Thursday, March 25, 2021

Review - "Civil War Supply and Strategy: Feeding Men and Moving Armies" by Earl Hess

[Civil War Supply and Strategy: Feeding Men and Moving Armies by Earl J. Hess (Louisiana State University Press, 2020). Cloth, 21 maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,363/448. ISBN:978-0-8071-7332-9. $50]

The vast geographical expanse of the Southern Confederacy is often at or near the top of most shortlists of the breakaway republic's greatest defensive strengths. Conquering an area encompassing much of the North American continent confronted the Union Army with considerable obstacles for sure, but northern logistics proved capable of projecting military power almost anywhere its leaders wanted it to go, and their southern enemies quickly proved incapable of containing the many breaches made in its all too thin defensive cordon. Indeed, when one assesses Union conduct of the war, significant strategic missteps and all, one is tempted to conclude that the Confederacy's huge land mass (especially when also taking into account its extremely long coastline) was more liability than strength in the face of the logistical disparities between the two Civil War opponents. Even though the importance of logistics in Union victory is generally recognized (it's a major part of railroad studies, many Civil War publications on a broad range of topics, and numerous logistical theses written by U.S. Army officers as part of their advanced professional development1), expansive monographs that comprehensively probe into the most critical themes associated with the topic are certainly not a regular part of either scholarly or popular military history publishing. The first of its kind, Earl Hess's Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation (LSU, 2017) proved to be an insightful examination of all major modes of Civil War transport, including wagon trains, railroads, riverboats, and oceanic steamships. Significantly expanding upon that foundation is Hess's latest major contribution, Civil War Supply and Strategy: Feeding Men and Moving Armies. In this study, the author explains how military transportation systems supplied (or failed to supply) Civil War armies while also revealing the ways in which that complicated logistical process profoundly influenced operations and strategy from Arkansas to Pennsylvania.

Hess's detailed use of numerous major military campaigns as case studies illustrating the challenges of supplying Civil War armies in a diverse range of theaters (each with very specific logistical problems to address) lends his study a truly comprehensive feel. In each case, the author deftly explores how authorities managed (or mismanaged) available resources in their quest to overcome limitations imposed by the natural and built environments. Additionally, Hess's concept of "logistical theaters" in a continental war, distinct from the more commonly understood geographical and administrative military theaters, offers a useful general understanding of the broadest operational limitations imposed by distance and geography. The most important observation drawn from that conceptual framework is seen in the author's in-depth exploration of the key role that dividing line played in forcing the employment from 1864 onward of a new Union offensive strategy not tethered to railroads and rivers. This change to what Hess terms "strategic raiding" finally enabled complete Union victory in the West.

Going back to the beginning of the book, the Vicksburg Campaign section duly relates the common enough story of U.S. Grant's success in using river transport, foraging, and constant movement to keep his army in supply until a permanent base could eventually be established near his siege lines. However, the fresher and arguably more interesting aspect of the discussion is the author's detailed examination of the Confederate failure to accumulate sufficient supplies for an extended siege. To be fair, transportation was a major problem. However, despite having plenty of time to do so, the Confederate Army's overlapping and competing local and national quartermaster bureaucracies utterly failed to coordinate food procurement, efficiently manage existing transportation, and construct anything close to adequate storage facilities at Vicksburg, the result being that untold tons of precious food items were lost to spoilage. Though Pemberton's men were not yet at the point of general starvation and Grant's most advanced siege lines were seemingly on the verge of breakthrough as the Vicksburg siege passed into early July, short rations and the poor quality of them unquestionably were major factors in the Confederate surrender.

Difficulties surrounding the movement and supply of armies in the Appalachian highlands are explored through the lens of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga campaigns of late 1863. Clearly demonstrating the utter impossibility of supplying large armies long term in sparsely populated Appalachia using wagon trains, Hess effectively contrasts the efforts of generals Grant and William Rosecrans in bringing supplies to Chattanooga and Knoxville in East Tennessee. According to Hess, Rosecrans seemed not to grasp the full extent of his problems and consistently underestimated his minimum logistical needs in the areas of rail stock and repair crew manpower, while Grant quickly assembled a crackerjack team of leading northern railroad men to turn things around. In the author's view, this transfer to the western theater of military railroad management that had already reached peak efficiency in the East marked a watershed moment in the Union Army's ability, then and in the war's future, to penetrate some distance into the Deep South. Before that point, even after subtracting considerations of terrain and distance, railroad management in the West was still primitive in comparison to the well-honed professionalism of the eastern train system that fed and maintained the Army of the Potomac. The 1863 Appalachian campaigns clearly show how essential it was for Civil War army commanders to personally assume a direct role in logistics management, but the resource infusion that came about during the transition from Rosecrans to Grant also demonstrates that those who cultivate the best relationships with the civilian administration tend to get more of what they ask for (this being something that wasn't as obvious as it should have been to so many army commanders).

