January 21, 1865: “We have never had more than four days’ forage ahead”: Limited supplies of fodder hinder Federal operations

On January 21, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman sent a status to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant.  You can read the full text of the letter, along with other correspondence from Sherman, in today’s entry on “Sherman’s Blog” (A good blog to follow, by the way). Likely you have read or heard part of that letter, as near the end Sherman assured Grant he did not want promotion to Lieutenant-General, as “It would be mischievous, for there are enough rascals who would try to sow differences between us, whereas you and I are now in perfect understanding.”

There is, however, another portion of that letter which I think should get more attention, particularly from the perspective of a military historian.  Opening his letter, having summed up the preliminary movements taken to that date, Sherman explained some of the logistical problems and the effect of recent rains.  But he went on to bring up another constraint that hindered execution of his plans – fodder for the horses:

Our supplies have come daily, that is, we have never had four days’ forage ahead, but I will depend on enough coming to get me out to the neighborhood of Barnwell, were we will find some.

We can’t argue with Sherman’s calculations. Barnwell was about 90 miles from Savannah, and thus around four days’ march… give or take.

Having marched through Georgia and, shall we say, leaned on the citizens of that state for fodder (and horses), while in Savannah Sherman’s armies depended upon the supply system.  As pointed out earlier, there was a bottleneck in the logistics trail leading to Savannah.  But that was only part of this fodder problem.  Indeed the problem was much larger than just Sherman’s force going into South Carolina.

On January 8, Major-General Henry Halleck made light of the problem in a letter to Grant.  Responding to an inquiry by Grant to form a reserve of 20,000 to 30,000 horses for the spring campaign, Halleck took the liberty to explain some of the problems facing the army in regard to both horses and horse-feed:

Your letter of the 6th in regard to the cavalry horses has been shown to Mr. Dana, and he agrees with me that action should be postponed till the Secretary of War and General Meigs return. I fear that there, will be very serious difficulties in foraging the animals we now have to supply from the North and East. The crop of hay is very short; in some places not one-third of the usual mowings. Our official reports state that nearly all the hay along the railroad lines has already been cleaned out. Farmers were obliged to send their produce to market early, in order to raise money to pay heavy local taxes for bounties to volunteers; many have also sold their teams. The rivers and canals are closed by ice, and the country roads in New York and the New England States have been very bad. Many of the railroads have more than they can do with passengers and private freight. All these causes combined have affected, and will, during the winter, still more seriously affect, our supply of forage. Without the greatest care and energy we shall not be able to feed the animals we have on hand. You complain of a want of forage on the James. We are much of the time here on half rations. Sherman’s army at Savannah complained, although we sent much more forage there than you directed. In fine, there is a scarcity of forage everywhere at the North. Private gentlemen and omnibus and city railroad companies say that they can scarcely procure enough in market for their private animals. Under these circumstances due precaution should be taken not to purchase cavalry horses till they are absolutely required, otherwise large numbers will actually starve or be of little or no use. In respect to the West and Southwest, the difficulty of foraging is not so great, and purchases can be continued, at least for a time. ….

Halleck went on to discuss particulars in regard to horses sent to Tennessee and Major-General George Thomas’ command.  In particular the “loss in killed, starved, and broken down has probably been not less than 10,000…” over the period between October 1 and December 31, 1864.  Yes, another chilling measure of the toll on horses and mules as the war drug along.

We see two, somewhat converging, issues in Halleck’s letter.  Both of which were shared by Sherman in Savannah.  The winter of 1864 where general inactivity allowed the Federals to get their animals healthy or replace those that were not.  But the winter of 1865 was different.  The Federals needed horse flesh to keep the pressure on the Confederates.  But working against that was an inconvenient bad season for forage.  The army’s needs were straining every available source in the east.  Though, as Halleck pointed out, the situation was not as desperate in the western theater.

The solution?  For Sherman at least, relief was to press the problem upon the state of South Carolina.  The Federals wouldn’t have to purchase or ship the fodder that lay beyond Barnwell, South Carolina.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part II, Serial 96, page 68; Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 103-4.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

3 thoughts on “January 21, 1865: “We have never had more than four days’ forage ahead”: Limited supplies of fodder hinder Federal operations

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