Logistics, Transportation & Communication in the Civil War

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today something a bit wonkish, another section of my Civil War and Gettysburg Staff Ride text. Nothing controversial, but an interesting look at how all of these mundane and often forgotten components of war advanced during the Civil War and how both sides adapted to these developments.


Padre Steve+


General Montgomery Meigs: Logistician Extraordinaire

With the advances in weaponry, technology turned the adoption of field fortifications and the tactical defense; even during offensive operations changed the way that the armies conducted the war; other advances were occurring. These took place in logistics, transportation, signals and communications.

In a country as vast as the United States logistics was a major concern of both armies. The ante-bellum Army developed its logistic doctrine from Napoleonic examples. That doctrine had to be modified in light of the American reality of a less developed continent with far greater distances involved in the movement of troops. “While the North’s logistical mobilization expanded, the South’s peaked in early 1863 and then declined. Fundamental interlocking problems beset logistics. The Confederacy had few preexisting industries to expand and lacked sufficient raw materials upon which to build an industrial base.” [1]

The Confederacy “did not have the material resources to fight a mass industrial war” [2] and the actions of its leaders from Jefferson Davis down did not help their cause. “The South needed a careful weighing of assets and liabilities, the setting of strict priorities, and centralized direction in order to use its resources efficiently. But Confederate leaders allowed events to control planning, resulting in uncoordinated, tardy, and incompetent centralization of the logistical effort.” [3]

The issue was not limited to industry but also agriculture, which in a region as rich as the Confederacy should not have been a problem. However, it was a major issue that became ever more serious throughout the war, not only for the Confederate armies in the field but also for the population as a whole. While the South managed to maintain effective armies until the end of 1864, it “failed to preserve the population’s well-being.” [4] This would prove to be a major problem.

By the spring of 1863 five major cities experienced bread riots, the most serious being in Richmond. Here, women, many of whose husbands were in the army “could no longer defer starvation. Living without men meant living without livelihood for many women. On the morning of April 2, 1863, a group of working class women met at a Baptist church in Richmond. Unable to feed their families they resolved to march to the governor’s mansion to seek redress.” [5] The governor was unable to satisfy their demands and the women, armed with guns and knives proceeded to wreak havoc, and over the “next several hours, all semblance of order disappeared in Richmond’s commercial district as the enraged women broke down doors and windows, seized bread and meat, and then went on to loot jewelry, clothing, hats, “and whatever they wanted.” [6]

Army troops and militia arrived on the scene and it appeared that Confederate soldiers might soon open fire on upon Confederate women. Jefferson Davis, who heard about the situation went to the commercial district and personally gave an ultimatum to the rioters ordering them to disperse or have the troops and militia open fire. [7] He turned “glanced at the soldiers behind him and turned to the women. “We do not desire to injure anyone, but this lawlessness must stop. I will give you five minutes to disburse, otherwise you will be fired upon.” [8] Soon the crowd disbursed and order was restored, but the damage was done. Other bread riots occurred in Southern cities until the fall of 1863. Many Southerners blamed merchants in general and the press labeled most businesses as speculators and extortionists. However as a result of the great privations at home and the need for a scapegoat, the specter of anti-Semitism rose in the Confederacy. Many, including some influential newspapers and government officials “focused on the Jews as the worst “extortioners” [9] blaming them for many if not most of the Confederacy’s economic woes.


Even as their families went without food many soldiers in the armies of the Confederacy likewise faced hunger and privation. In the fall of 1863 some soldiers of the Army of Tennessee were ordered into line to be reviewed by Jefferson Davis. One soldier, Private Sam Watkins wrote: “When he passed by us with his great retinue of staff officers …cheers greeted them, with the words “Send us something to eat, Massa Jeff! Give us something to eat, Massa Jeff! I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” [10]

During the war, both armies learned to adapt their logistical support services to the reality of war. However, the South, for a number of reasons had difficultly this. Poor infrastructure and the lack of standardized rail systems were significant factors. But even more importantly inability of the government in Richmond, various states governments as well as the private sector to work together helped doom the Confederacy. The South did not lack for food. It was a rich agricultural region, but its ability to provide sustenance for its people and its armies was hindered due to its woeful infrastructure and various self-inflicted political and economic reasons. Several major issues affected the South’s ability to feed its people and its armies.