Another chapter addressing the steep logistical challenges of the 1864 Atlanta Campaign picks up where the western theater supply apparatus improvements of mid to late 1863 left off. It details William T. Sherman's hands-on logistics leadership and ruthless management of his invaluable assemblage of world-class engineers and railroad experts who worked together to massively expand rail capacity and build up huge forward supply stockpiles without which Sherman's army group's sustained drive through the almost wilderness-like environment of North Georgia to Atlanta would not have been possible. According to Hess, the western army's integration of fixed railroad defenses with mobile reserves and large rapid-reaction repair capacity was a unique feature of western logistics management from 1864 onward. Yet, as the author keenly observes, it was still a near run thing to keep 100,000 men and all their transport animals supplied all the way to Atlanta. Evidence is provided in the book of rather alarming levels of scurvy in Sherman's three armies as well as multiple interludes (though brief enough to be rectified) of general shortages in food and forage that, in the author's opinion, too often pass by the notice of Atlanta Campaign historians.

If Sherman's North Georgia campaign was a railroad war as much as a conflict between armies, John Bell Hood's planned movement into Middle Tennessee later that year would unfold much the same. Just as Sherman's Union army group was reaching the end of its rail-based logistical support tether around Atlanta, Hood (despite the combined efforts of General Richard Taylor and his new department commander, General Beauregard, to speed capacity sharing and repairs) reached the limit of his own railroad support network at the Tennessee River. The three lost weeks spent there had a major impact on Hood's prospects for achieving anything in Tennessee beyond a raid. Hess's recounting of events between November 1864 and February 1865 dramatically displays the contrast being Confederate and Union leadership and capabilities when it came to logistics. Though he gamely tried, it was fantasy for Hood to expect to maintain his army north of the Tennessee River without extensive railroad repairs his logistics apparatus was ill-equipped to execute. It was a colossal struggle for the patchwork system to maintain a meager flow of supplies just to Corinth let alone anywhere further north along the road to Nashville. By direct contrast, the Union pursuit after the Battle of Nashville (though it failed to catch Hood's swiftly retreating army) was quickly able, through its massive superiority in construction corps manpower, expertise, and resources, to reestablish rail connections and depots all the way to and along the Tennessee River line during the following weeks. That preparatory work made possible further advances into the Deep South in early 1865 using strategic raiding.

After explaining how the environs of Atlanta marked the absolute limit of supplying by rail a large Union army in the Deep South's interior, Hess discusses the western theater adoption of the aforementioned "strategic raiding" as a way to address that hard boundary. In rating the logistics management of the 1864 March to the Sea and the 1865 Carolinas Campaign, Hess holds Sherman in lofty regard as the war's best practitioner of army-scale strategic raiding. By both instinct and study, Sherman developed a knack for path selection and demonstrated a superior talent for organization when it came to streamlining wagon train support to the bare necessities and developing an effective system of regulated foraging. Of course, as was also the case with Grant's Vicksburg Campaign into the Mississippi interior, Sherman's far-ranging Union forces greatly benefited from water-borne support at key points in his strategic raiding. Even so, Sherman's army arrived in North Carolina in ragged condition, and Hess credits Union railroad logistical genius yet again (particular the feats of railroad man extraordinaire William Wright and chief quartermaster Langdon Easton) for quickly repairing and expanding rail supply capacity in North Carolina to meet the needs of Sherman's arriving army as well as the addition of heavy reinforcements. In establishing on a short schedule a rail network in North Carolina that lavishly maintained Sherman's now 80,000 men, federal officials achieved a rare feat in North Carolina that Hess marks as little appreciated by history and unfairly overshadowed by the war's closing dramas2.

In addressing the concept of strategic raiding, one question that Hess might usefully have spent more time on is how the Confederates might better have responded to it. As well prepared as he always was, Sherman keenly recognized that his raiding army always had to remain on the move or it would almost instantly get into supply trouble. Instead of launching a desperate move into Middle Tennessee that left Sherman's 60,000 men essentially unopposed in their march across Georgia, one might readily imagine the war in the West assuming an entirely different course had the Army of Tennessee (especially under more capable commanders than Johnston and Hood) assumed a central blocking position. Could it have slowed the pace of Sherman's progress enough to make strategic raiding unsustainable, or would the always flexible Union forces in the West simply have tried a different approach to 1864-65 operations that would have achieved similar results? We'll never know, but it is intriguing matter to contemplate.

