a few vehicles each. To secure prompt delivery it was repeatedly necessary to make extra payments; in General Jesup’s expressive phrase, he had “to pay for time.” Materials, especially suitable lumber, were sometimes so scarce that wagons could not be built according to specifications. As a result manufacturers turned out many different models, making it almost impossible to furnish sufficient replacement parts or to improvise a single good wagon from several broken-down ones in the field.
The Schuylkill Arsenal in Philadelphia, already the principal Quartermaster depot, procured, stored, and distributed five hundred items of clothing and equipage. Initially this installation had no responsibility for procurement of clothing for volunteers, since they were expected to obtain their own apparel. But experience proved that they did not provide themselves either with sufficient clothing or with clothing of good quality. After a few months their uniforms were in shreds, and they were without replacements. In the winter of 1847-48 Congress accordingly added the procurement of apparel for volunteers to the depot’s other functions. So great was the expansion of operations, resulting from new responsibilities and vastly augmented supply requirements, that the arsenal established a New York branch and increased the number of its carpenters, packers, shippers, and other employees from 400 to 4,000.
In carrying out its procurement functions the Schuylkill Arsenal obtained the bulk of its stocks through contracts made with private manufacturers on the basis of publicly invited bids. It also manufactured, as it has in every subsequent war, large quantities of clothing and equipment. Following the practice of the day, it parceled out substantial quantities of cut cloth and findings to “worthy and industrious” seamstresses, who, working at home, used these materials to make shirts, blouses, coats, and trousers. From time to time shortages of standard materials forced the depot to use substitutes. In the summer of 1846, for example, the huge demand for tents–almost the only means of furnishing shelter for troops in thinly populated Texas and northern Mexico exhausted the supply of duck in the American markets. Rather than send no tents to the field forces, Jesup had these indispensable articles fabricated from muslin. Though General Taylor bitterly complained that these makeshift tents leaked in rainy weather, they did provide a measure of protection.
The complexities of wartime procurement caused the Schuylkill Arsenal to set up its own facilities for fabricating tents and bootees, as Army shoes were then styled. Bootees had at first been procured by contract, but by mid-1847 this method had proved “so productive of delay, disappointment, imposition, and loss” that the arsenal established its own manufacturing plant. A year later this plant was turning out 12,000 pairs of shoes a month. Even earlier, the depot had set up a small fabricating establishment capable of a monthly output of 700 tents. These two plants insured a more certain and, as the lower cost per unit demonstrated, more economical method of procuring both shoes and tents than did the contract method.
Difficult though the prompt procurement of supplies in adequate quantities might be, the distribution of supplies to the combat forces presented far more perplexing problems. Even if good roads and deep waterways were available, wagon trains, pack mules, and primitive steamboats offered at best only a slow and uncertain means of supply. Under the wretched physical conditions that confronted the armies in Mexico and the Southwest the ordinary difficulties of transportation and supply were intensified. Conditions were, indeed, so unfavorable that the fighting forces had to carry with them virtually everything they might need on a campaign. For the first time American armies were fighting in rough, thinly settled, semi-desert areas that were almost totally lacking in roads and deep waterways and that furnished little in the way of supplies. Even fuel and forage were often lacking.
To make matters worse, supply lines were longer than ever before in the military history of the United States. Nearly 900 Indian-infested miles separated Santa Fe from Fort Leavenworth, the major base for Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny’s Army of the West, whose mission was the conquest and occupation of New Mexico and California. An equally desolate 1,050 miles lay between Santa Fe and San Diego via the Gila River route. The distance between San Antonio, Texas, rendezvous of the Army of the Center, commanded by Brig. Gen. John E. Wool, and Chihuahua, his Mexican goal, was six hundred miles by a circuitous route through almost unbelievably rough and mountainous terrain. San Antonio itself could be supplied only through La Vacca, now Port Lavaca, one hundred and sixty miles away on the Gulf of Mexico. General Taylor’s Army–at the beginning of the war the principal American field force–was stationed on the lower Rio Grande and had its main depot at Point Isabel on the Gulf, about nine miles north of the mouth of the river and six hundred miles from New Orleans, whence its stocks came by ship. After Taylor advanced into northern Mexico he established another depot three hundred miles up the shallow Rio Grande at Camargo, which could be supplied only by steam-boat.
Though supply difficulties within operational areas offered the most vexatious distribution problems, there were similar problems to be solved before supplies even reached these areas. Before the depots at La Vacca, Point Isabel, and Santa Fe could be stocked, supplies had first to be assembled from all parts of the country and deposited at Fort Leavenworth and New Orleans for transshipment to these depots. Since New Orleans lay not far from the extreme southwestern corner of the populated area and Fort Leavenworth on the remote Missouri River frontier, both points were far distant from the country’s major sources of supply, and, naturally, there were long delays before supplies were received at these transshipment centers–delays caused not only by long distances but also by the inadequate railroad net, which left many sections of the country uncovered.