Among these were “the deficiencies of the Confederate rail system” which deteriorated throughout the war and was made worse by the lack of cooperation of Confederate railroad owners. The South “did not have a railroad network that tied its scant industrial base together or readily permitted long distance movements.” [11] This would hamper Confederate attempts to move and supply its armies as well as sustain its economy throughout the war. The Confederacy never nationalized its railroads, and “no centralized planning or organization developed, and field commanders, supply agencies, and civilian shippers competed for use of Southern rolling stock.” [12]


Southern policy towards the use of its railroads was muddled at best and the demands of the war and by 1863, “the excessive wear of wartime rail movement was chewing up southern rail lines[13] which resulted in the “South barely keeping a few lines operating by cannibalizing less important lines and could not replace its rolling stock.” [14] The combination of the lack of a strong industrial base to produce the iron to make replacement rails and the similar lack of producing facilities to manufacture locomotives and rolling stock, combined with the “unsure policies of the Confederate government and military” [15] ran the already feeble Southern railway system into the ground.

The Confederacy also faced a basic unwillingness of many producers of food, textiles and other necessities to cooperate with the Confederate government, which often could not even find ways for its own agencies to cooperate with each other. “The government gave no overall direction to the supply bureaus, which often bid against each other for materials and labor.” [16] This was a pervasive problem, and not helped by the efforts of some parts of the Confederate government to nationalize various parts of their economy in direct competition with the private sector. This contrasted starkly with the Union whose “quartermaster and commissary heads contracted out their needs for weapons, horses and clothes by bid on the open market, rather than by appropriating existing industries for government use.” [17]

The Confederate policies meant that many citizens and businesses found ways to not submit to government edicts. There was a basic “unwillingness of farmers to sell goods and produce at government rates” [18] and the greed of hoarders and war profiteers who through “hoarding, black marketing and simple withdraw from the market[19] crippled Southern war efforts and by “1862 much of the Confederate economy had become unmanageable.” [20] When Davis attempted to use the religious faith of the people to bolster more and “called for a day of fasting and prayer in March 1863, one man wrote that the president asked for “fasting in the midst of famine.” [21]

Where possible each side used railroads and maritime forces to move troops and supplies. The Confederacy, as has been noted was lacking in both, and was at a severe disadvantage. The Union however enjoyed a great advantage in modern rail networks, as well as ocean and river based maritime power. By late 1863 the Army of the Potomac, as well as forces in the West demonstrated “the close integration of operational planning and that of the general in chief and supply bureaus. In this one area, the development of a mature and modern staff was evident.” [22]

Once the armies were away from railheads or the ports from where they drew supplies both armies, like their Napoleonic cousins relied on wagons to transport essential food, supplies and ammunition when on campaign. In both armies commanders and their logisticians experimented with the number of wagons per regiment and how army commanders, modified that number at various points during the war based on their situation.

At the beginning of the war the Napoleonic standards by which both armies based the number of wagons, 12 wagons per 1000 men to support the troops on campaign were found to be insufficient as it “placed too much emphasis on foraging for American conditions” [23] and throughout the war standards for what the armies needed would be debated and commanders in different theaters of the war often set their own standards based on their needs and the availability of wagons and livestock to draw them.

As the war went on the Federal army experimented with the use of the “flying column” as a response to the dependency on wagons in order to increase their mobility. The flying column was an idea drawn from the French by Major General Montgomery Meigs, the Union Quartermaster General. The idea was simple; in order to reduce dependency on wagons the army itself would be reorganized at the lowest level, the infantry squad.

“The soldier in a flying column carried eight days’ compressed rations, including desiccated vegetables on his back. He carried a blanket but no overcoat. The men were divided into squads of eight, one of whom was to carry a covered cooking kettle, another a large mess tin, another an axe, another a pick, and one a shovel. One man in each company carried the hospital knapsack. Each man carried his share of a shelter tent. The cavalry were pickets and grain for their horses.” [24]

After Gettysburg and the unsuccessful pursuit of Lee’s army, Halleck and Rufus Ingalls, the Army of the Potomac’s chief quartermaster made provision and set standards “to convert the army into a flying column that would be self-sufficient for eight- and twelve- day periods away from the base of supply.” [25] In contrast, the Confederacy lacked the wagons and livestock to support the field operations of the army on campaign. Wagons, especially those suited for military operations were in short supply and any time the opportunity presented, confederate commanders ensured the capture of Union wagons. This turned out to be a major problem during the Gettysburg campaign, when Stuart during his ride around the Army of the Potomac “succumbed to temptation of capturing a beautifully equipped and heavily laden Union supply train near Rockville, Maryland, at the cost of exhausting his cavalry and wasting precious time.” [26] In most cases Stuart’s action would have been commendable, and he certainly felt that such should have been the case here as well, but the cost to his operations and Lee’s need for his cavalry were such that it was a mistake of disastrous consequences.