It was during this final strategic raiding phase of the war in the West encompassing Sherman's March to the Sea, The Carolinas Campaign, Wilson's Raid, and E.R.S. Canby's Gulf operations that Union forces finally achieved the mobility necessary for sustained operations in the heart of the deepest regions of the Confederate South. Given that the West was the more significant of the two most logistically challenging theaters, it is appropriate that western topics comprise the bulk of the book. However, the Trans-Mississippi imposed unique problems of its own on invading Union forces. With the theater characterized by vast expanses of land with very low population densities, foraging would always be a problem there. More than that, the combination of wilderness-like geography, very limited seasonal river navigation, underdeveloped railroad capacity (particularly outside Missouri), and primitive roads were major reasons why the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department remained largely intact until just before the general collapse of the rebellion in 1865. The tertiary theater status of the Trans-Mississippi also meant that the supply, manpower, and equipment priorities of Union war planners lay elsewhere. Nevertheless, Union generals were able to achieve notable successes using small, highly mobile forces employing the shortest logistical tethers possible (for a good illustration, see the book's contrast between General Samuel Curtis's failed Little Rock campaign of 1862 with General Frederick Steele's successful one conducted the following year). The book also shows how unreliable navigation in two of the theater's most strategically significant river systems (the Arkansas and the Red) made supplying occupation forces in the Arkansas River Valley year round a tenuous prospect and a major army-navy campaign up the Red River in 1864 a virtual shot in the dark with little margin for error. The Camden Expedition deep into enemy territory was another risky throw of the dice, with Steele's corps-sized army entirely dependent on wagons. As Hess and others have shown, Confederate destruction of much of Steele's transportation in two small battles represents one of the war's clearest examples of a much smaller army winning a campaign through attacking enemy logistics while avoiding direct confrontation. Hess also shows that Union leaders in faraway Washington frequently demonstrated ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the unique challenges of supplying armies in the Trans-Mississippi when they viewed outsized wagon trains assigned there as equipment reserves for other theaters to draw upon rather than essential to supplying Trans-Mississippi operations.

Supplying the Army of the Potomac in the eastern theater had fewer challenges. For the most part, railroad systems were already advanced there (except those supporting movement up the Shenandoah Valley) and geography favored sea supply at many points. Additionally supply line distances from major depots to the front lines were very short in comparison to those of the West and Trans-Mississippi. However, Hess keenly notes that close proximity to the national capital and massive northern depots also meant that the nation's premier army would often be lavished with almost a superabundance of supplies, baggage, and equipment, and that horn of plenty created problems of its own when it came to both mobility and supply. Too much material clogging the system can almost be as bad as not having enough, and Hess's discussion of Herman Haupt and Daniel McCallum's brilliant creation (with ample support from the War Department) of a military railroad system honed to near perfection reminds readers that material abundance was largely useless when not accompanied by sound management. In the author's view, the progression of the 1864-65 campaigns in the East demonstrated Union logistics and supply practices at their peak in that theater, with managers proudly boasting (with some exaggeration) that the City Point hub could have supplied up to 500,000 men if it had been called upon to do so. Hess also keenly observes, however, that those same eastern planners benefited from never having to venture inland beyond the the boundaries of the Upper South and thus were never forced to make the tough decisions their western counterparts had to make in order to sustain remote operations in the heart of the Deep South.

While Union supply arrangements continually improved over the course the war in the East the same could not be said for their Confederate opponents, who labored under a system of supply logistics that moved further toward collapse with each passing year. As the war inexorably depleted the supply capacity of Virginia's farm counties, food had to be obtained from states as far away as Alabama. In turn, the combination of Union conquests and declining rail efficiency severely reduced the ability to feed the army from afar even on a day to day basis. Every reader by now is well aware that even in times of plenty it was the South's rickety rail system that often proved to be the critical bottleneck in the supply chain from farm and factory to the soldiers at the front, but Hess also adds that ideological reluctance to nationalize railroad companies, Lee's qualms against most draconian forms of impressment, the inability to mass produce wheeled vehicle replacements, and friction between army and national level quartermaster officials (similar in scope to what has already been mentioned earlier in the review regarding Vicksburg) also contributed mightily to the feast and famine cycles that went far toward wearing down the Army of Northern Virginia as a fighting force. Hess's characterization of Lee as contributing to the problem is an interesting departure from the literature's most common depiction of the general as consistently advocating that his government use all measures possible to supply his army.

