Winter Encampments… where armies are reforged for battle

Three years ago I started a series of posts discussing the 1864 Winter Encampment of the Army of the Potomac, focused through the diary entries of Colonel Charles Wainwright.  In that series, I often called for readers to broaden considerations.


We tend to study military history from battle to battle.  The “in between” is often summarized in short paragraphs.  Almost as if the armies were machines to be turned on when battle nears, then turned off once out of musket range.  Such fails to present the reality of armies in being.  These are bodies of men which must be fed, equipped, trained, and led.  Armies don’t just stand around waiting for a switch to be thrown.  Armies are a constant buzz of activity, even if not directly confronting an enemy.  In fact, even more abuzz when not within range of an enemy!

Under conventions used during the 19th century, armies were supposed to go into “winter quarters” during the months of January, February, and March…. at least in the Northern Hemisphere… and at least prior to the mechanization of logistics… and at least so long as the weather precluded active campaigning.

When studying the Civil War, specifically, we must put those last two caveats into the mix. During the Revolutionary War, we might point to Valley Forge and Morristown as examples of winter encampments.  We also must acknowledge there was much campaigning in the Carolinas through those same periods, as the fairer weather allowed such (and armies were reluctant to exert themselves in those areas in the days before whole-scale mosquito control). Secondly, a driving factor for 18th century armies to “winter” had to do with sustenance. With the arrival of the railroad, one important constraint on an army’s winter activities was at least alleviated… though depending on the situation might still be tenuous.

But even if the armies were not starving and shivering, as their forebears at Valley Forge, the winter encampments of the Civil War were indeed important periods of activity for our study.  When “sitting still” armies focus on replenishing, refitting, re-equipping, training, and reorganizing.  And those all require substantial resource expenditures… namely time!

During the Civil War, replenishment activities, as alluded to above, benefited from products of the industrial revolution.  While railroads provided a far more efficient way to provide bulk resupply in the field, industrialization as a whole provided an economy of scale to the overall benefit of the armies. Even in the supposedly non-industrial Confederacy, factories well to the rear worked to provide substantial quantities of ammunition or other consumables used by the armies in the field.

One might figure refitting and re-equipping to be one and the same.  But words have meanings here.  Refitting is to repair or directly replace what is on hand.  Say… like.. replacing worn out 6-pdr field guns with new 6-pdr field guns.  But re-equipping is to replace with something, hopefully, better.  As in a new, shiny set of 12-pdr Napoleons. And those activities must be considered from weapons all the way down to tent flaps.  Replacement or upgrade of equipment is, analytically speaking, reflects an improvement of combat efficiency.  Refit brings the army back to full capacity.  Re-equipping reflects an incremental upgrade in combat power.

Nothing in an army is as precious and perishable as the skills of soldiering.  Veteran individuals might know the drill, but the net evaluation of veteran status is not bestowed upon the unit by individual assessment.  Rather the whole of the unit must perform at the required level.  Such is why armies standing still tend to spend great deals of resources engaged in training, even for veteran formations.  Soldiers must operate in a predictable manner, when ordered. As such, training is the preventative to the disorder, confusion, and chaos of battle. The net effect of prolonged periods of training is an incremental improvement of combat efficiency, which might also reflect onto combat power (thinking things like increased rate of fire, better use of weapons, etc.).

Reorganization is often related in light of some personal or political components.  Certainly, one way to remove an incompetent subordinate, or one who has fallen into political disfavor, is to dissolve a command. But from the practice of military science, reorganization applies to situations where command structures are inefficient or unnecessarily complicated.  I contend, at least in the context of the Civil War, such was more so the case. Sometimes just a designation change carried more weight than simply bringing forward a replacement in command.  Re-designation from “wings” to numbered corps at Murfreesboro in the winter of 1863, for example.  Such gave subordinate commanders more latitude, but more importantly gave soldiers a unique entity to identify with.  Arguably the reverse occurred in the winter of 1864 with the Army of the Potomac, as storied formations were dissolved with consolidation of corps.  Both reorganizations improved command and control of the force.  (I know some will argue that point in regard to the Army of the Potomac… but that is what comments are for.)