The basic load of food and ammunition carried by each soldier in order to increase strategic maneuverability was adjusted to meet the operational need. Both armies, but more often the Confederate army frequently had to live off the land. The success and failure of forage operations and the requirements for people and animals in each theater of operations had a large impact on each army. By early 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia was “greatly deficient in all areas of supply….there were extreme shortages of footwear, clothing, draft animals, and wagons.” [27] When the Army of Northern Virginia advanced into Pennsylvania they found it to be “a land of plenty” while “quartermaster and commissary details, acting under official instructions, filled wagons and supplies with foodstuffs.” [28]

While the Federal army never lacked in provisions or supplies, the Confederate armies were almost always in short supply. Even adequate food supplies needed to maintain an adequate caloric intake on the march were almost impossible to achieve. Food supplies were so limited that they were barely adequate, especially when the army was encamped. In fact, one of the reasons that Lee based his invasion of Pennsylvania was to alleviate his desperate supply situation. One regimental commander in Pickett’s division recalled that Lee told him “the movement was a necessity; that our provisions and supplies of every kind were nearly exhausted in Virginia, and we had to go into Pennsylvania for supplies.” [29]

As Federal forces moved into the South they encountered a new problem, the areas that the conquered and their essential supply bases, railheads and railroads had to protected from Confederate partisans, irregulars, raiders and other insurgents. Railroads were especially important to the Federal logistics chain as they provided “new strategic and operational abilities” to civil war armies, but they were an “extremely delicate sources of dependence when they ran through hostile territory.” [30] As such they had to be protected, as did the sprawling supply bases on which the Federal armies in the South depended. This resulted in an ever increasing logistics tail in proportion to the fighting forces spearheading the Federal advance. The three Union armies commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman that carried “the brunt of the Union effort against Joe Johnston and Atlanta, for example, showed 352,265 men on their muster rolls, but took only about 100,000 directly into the campaign.” [31] The rest were engaged in protecting the vital logistics tail.

Communications and Signals

The size of the armies and the distances involved on the battlefield made command and control difficult.  As such, communications became more important and each army experimented with new signals organizations that used both old and new communication technologies. At the beginning of the war both sides made extensive use of visual signals and couriers, but rapidly began to rely on the telegraph for rapid communications.


The organizational tension was particularly evident in the rivalry between the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Military Telegraph Service.  The Signal Corps focused on wireless communications. It preferred the Beardslee wireless telegraphs, however, they were plagued by the limitations of such early wireless technology. The Union Army command favored the traditional wire bound networks operated by the Military Telegraph due to better reliability and security and eventually the Military Telegraph Service and its Morse trained operators were given “jurisdiction for all field telegraph” services at the urging of President Lincoln in November 1863. [32] Though the Army rejected the Beardslee equipment some commanders requested it for their operations.[33] As each Army became more dependent on the telegraph, each feared that their signals could be compromised through wiretapping and made efforts to encode their transmissions.

While the various forms of telegraphic communication were important in keeping higher headquarters in contact with armies in the field, battlefield communication could be difficult. Commanders on both sides relied on messengers to relay orders to subordinate commanders as well as pass information to senior commanders. On the battlefield this took time, and since the messengers were subject to the same dangers as ordinary soldiers messages might not reach the intended commanders. It took approximately an hour for a message to travel from an army commander to a corps commander, 30 minutes from a corps commander to a division commander, 20 from division to brigade, 15 from brigade to regiment and 5 minutes from regiment to company. [34]

Written orders generally provided better clarity if detailed enough but if they were passed orally, as was Lee’s preferred method they could easily be miscommunicated by messengers, or misunderstood or even ignored by commanders. This was a major source of Lee’s consternation during the Gettysburg campaign. A major problem for Lee during the campaign was that his orders, be they written or oral were frequently vague and discretionary, something that we will discuss in detail later, but Lieutenant General Richard Ewell spoke for many Confederate subordinate commanders on the evening of June 30th when he asked his division commanders in frustration “Why can’t a commanding General have someone on his staff who can write an intelligent order?” [35]

The Union Signal Corps also pioneered the use and development with a “modern system of semaphores with a telegraphic alphabet…” as well as “a cipher disk…that allowed the Union Signal Corps to change the code hourly if need be.” [36] The one disadvantage to this form of visual communication was that it could be limited due to weather conditions or the smoke of battle. While semaphore was used with a good deal of success by the Union, and Meade would make good use of it at Gettysburg, it was not used by the Confederate army.


