Supplies for Sherman’s Armies … to include whippletrees! Meigs’ unheralded role in the Savannah Campaign

Everybody is familiar with the cliche about amateurs studying tactics while the professional focus on logistics.  Sort of a quaint way of splitting off the conversation, as I can attest that professional military types tend to focus on all of the above.  With respect to the March to the Sea, there is again somewhat a series of ellipses in play – “Fort McAllister fell …  … Sherman was resupplied.”  And again, a lot had to happen in the middle of those ellipses.  The most prominent figure in that “middle” was this fellow:

Major-General Montgomery Meigs role as the Army’s Quartermaster-General is well known to Civil War enthusiasts.  But the nuts-and-bolts of his work is often overlooked as we delve into battles and campaigns.  Of course, none of those battles and campaigns would have been successful without his guiding hand to get supplies to the troops.  None was more apparent than the Savannah Campaign.

At the commencement of the campaign, Sherman’s intended endpoint was still up in the air.  Meigs met this with contingency planning.  He responded by staging supplies at Pensacola and Port Royal.  But as it became apparent Savannah was the destination, Meigs devoted transportation towards Port Royal, coordinating with Major-General John Foster in that regard.  Furthermore, Meigs initial estimates were based on 30,000 men.  By December 6, he’d increased that factor to 60,000.  He ordered forage sent in daily increments to support 30,000 animals.  And anticipating the need to re-equip the force, he forwarded a substantial amount of clothing and equipment:

Clothing.—30,000 sack coats; 30,000 trowsers; 60,000 shirts; 60,000 pairs drawers; 60,000 pairs socks; 100,000 pairs shoes and boots; 20,000 forage caps; 10,000 greatcoats; 20,000 blankets, unless this number has already been shipped; 10,000 waterproof blankets.

Equipage.–10,000 shelter-tents; 100 hospital tents; 10,000 knapsacks; 20,000 haversacks; 10,000 canteens; 2,000 camp kettles; 5,000 mess pans; 5,000 felling axes, two handles each; 1,000 hatchets, handled; 2,000 spades; 2,000 picks.

You will also send the following quartermaster’s stores:
Transportation.–Wheel harness for 400 mules; lead harness for 800 mules; 10,000 pounds bar-iron, assorted; 5,000 pounds steel; 1,000 pounds harness leather; 40 sets shoeing tools and 40 extra hammers; thread, wax, needles, awls, &c., for repairing harness; 500 pounds wrought nails; 20 buttresses; 200 horse rasps; 100 large files, assorted; 50 shoeing knives, extra; 4,000 pounds manilla rope, assorted; 15,000 bushels smith’s coal (this coal will be ordered from Washington); 200 extra wagon wheels; 50 extra ambulance wheels; 100,000 pounds horse and mule shoes; 10,000 pounds horse and mule shoe-nails.

If Sherman’s march failed, it would not be for want of a nail!  No detail escaped Meigs’ eye.  To Colonel Herman Biggs, Quartermaster in Philadelphia, he directed:

You will send to Port Royal, to Maj. C. W. Thomas, the following quartermaster’s stores (probably they can be taken on board one of the light-draught steamers built by Messrs. Cramp & Sons, which I suppose to be ready to sail): 50 extra king bolts; 500 linch pins; 200 wagon tongues; 400 extra whippletrees; 50 double trees, ironed ready for use; 100 coupling poles; 200 front hounds for wagons; 100 hind hounds for wagons; 200 mule hames, ironed ready for use; 200 mule collars; 500 wagon bows; 100 wagon whips; 1,000 open links, for repairing trace chains; 500 open rings; 100 water buckets.

Everything, to include those Whippletrees, if the need arose to move these supplies over rough roads and long distances.

On December 15, Meigs sent a message to Sherman, starting:

I congratulate you on your successful march. You have made the greatest and most remarkable marches of the war, and have demonstrated several times that an army can move more than twenty-five miles from a navigable river or railroad without perishing. We have been shipping supplies for you, and I hope that you will have abundance of all necessaries, though I have been somewhat uncertain as to your numbers.

After explaining the supplies stocked at Port Royal, Meigs went on to point out a deficiency which could not be resolved:

I presume that you have more animals now than when you started, and I desire to call your attention to the difficulty, as well as the expense, of furnishing a large army with forage on the Atlantic coast. With all the exertions of the forage officer of this department, with a practically unlimited command of money, he has not been able to accumulate at Washington and at City Point enough long forage for the armies in Virginia to meet a few days’ interruption by storm or ice. We can supply grain enough, but there is always a short supply of hay. … Still the armies complain of short allowance of hay. If you have more animals than you need for intended operations they should be sent off to some point where the country can subsist them, or else you will, I fear, lose many by the diseases resulting from constant feeding on grain without enough long forage.

Forage was already a concern outside Savannah, and opening the supply lines would not address the full need.

Another issue arose with the transportation between Port Royal and the Ogeechee.  Once teams cleared the obstructions and torpedoes (no small task, and one I’ll touch upon later), the Ogeechee was open for ships of light draft.  But for some time Foster had complained about lacking sufficient numbers of vessels of that type.  Until Savannah itself, or another deep water port were opened, Meigs prepared six steamers then on the Chesapeake for movement to Hilton Head. But those would not arrive for a week or more.  In the mean time, the existing fleet, in small numbers, was pressed into service.  For every load of rations, the steamers traveled down from Hilton Head to the Ogeechee, thence up the river.  From King’s Bridge, the supplies were transferred to wagons or barges for distribution throughout the line.  A time consuming task.

Yes, Sherman had established his “cracker line” of supply from the sea.  And, yes, Meigs had staged ample quantities of those supplies (save fodder) to support the force.  But there were still issues to resolve, as of December 15, 1864.  Many of these, of course, could be resolved much easier if the Federals had possession of Savannah and those fine, deep-water docks.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 637-8 and 715-6.)


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