In handling the transportation problem the Quartermaster’s Department successfully utilized steamboats for carrying troops and supplies up the Missouri to Fort Leavenworth and down the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans. It bought light-draft Mississippi River steamboats for the run up the Rio Grande to Camargo, and though these vessels were, in Lieutenant George Gordon Meade’s words, “mere shells,” never built to ply the ocean, it performed the notable feat of sending most of them from New Orleans six hundred miles over a “tempestuous sea” to Point Isabel. Steamships as well as sailing vessels moved men and supplies from New York and other Atlantic ports to the Gulf. For all these reasons the Mexican War has been called “the first steamboat war.”
General Jesup even urged the construction of a military railroad for the supply of Taylor’s Army, which, had it been built, would probably have been the world’s earliest. His suggestion was inspired by the wasteful and time-consuming transshipment of supplies that was required at Point Isabel. Owing to the inability of large ships to enter the mouth of the Rio Grande because of obstructing reefs and shallow water, Taylor’s base had been located nine miles away at Point Isabel, whence supplies were taken to the river mouth for carriage upstream. Lighters were at first employed on the Point Isabel-Rio Grande run but so many were wrecked on sand bars that a train of two hundred wagons was improvised to haul the supplies by land, although this form of transportation required ferriage over an intervening bay. To obtain a quicker method of carriage, Jesup proposed the construction of a railroad from Point Isabel to the Rio Grande. But the Topographical Engineers, though not disapproving his recommendation, had no funds that could be tapped for its realization.
Some conception of the scope of Quartermaster activities can be gleaned from the 1,556 wagons, 459 horses, 3,658 draft mules, 516 pack mules, and 14,904 oxen furnished the Army of the West in the fiscal year 1846-47 and the 2,000 wagons and thousands of animals provided for the Chihuahua expedition. For the supply of mules for Taylor’s forces buyers scoured the Mississippi Valley and northern Mexico.
Animals were not nearly so hard to procure as were teamsters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, harness makers, and carpenters, particularly for service in Mexico. There were at this time no Quartermaster units in the Army, and thousands of civilians were employed for the sort of tasks that are now performed by such units. They were hired at high wages, usually for a six-month period. Few were willing to work for a longer term, and few renewed their contracts. By the time they had become fully qualified workers they claimed their discharge, “often,” General Jesup wrote,” during the most critical and important operations, and where it is impossible to supply their places.” determined this problem “the greatest difficulty experienced during the war” and suggested as a remedy the formation of military units which would serve for the duration of any future conflict.
Despite the scarcity of civilian helpers, the Quartermaster’s Department within a few months provided and then operated the transportation facilities that enabled Kearny to conquer New Mexico and join hands with Fremont, in California, and Taylor to occupy northeastern Mexico. But by October 1846 it had become clear that the eight hundred miles of rough terrain that lay between Taylor and Mexico City presented supply problems of such magnitude that the American general could not within a reasonable time capture the Mexican capital by marching south from Monterrey. Yet the framers of American war plans-President Polk, Secretary of War William L. Marcy, and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the U. S. Army-knew that a satisfactory peace depended upon swift capture of Mexico City. They accordingly halted Taylor’s drive and planned an expedition to Vera Cruz, which, after seizing that port and making it the base of operations, would proceed overland to the enemy capital. This new plan required a march of only three hundred miles and envisaged the use of the national highway-the best road in Mexico which ran west through well-populated country abounding in food and mules.
The capture of Vera Cruz would require a combined Army-Navy amphibious expedition-an operation new in American experience, and one that involved the use of unfamiliar techniques for landing men and supplies on a hostile shore and for supplying the beachhead, once it had been established. The Quartermaster’s Department was assigned a leading part in this operation, for it was to provide the transportation needed in moving Army troops and supplies from the United States to Mexico and from ship to shore on arrival of the expedition at Vera Cruz.
The supply build-up did not begin until mid-November, when Polk finally gave his full approval. Since the attack was to start, if possible, late in February 1847, only about three months were available for the accumulation of supplies and transportation for the 25,000 men that Scott, the commander of the expeditionary force, believed necessary.
