150 years ago: Moving trains by water to supply the army

Yesterday I left off noting that armies on the move need support in order to keep up momentum.  Even without suggesting General Sumner should have crossed the Rappahannock and occupied Fredericksburg – just to stay in front of Fredericksburg – the Army of the Potomac needed logistic support.  To continue the offensive, the army needed everything from axle grease to hard tack to bullets, and even more in-between.

However by early November 1862, the logistic tail following the Army of the Potomac lay back along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Engines and their rolling stock worked the rails extending to the southwest of Alexandria.  With the change of objective, the army no longer needed depots at places like Manassas Junction or Warrenton.  Rather the army needed a line running due south towards Fredericksburg.  For General Ambrose Burnside’s plan to reach Richmond through Fredericksburg to work, the rail road had to move.  Problem was the old Fredericksburg railroad was not in shape to support anything, having suffered damage due to the war.  And even if built, railroaders feared the line was exposed to irregular activity.

To resolve the problem, the U.S. Military Railroad came up with a novel solution.  General Herman Haupt wrote of this in his reminiscences:

The reconstruction of the wharves and track from Acquia Creek to Fredericksburg was prosecuted with unprecedented expedition.  It was on November 10 that I directed W.W. Wright to hold himself in readiness to commence work so soon as General Halleck should decide upon its necessity. It was November 11 when a telegram was sent to Colonel Belger at Baltimore to provide canal boats, and five days later, November 17, considerable progress had already been made in the work of reconstruction.  The Superintendent reported that, in five days after commencement, a section of the wharf 1,000 feet long was completed, and a locomotive and cars landed and trains commenced running to Potomac Creek.  In five days more trains were running to the Rappahannock.

The Schuylkill barges answered admirably, and thus was formed a new era in Military Railroad transportation.  Two of these barges were placed parallel to each other and long timbers bolted transversely.  The length of the barges was sufficient for eight tracks carrying eight cars, and two such floats would carry the sixteen cars which constituted a train.

In this way hundreds of loaded cars were transferred from the advanced location of the Army, on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, loaded on the floats, towed sixty miles to Acquia Creek, transferred from river to rail, and sent to Falmouth without break of bulk, in about the same time required to march the army across the country by land.  Supplies were at Falmouth as soon as there were forces there for their protection.

We might fact-check Haupt’s claim about the arrival of supplies and troops coinciding.  Still the point made is valid – the railroad system shifted with remarkable speed and flexibility.  While the repair of port facilities was certainly nothing new, the use of barges to move the rolling stock was a new practice at the military operational level.

One wartime photo shows a pair of barges, as described by Haupt, with eight box-cars loaded.

Rolling stock on barges

Another wartime photo shows perhaps a variation on the theme – three lashed barges with more tracks.

Three barge floats

I’ll defer to the railroading experts out there.  But this seems to me a likely means to transport the heavier locomotives.

As a “trained” logistician, I’d point out the genius of this operation was not just floating the rolling stock, but alluded to in Haupt’s closing – no breaking of bulk cargo.  In other words, the cars were packed at a depot or warehouse and then shipped directly to the front without cross packing.  Such was a significant time savings. And time is everything when discussing transportation and logistics in the military context.

Fast forward a little over eighty years.  Different location, similar logistic problem, but larger scale.  For the armies going into Normandy in June 1944, logistic support was more so a monumental task.  A modern mechanized army requires more than just hay and hardtack.  No doubt, you’ve seen the D-Day documentaries that cite tens of millions of tons of supplies going ashore at the Mulberry harbors.  But just getting those supplies to the beach didn’t meet the needs of the front line soldier.  As the beachhead enlarged and extended, the supplies had to be transported over one-hundred miles (excuse me… kilometers) to the front line areas.  As with the Civil War days, the logisticians needed to save time by avoiding the practice of breaking bulk.  So they did this:

Rails allowed the LST to carry the cars from English ports to the French beaches.  There the LST opened its bow doors and the stock rolled down onto a pre-fabricated line across the beach.

Take away the trucks and helmets, and you have a scene not too far removed from Acquia Landing in November 1862.

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2 responses to “150 years ago: Moving trains by water to supply the army

  1. It seems like the birth of intermodal, containerized transport, about a century early.

    Ironically, purpose build ships for carrying rolling train stock were used before World War II, but come wartime, were seized and used to transport tanks to North Africa, as there were no LSTs ready to support the invasion.

  2. Craig, a couple of years ago, Chuck Siegel–the reigning authority on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad–kindly brought to my attention Frank O”Reilly’s detailed coverage of Burnside’s pre-Battle of Fredericksburg strategy as detailed in “The Fredericksburg Campaign.”

    Frank notes that when Burnside found himself in abrupt command of the Army of the Potomac early in the second week of November,
    “Old Burn” inherited a campaign, according to his secretary, that was “planned & begun by another person & carried on, not as the General would have done…”

    So even though his entire army was fifty-sixty miles upriver from Fredericksburg near Warrenton, Burnside proposed “to go to Richmond by land…by way of Fredericksburg”–and not via Rappahannock Station, straight through Culpeper County (around Lee’s left).

    I would just point out the obvious when noting that on November 7, 1863, the Army of the Potomac under General Meade attacked across the river at Rappahannock Station and peremptorily threw massed Confederates back across the Rapidan into Orange County. By any standard, this was a hugely successful attack–and a complete disaster for the Army of Northern Virginia

    One wonders if General Burnside’s strategy would have been more successful had he quickly attacked Lee in the second week of November at Kelly’s and Beverly’s Fords. After all, he had his army near at hand in western Fauquier County fronting the Rappahannock, and a quick, bold strike just may have ended the war in late 1862.

    But Burnside instead initiated a diversionary attack across the upper Rappahannock on November 15–while Confederates hastily retreated–and then shifted his army downriver some fifty miles.

    One muses in November 2012 how different things could have turned out in November 1862, 150 years ago, if Burnside would have “Just kept on a’comin…”

    Clark B. Hall

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