The result of these five categories of activities during those encampments had a cumulative effect.  Armies were reforged in those camps.  Sometimes better.  Sometimes for the worse.  And those reforged armies were almost immediately put to the test when spring campaigns launched. I’m often amazed someone has not put together a full, proper study of the winter encampment experience of the Civil War.  There’s plenty of material.  Consider:

  • The first winter of the war, with Confederates across Northern Virginia and Federals around Washington.  These witnessed the birth of major armies, which would play important roles in the war.
  • Also in the first winter of the war, the complex of camps around Cairo, Illinois.  Likewise, the birthplace of armies.  We might extend that study to consider other western theater camps such as around Columbus, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio. In some cases, arrangements were made that worked well into 1865 (i.e. Grant-Sherman)… and others that wouldn’t work past a few months.
  • The Federal winter camps in Stafford during 1863.  Burning question – was this a successful winter?  Did it setup failure at Chancellorsville?  Or success at Gettysburg?  Or both?
  • Likewise, cross the Rappahannock that winter to the Confederate camps outside Fredericksburg.  The thread I’d pull on there, and have before, is logistics, reflecting on the resupply, refitting, and re-equipping activities. One might argue a general failure in those three activities brought on the need for a Gettysburg campaign.
  • Oh, but let us not forget the winter encampment which completely consumed Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Certainly a “reforging” of an army to consider, with good and bad to evaluate.
  • We might also consider Milliken’s Bend for the same winter, for Grant’s force operating on Vicksburg.  Particularly in regard to reorganization of an army, morphing a cumbersome Thirteenth Corps, with additional forces tacked on, into a proper field army.  But we might also study that encampment in regard to modern warfare lessening the need for a winter pause.
  • The Winter Encampment… as I prefaced this post with, that of the Army of the Potomac in 1864.  A wealth of material to study in this regard.  Major activities conducted across all the activity categories.  Historians such as Clark “Bud” Hall, John Hennessy, and others have blazed a trail here, offering a template that can be applied to other winter encampments.  Hopefully, with the establishment of a Culpeper Battlefields State Park, we can see a time when students can venture into the field for study of these encampments.
  • The counterpoint winter encampment… that of the Confederates on the south side of the Rapidan during the winter of 1864.  Again, a wealth of material to consider.  And.. a wealth of extant field locations, though mostly still on private property.
  • Sherman’s armies winter around the Chattanooga area.  This, I would complain, has slipped under the nose of most.  The Atlanta Campaign as a whole, perhaps, gets “just enough” attention from historians, in my opinion.  And that winter’s experience is often summarized with the Grant-Sherman correspondence.  As if the soldiers were “on ice” the whole time. Given the decisive nature of the victory at Atlanta, would it not be good for us to connect some dots?
  • Sherman’s very brief winter pause at Savannah of barely three weeks, from Christmas 1864 into January 1865.  It was a winter encampment of sorts.  Certainly all those activities we mention above occurred before Sherman launched his march through South Carolina in mid-January. However, consider what this said about the notion of a winter pause… both at Savannah and at other points such as Petersburg, that winter.  Was a winter encampment an obsolete practice in modern war?

Well.. I started out to make a short list.  But my fingers kept going.  There are several others worth noting (for instance, the winter of 1863 around Charleston, which I’ve discussed in much detail across several posts).  But you get the idea.  We need to look into these winter activities with more than passing reference.  These were places and times when armies were reforged.  What was made right, or not as the case may be, would serve those armies well into campaigns that followed.


One thought on “Winter Encampments… where armies are reforged for battle

  1. Craig, thanks for this post–and one that appropriately challenges historians to study intervening winter encampment phenomena, throughout the war. One can find, as you well know, some of the best accounts of prior battles in a camp setting wherein officers and soldiers had the time and opportunity to minutely reflect upon past actions. And when specifically considering the Army of the Potomac’s Winter Encampment, 1863-1864, the grand,Federal offensive effort that ended the war was in fact planned over Culpeper fire-pits as the army was concurrently enhanced, re-organized, re-fitted, and placed under the command of the leadership team which ultimately sat across the table from General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House.
    Point being, Civil War military encampments–all of them–are worthy of serious scholarly study and I now challenge a historian to specifically take on the enormous project of examining the Army of Northern Virginia’s Winter Encampment in Orange County, 1863-1864. If someone decides to do so, count on me as a resource and field asset.

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