Tag Archives: Ambrose Burnside

June 25, 1864: Sandbag day at Petersburg

Building field fortifications requires a lot of “consumable” materials.  Even in modern times, when the soldiers fortify a position, they tend to displace a lot of earth and use stockpiles of building materials.  One material that comes in high demand is the lowly sandbag.  In 1863, engineers on Morris Island recorded using over 46,000 sandbags in just one portion of the siege lines.  Reporting on that operation, Major Thomas Brooks described the standard sandbag of the time:

The dimensions of the filled sand-bags, when laid, varied from 6 by 10 by 24 inches to 5 ½ by 11 by 23 inches, and contained .85 of a cubic foot of damp sand, weighing about 85 pounds; hence 32 to the cubic yard.

So 32 sandbags made up one cubic yard of earthwork.  (Check my math as I check Brooks here – 0.85 cubic feet is 0.0314 cubic yards… and 0.0314 goes into 1 cubic yard 32.2 times.  Seems right?)  And 32 sandbags filled with 85 pounds of earth weigh 2,720 pounds – one and a third short tons.

For those commencing the siege of Petersburg, just under a year later, the sandbag was likewise an important commodity.  On June 25, 1864, at 2:45 p.m., Major-General Ambrose Burnside had a pressing need for sandbags:

We have commenced a mine that will reach the batteries of the enemy in our front by a reach of 115 yards. I have given orders for all the necessary changes of the line to make the work ordinarily secure. We want about 7,000 sand-bags or more. I think we can break the line of the enemy in due time if we can have the necessary facilities. We want heavy guns very much. Can we have the sand-bags?

That mine, in particular, would require a lot of sandbags.  Major-General George Meade responded promptly, granting that request for sandbags:

I have directed Duane to send you an engineer officer and a company of sappers, and Hunt to send you sand-bags and siege guns. I am delighted to hear you can do anything against the enemy’s line, and will furnish you everything you want, and earnest wishes for your success besides. I would have been over to see you to-day, but certain movements of the enemy on the left have kept me here.

“Delighted!”  The slow turning siege could grind forward, but needed just a few thousand sandbags.  Now time for staff officers to do what they get paid for.  Brigadier-General Henry Hunt, the Chief of Artillery, became the “stuckee” on the sandbag tasking request, as he was also directing the siege operations and generally kept sandbags around to support the artillery positions.

Hunt first inquired, at around 6 p.m. that day, to Brigadier-General John Barnard, running engineering operations out of City Point, specifically requesting that Brigadier-General Henry Benham provide the required sandbags.  Barnard, no slouch for military protocol, pointed out that Benham came under Meade’s orders, but “There ought to be 100,000 sand-bags somewhere.”  He also suggested inquiries with Brigadier-General Godfrey Weitzel, of the Army of the James.  But, hold that for a moment.

Upon receipt of Barnard’s reply, Hunt sent the request for sandbags directly to Benham.  And Benham, as he did so often with such matters, replied at 8:10 p.m. that the materials were not exactly at arm’s reach:

All my siege materials, as I have kept General Meade fully advised, have been retained at Fort Monroe. On receipt of your dispatch to General Barnard, through Colonel Porter, I at once sent an aide down in a steamer to bring it up, and I expect it to-morrow afternoon or evening, and will send them out to you at once, if you then wish them, of which please advise me.

So Benham had sandbags, but he just didn’t have them around at that moment.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day….

We hear all sorts of references to the Federal war effort featuring an over-abundance of resources.  But such abundance means nothing if the resources are not at the right place for use.  Barnard estimated 100,000 sandbags were “around.”  So now a capable staff officer needed to secure a small draft of that sandbag stockpile for use on the line.

Enter Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock, aide-de-camp on the staff of Lieutenant-General U.S. Grant.  While Hunt conversed with Benham, he also communicated with Comstock, who was also working this “tasking.”  At 6:10 p.m., Hunt related to Burnside:

Have heard from Comstock. He says General Benham has sand-bags. I have telegraphed to General Barnard to have 7,000 or 8,000 sent you to-night either by Benham or Abbot.

Ah, Colonel Henry Abbot also might have sandbags.  Comstock inquired with Abbot.  And promptly Abbot responded with an affirmative, but with limitations:

I made requisition for 25,000 sand-bags–5,000 for each gun, excluding the 100-pounders. How many were actually obtained I cannot say without seeing my ordnance officer, who is now at Broadway Landing. I have no transportation for them. I would suggest that you direct General Ingalls to send transportation to the Broadway Landing (one mile below the pontoon bridge), and let the wagon-master carry an order for Capt. S. P. Hatfield, ordnance officer of siege train, to issue the required number of bags to General Burnside. I think this plan would save much time. These bags, I hope, will be replaced, as I find I shall be obliged to supply them for my embrasures.