Likewise Meade “set a precedent in command procedures” during the Gettysburg campaign, where “for perhaps the first time in military history the commanding general of a large army was kept in communication during active operations with his corps and division commanders.” Likewise Meade “set a precedent in command procedures when he brought signal officers to the conference table for consultation on the plan of battle” [37] and for the first time Signal Corps officers were assigned directly to each corps, when Meade ordered that two Signal Corps officers be “detached for service with each corps.” [38]

The troops of the Union Signal Corps were also a vital link in the transmission of military intelligence gathered by Colonel George Sharpe’s Bureau of Military Information, whose network of scouts during the Gettysburg campaign were “supported by Signal Corps detachments which could establish chains of flag stations from Harpers Ferry to “South Mountain, Monterrey, Greencastle…up to Parnell’s Knob, in the Cumberland Valley.” [39] This link helped provide Meade with much better intelligence regarding the movement of Lee’s army throughout the campaign.

Regardless of the means of transmitting orders, the fact was that at Gettysburg the element of friction entered the communication process. Wireless communications suffered from encryption problems, semaphore could not always be read due to the reduced visibility caused by the smoke covered battlefield. Commanders who took the time to issue written orders found that those could be delayed or lost due to battlefield conditions that impacted a messenger’s ability to deliver them, or misunderstood by their recipients. Likewise, verbal orders sent by messenger were frequently garbled and misunderstood, or depending on the situation, understood in the manner that best fit the situation of the recipient.

The developments in tactics, maneuver, defense and logistics and how those were developed over the course of the war brought about a form of warfare that remained dominant of decades. In studying the campaigns, developments and tensions between the competing theories of Jomini and Mahan in the Civil War, a student can begin to recognize them in future wars fought by the US Army including World War Two.

Russell Weigley picks up this theme in his books The American Way of War and Eisenhower’s Lieutenants. Weigley discusses Lee’s use of Napoleonic strategy and Grant’s corresponding strategy of annihilation as well as Sherman’s campaign against Johnston, as well as Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley to impose its aims on the Confederacy. [40] These lessons influenced American strategic doctrine well into the next century, and were employed by leaders in the First and Second World Wars, as well as much less effectively in Korea and Vietnam. Weigley concluded: “Because it worked so well, achieving total submission, American soldiers thereafter tended to generalize the United States strategy of the Civil War into the appropriate strategy for all major, full scale wars.” [41]


[1] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.216

[2] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.135

[3] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense pp.216-217

[4] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.218

[5] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame pp.296-297

[6] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.326

[7] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.617-618

[8] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.297

[9] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.441

[10] Ibid. Robertson Soldiers Blue and Gray p.72

[11] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.156

[12] Ibid. Thomas, The Confederate Nation p.211

[13] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.319

[14] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.216

[15] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.323

[16] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.217

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.322

[18] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.320

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.322

[20] Ibid. McPherson. The Battle Cry of Freedom p.442

[21] Ibid. Millet and Maslowski For the Common Defense p.219

[22] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.79

[23] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.44

[24] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.71

[25] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.76

[26] Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster New York, 1968 p.198

[27] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.126

[28] Wert, Jeffry D. A Glorious Army: Robert E. Lee’s Triumph 1862-1863 Simon and Schuster, New York and London 2011 p.229

[29] Ibid. West A Glorious Army p.230

[30] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.322

[31] Ibid. Weigley A Great Civil War p.322

[32] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.87

[33] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.87

[34] Cole, Phillip M. Command and Communication Friction in the Gettysburg Campaign Colecraft Industries, Ortanna PA 2006 p.80

[35] Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 2002 p.140

[36] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare pp.43-44

[37] Ibid. Hagerman The American Civil War and the Origins of Modern Warfare p.87

[38] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.123

[39] Ibid. Guelzo Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.42

[40] Ibid. Weigley The American Way of War pp.145-146

[41] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign in France and Germany 1944-1945. Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN 1981 p.3


Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, Military

2 responses to “Logistics, Transportation & Communication in the Civil War


    The Beardslee Telegraph was not wireless. It used a system of mechanical transmission to form the Characters sent but it used the same single wire with ground return line construction as the Morse Telegraph System. The difference is that the Beardslee system used a magneto for power rather than the batteries used by the Morse Telegraph System. The Beardslee system did not require skilled operators. Letters were selected by dial and transmitted to the receiving apparatus to be displayed directly as letters. The Beardslee system was slower and it’s apparatus was more complex but both systems transmitted over metallic wires.

    In no sense was the Beardslee system wireless! Please see

    • padresteve

      I see that you pulled your comments almost verbatim from Wikipedia. When I go back to the office I will check Hagerman’s book to see if I misread him. I don’t use Wikipedia as a primary source, though it has its uses.

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