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

Monday, November 3, 2008

The American Civil War: The Military Balance sheet of 1861: Strengths and Weaknesses of the Union and Confederacy

With the benefit of historical hindsight, it seems almost impossible to think that the Confederacy could have won the war against the Union. By surveying the balance sheet of both sides, it is possible to assess how far the Confederacy lagged behind the Union in both resources and economic development.

In terms of population, for every inhabitant of the Confederate States there were more than two Americans who lived in the Union. In addition, the Confederacy had more than three and half million slaves and 130,000 freed blacks. Slave labour also allowed white men to serve in the Confederate army, allowing for more than 80% of the military age population to be mobilised.

Economically, the North surpassed the South in almost every measure. Prior to the war, the South had relied upon the northern states and Britain for the iron and steel imports necessary for railroad construction. The North possessed 110,000 some factories and workshops of various sizes. By comparison, the South possessed barely a tenth of that number. Statistics for industrial workers further demonstrate that the American industrial basin was clearly concentrated in the Northern states. 1,300,000 workers in the North were employed in industry. By comparison, the south had only 110,000 workers. The predominance of manufacturing in the northern states gave the Union a huge advantage. In 1860, the North produced fifteen times the level of iron manufactured in the South. The arms industry was also concentrated in the North with 97% of all firearms produced north of the Mason-Dixie line.

Despite these massive material advantages, the war would be won by the side that could best concentrate their resources overwhelmingly against the enemy. Total war is only possible with the support of a banking and credit system to support the costs of war. It was in this field that the North excelled over the Confederacy. With 85% of all capital and 80% of all bank deposits, the North had a banking and credit system vastly more developed than anything in the South. The Federal government was therefore able to draw upon loans from private financiers in quantities which was simply impossible for the Confederacy.

Although many Southern politicians believed they had a predominance in agriculture (especially cotton, which they attempted to leverage to gain diplomatic recognition from Britain and France), the reality was that here too, the North had a clear advantage. The failure of Missouri and Kentucky to secede had deprived the Confederacy of another important agricultural basin that could have supplied the Confederate army. The South had also hoped to use cotton exports to obtain credit on the European markets. However, New Orleans, the largest port in the Confederacy fell into Union hands early in the war. The remaining important cities of Charleston, Galveston, Mobile and Wilmington were all vulnerable to naval and land attack.

Despite these inherent disadvantages, the South possessed strengths that they hoped would ultimately win them the war. In order to conquer the South, Federal armies would have to subdue an area the size of Western Europe. In 1860, the Federal army was only 14,000 strong. Those few troops were scattered across various parts of the continental United States. Both North and South would therefore have to start from scratch in raising the large armies that would ultimately be required to fight the war. It was hoped that the Confederacy would therefore have sufficient time to make allies and involve international powers such as Britain to turn the tide against the Union. Furthermore, Federal troops advancing into the South would have to deal with the problems of over-extended lines of communication and the estimated thirty or so supply wagons required for every thousand troops. Countryside and enemy strongholds would need to be pacified, drawing yet more troops away from the front. If the Confederacy could drag out the fighting for long enough, they hoped to be able to tire out the Union, just as the American colonists had tired out a militarily superior British force ninety years before. Although the North had a larger population, one in five (four million people) were foreign immigrants. Such a large diverse population might be more difficult to keep together in comparison to the more homogeneous Southern population.

Given the weaknesses of the South, the historian must ask how the Confederates could have rationally believed that they could make and win a war against the Union?
The answer lies perhaps in the fact that many of the technologies and tactics of Total War later seen in the US Civil War were not immediately apparent to commanders on both sides. The potential of railway to change the nature of battlefield logistics had yet be discovered. It is important to remember that many of the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides were only fully realised later in the war.

Adam I.P. Smith, ‘The American Civil War’, (New York, 2007)

Mark E. Neely, ‘Was the Civil War a Total War?’, Civil War History 37 (1991)

Ronald N. Current, ‘God and the Strongest Battalions’ in David Hubere Donald, ed, ‘Why the North won the Civil War’ (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1960)

James M. McPherson, ‘Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction’ (New York 1982)

James Huston, ‘Calculating the value of the Union: Slavery, Property Rights and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)