The first task undertaken by the Quartermaster’s Department was the procurement of “surf boats,” designed to land men and supplies on the beaches near Vera Cruz. These vessels were essentially large row-boats, which could carry about fifty men. They came in three length 40 feet, 37 feet 9 inches, and 35 feet 9 inches. Different lengths were necessary in order to facilitate shipment by arranging boats in “nests” of three. Speed of construction, rather than strength and durability, was the prime requisite. Contractors produced 141 surf boats, but because a whole month was needed to send them to the Gulf in the slow transports of the period, only sixty-five reached their destination before the expedition landed.
At the Atlantic ports the Quartermaster’s Department obtained fifty-three ships–barks, brigs, and schooners, mostly chartered, which it used for transporting men and supplies southward. On the Gulf Coast, where Jesup personally assumed charge of operations, 163 vessel–all that could be chartered at reasonable rate–were collected at New Orleans, Point Isabel, and Tampico, the second largest Mexican port, which had been seized by the Navy in November. Despite a succession of “northers” that prevented ships from moving troops and supplies out of Gulf ports for four weeks, most of the transports had rendezvoused by the end of February at Lobos Island off the Mexican coast, two hundred miles north of Vera Cruz.
Instead of the 25,000 troops that Scott wanted, he had only about 13,000 when he sailed for the Mexican port. At 2 :00 P.M. on 9 March the fleet of Army transports, guarded by men-of-war of the Home Squadron, arrived off Sacrificios Island, directly opposite Collado Beach, the chosen landing point, which lay only three miles below Vera Cruz. From that hour until sunset troops were transferred from ships to surf boats, assigned according to the Army’s order of battle. Shortly before 6:00 P.M. the boats, each operated by seven seamen and a petty officer, started for shore.
The Mexicans, though they had known for some days that a landing was imminent, were unprepared to offer resistance, and within a few minutes nearly 4,000 troops had been put ashore with bands playing and the fleet cheering. Four hours later, 10,000 troops carrying arms and provisions for three days, had been landed. Not a man nor a boat was lost in this difficult operation–a remarkable achievement, even taking into account the absence of opposition, and one that has seldom been equaled. Only seventeen years before, the French landing at Algiers, though also unopposed, had been marred by accidents that cost thirty lives.
The next morning the remaining 3,000 troops were thrown on Collado Beach, and the surf boats then passed to the control of the Chief Quartermaster. Using designated vessels for different supplies, he immediately loaded them with artillery, horses, and food. Each boat on its arrival reported for instructions to the beach officer, who had charge of all unloading and storage operations, and the expeditionary supplies were soon on shore. Scott thus promptly obtained the equipment he needed for speedy capture of Vera Cruz.
After the fall of the Mexican port Scott’s most pressing need was mules and wagons. He and Jesup had agreed that they could safely depend upon the procurement of two thirds of the expedition’s required 8,000 mules from its area of operation; the other third would come from the United States and northern Mexico. The country for some miles back of Vera Cruz, it is true, abounded in mules, but the Mexicans got the animals away before Scott arrived, thus dashing his hope of substantial help from this source. At the same time wagons, which he had expected from the United States, were lost at sea or did not arrive as scheduled. While lack of transportation slowed down his march into the interior, an increased flow of wagons into Vera Cruz and the seizure of the important city of Puebla in mid-May brought the Americans into fertile country which provided draft and pack animals in abundance. Though Scott at this time, finding his supply line so long he could not protect it from guerillas with the small forces at his disposal, daringly cut himself off from Vera Cruz, his chief transportation problem thereafter was not the lack of animals but the old inability to obtain sufficient civilian teamsters and mule conductors. Textiles were so plentiful that after the fall of Mexico City on 14 September and the consequent end of organized resistance, arrangements were made to clothe the entire army of occupation from local supplies, and for a time the Army Quartermaster had 1,000 persons making uniforms. Indigenous resources, indeed, provided the forces occupying Mexico with the bulk of all their requirements.
In the victory that had come to American arms the Quartermaster’s Department had played an essential part. Without the transportation facilities that provided, hostilities might have dragged on, as The Times forecast in the war’s opening days, interminably and without a decisive result. Yet the Quartermaster task had not been an easy one. It had necessitated, as Quartermaster General Jesup noted, the collection of the resources of an area larger than all Europe at depots hundreds of miles from the nearest sources of supply. This was a task that in hands less energetic than those of Jesup and his associates might well have prolonged the war for the “years” gloomily predicted by the great English newspaper. Few if any countries could point to military achievements in their recent past quite comparable to that of the United States in conquering, in only sixteen months, a land of more than 1,000,000 square miles. There was more truth than exaggeration in Jesup’s proud boast that “with our nearest depots farther from the sources of supply than Algiers is from Toulon or Marseilles, we accomplished more, in the first six months of our operations in Mexico, than France, the first military power in Europe, has accomplished in Africa in seventeen years.”