Thursday, November 13, 2008

Military History and Warfare: American Civil War: Logistics, Railroads and Strategy

Commanders throughout history have grappled with the problems of integrating logistics and strategy. A witty little military logistician dictum known to particularly rile those in the combat branches goes: “If logistics’ was easy it would be called tactics”. With all of our modern technology, scalable processes, and mass transportation it is easy to forget the difficulty with which armies of the past had to struggle in order to provide the right amount of men and material at precisely the right time.

Let us consider the following. Up until about 1830, armies either marched on foot or rode on horses and wagons. Every weapon, round of ammunition, pound of food and sack of oats was carried by man, beast, or both. Roughly, half of the supplies carried were used to sustain the horses themselves. For much of the nineteenth century, North America remained largely wild, undeveloped, and lacking in infrastructure. However by 1861 important developments had been made with the advent of railroad.

For comparison, a six mule team drawing a wagon of 1.5 tons of food could travel approximately 500 miles on that 1.5 ton of food; a locomotive carrying a ton of fuel could only travel about 30 or 35 miles but could carry a payload of 150 tons.

Soldiers traveling by train could arrive at their destination in better shape physically and materially. Logistical difficulties were now reduced to maneuvering this quantity of men and material any distance from the railhead. The improved speed of movement allowed supplies to arrive in better, condition.

By surveying a map of the United States the sheer scale of the battles and campaigns of the Civil War becomes fully apparent:

As an example, Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign essentially followed a logistical life line of 473 miles of rail line from Louisville, Nashville, Chattanooga and then Atlanta. The campaign included approximately 100,000 men and 35,000 animals. Sherman estimated that the rail line did the work of approximately 36,000 wagons and 220,000 mules; the use of the railroad not only expanded the scale of warfare it is also hotly debated that it may also have contributed to prolonging the war as well.

One of the foremost Napoleonic concepts of war, modeled by the Commanders of the Civil War, was the concept of “Interior Lines”; simply meaning that, a group of units or armies cooperating on the inside of a curved front could mass and maneuver more quickly than there opponents on the outside, or “Exterior Lines” of the curve because they had less far to travel.

As an example, in 1863 at the Battle Chickamauga, LTG Longstreet moved 12,000 men, 800 miles in 12 days from Virginia to Tennessee to reinforce Braxton Bragg. Two weeks later the Union XI and XII Corp’s moved 25,000 men, 1200 Miles in 12 days, from Virginia to Chattanooga to reinforce the Army of the Cumberland. Union forces moved twice as many troops in the same number of days using exterior lines of communication. Seemingly, the concept of Interior lines had been nullified and railroads seem to make geographical disposition a lot less relevant.

In 1863, fighting revolved mainly around the Culpepper Court House and Fredericksburg primarily because those were the two main Union Army Railheads; the union was averaging approximately 800 tons of material supplies a day to the Falmouth Railhead opposite Fredericksburg.

In essence railroad technology would drive the strategic considerations of war planning, and, intrusions and interdictions of rail lines would impact operations. The railroad expanded the scale of warfare materially and geographically. But most clearly, the railroad logistics shaped the strategies of Civil War Commanders and became a vital element of Military Science; some scholars have argued that railroad science was no longer an element of strategy; it had become the strategy and would thus change the face of war.

- Terry Tucker


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