While Hess's two highly complementary volumes provide us with both the broadest and deepest explanation yet of how the wide disparity between Union mastery of logistics and Confederate underperformance in that arena helped decide the outcome of the war, there is certainly more work to be done in exploring the entire length of the Civil War supply chain. For example, Civil War Supply and Strategy focuses on land campaigns, leaving ample room for other scholars to address in depth the logistics of the blockade and naval war. A truly comprehensive standalone study of the logistics of combined operations is probably also in order3. Additionally, both volumes freely admit that a very large and essential part of the supply chain, procurement, is absent from the analysis and will be left by Hess for another "motivated historian" to address.

As seen above, this book makes clear the many ways logistics factored in both Union victory and Confederate defeat. A chapter by chapter reading of this book conveys like no other single work how overall Union excellence in logistics critically facilitated offensive operations deep into the rebel South and shaped alternative strategies to overcome hard limitations in geography and in existing road, rail, and water transportation networks. It has often been said that the Union war effort's vast resources of men and material practically ensured victory as long as the public will to fight was maintained, but Civil War Supply and Strategy very persuasively expands upon a critical theme first developed in the author's earlier book Civil War Logistics. In exploring that theme, both books effectively argue that the North's pool of management skill, its in-tune governmental policymaking, and its profound military and civilian flexibility in addressing complicated logistical problems were factors in winning the war at least as important as manpower and resource extravagance. Without this winning combination, Union forces could not have penetrated the deepest reaches of Confederate resistance and achieved the complete military victory over the enemy that they historically did. This volume is very highly recommended reading alone but especially when paired with the aforementioned Civil War Logistics.

1 - Hess possesses a well-earned reputation for exhaustive research, so the relatively small size of the published literature section in the bibliography of Civil War Supply and Strategy is testament in itself to the limited depth of the Civil War logistics literature. Some obscure works, such as Roger Woltjer's two-volume history of the support services of both Civil War armies, are left out, leaving one to conclude that the author found them less than valuable. Many of the professional monographs hinted at in the review can be found online for free, but in recent years they have also been made readily available in paperback form through major online retailers. Just a few examples can be found here, here, here, and here.
2 - See the writings of retired army officer Wade Sokolosky, alone and in partnership with Mark Smith, for examples of how Union logistics in 1865 North Carolina has been fully appreciated by some authors.
3 - For background see Rowena Reed's classic Combined Operations in the Civil War (1978), Union Combined Operations in the Civil War (an excellent 2010 anthology edited by Craig Symonds), and Charles Dana Gibson and E. Kay Gibson's Assault and Logistics: Union Army Coastal and River Operations 1861-1866 (Volume II of The Army's Navy Series).


  1. Thanks for another in-depth and intriguing review, including your links to other sources of interest. Is there any Civil War author who has tackled such a deep well of topics other than Earl Hess? If there was an award for Civil War Renaissance Man/Woman Author, Hess would be my nominee.

    1. Yes, and consistently he chooses very interesting things (at least in my view) to be curious about as well.

    2. John: I would add something that doesn't pertain to this or to the logistics book - it would be nice of he'd invest in better maps for his battle/campaign studies. And - entirely aside from his work, which is uniformly top-notch - I don't care for his apparently dismissive attitude towards non-academic authors. As we know, there are some in the top rank of Civil War historians - Wittenberg and Rhea to name only two.

  2. John: You are certainly correct as to Hess's maps. After seeing another review today of Hess's Storming Vicksburg, which Drew reviewed some months ago, I took out my copy and looked at the preface. In it, Hess takes some pains to distinguish his book in some non-flattering ways with Timothy Smith's recent study. By contrast, Drew drew his distinctions between the two books in his review in his usual gentlemanly way. I was reminded of a Civil War conference I attended some years ago in which Hess criticized the non-academic author of a book on the same battle Hess was discussing. As it turned out, that non-academic author was sitting behind me and started conversing in an animated way with his seatmate (also a Civil War author) about Hess's criticism. So, as much as I admire Hess's work, I appreciate your criticism. Regards.

  3. Drew, great review and thanks for the plug.

    Wade Sokolosky


When commenting, PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be deleted. Thank you.