Abbot also suggested, within separate correspondence to Barnard, to inquire with Weitzel, on the Bermuda Hundred line.  So that’s how Barnard knew to reference Weitzel, perhaps?  At any rate, that’s where the draft of sandbags would come from.  That evening, Weitzel sent word to Burnside:

I have just ordered 8,000 sandbags to be sent to you from my depot at Bermuda Hundred with all possible haste. I imagine they will reach you about 1 o’clock.

So Burnside got his sandbags the following morning.  Soon the troops would be employed filling those sandbags.  Mind you those 8,000 would only provide 250 cubic yards of sandbags – be that reinforcing or revetments.  Oh, but that was 340 short tons of earth to be moved.  Sieges are indeed labor intensive operations.

The main reason I bring all this up is not to impress the reader with the number or weight of sandbags used, but to demonstrate how a good staff functions to support the commander.  While commanders can designate the point of attack or defense, it is often up to staff officer to ensure the resources are arranged to support that command.  Hunt, Comstock, Abbot, and Weitzel demonstrated just that function on June 25.  A small episode of the war, not something to command a paragraph in any history of the battle.  But the complex nature of any battle, particularly a siege, required hundreds of such small episodes – thankless staff work – in order to reach a successful conclusion.

There would be many more “sandbag days” at Petersburg.  100,000 sandbags would not be enough.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 40, Part II, Serial 81, pages 406-7, 417, 418, and 422-3.)

Wainwright’s Diary, May 1, 1864: “The army was never in better condition”

For Colonel Charles S. Wainwright and the rest of the Army of the Potomac 150 years ago, the waiting for the word was the preoccupation of the day:

Culpeper Court House, May 1, Monday.  We are still here but expecting orders hourly almost …. Things here look so very near a move that the chances are decidedly against our being in our present quarters for a regular Thursday entry in here this week.  Our sick were all sent off yesterday.  Burnside’s division of negroes has relieved the half of this corps on the railroad so that it will be here tomorrow.  The rest of Burnside’s command is near Rappahannock Station.  One division they say has not joined him yet.  So near as I can make out, Grant will start from here with about 125,000 men, including all Burnside’s corps and the cavalry.  One-third of the number are green troops, but there are only a few new regiments, and the army was never in better condition, take it altogether. The number stated, I am confident, is not over 5,000 out either way, as I have excellent means of knowing.  It is enough anyway; quite as many as Grant and Meade together can take care of, and properly used ought to be sure to use up Lee.  The weather continues very fine. The roads and all the country are just in the very best condition. Everyone here is in good spirits and those at home full of expectation.

The roads were fine.  The weather was fine.  But there was little to do but wait.

Several movies have depicted, at least briefly, the anxieties felt by soldiers during the “wait” for major operations.  For the World War II subjects, two such noteworthy films doing so, which I would guess most readers are familiar, are The Longest Day and A Bridge too Far.  In the latter movie, there is a scene where Sean Connery, playing Major-General Roy Urquhart, plays a round of golf the morning before his division jumped into Arnhem. That behavior reminds me, in my personal experience, of a commander who would practice fly-casting during the “waits.”  Anything to ease the anxiety and allow mental focus.  Keep in mind, as you consider the “wait,” these men were not just waiting for a train to arrive.  They were waiting for commencement of an activity in which many would perish or receive grievous wounds.  Hard to sit still with such as that hanging on the next order.

But an important difference between Wainwright of 1864 and Urquhart of 1944 lay in how much they knew of the operation.  Wainwright scarcely knew what road his batteries would march upon. While he could predict heavy fighting, he didn’t know where or when.  As one frequent contributor to this blog has remarked, Grant knew how to keep a secret!

Another important part of Wainwright’s observation on this day 150 years ago is the reference to Brigadier-General Edward Ferrero’s Fourth Division, Ninth Corps.  At the time Wainwright wrote the entry, Ferrero was quartered around Manassas, and relieving the Fifth Corps of responsibilities north of the Rappahannock along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Within days, those USCT regiments would move further south, then pick up the line of march to Germanna Ford.

I’ve written at length about the USCT (and 54th Massachusetts) present at Morris Island in the summer of 1863.  And I have always felt the deployment of those troops at that time provided the first “shock” to the Confederate leadership in regards to the “sable arm.”  But with the opening of the Overland Campaign, the presence of USCT on the line of march going south served a message to both Federal and Confederate.  There on the roads leading through Culpeper, over the Rapidan, and into the Wilderness were the very physical representation of the main purpose of the Civil War.  Emancipated men carrying arms into the fight.

(Citation from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 345.)

Wainwright’s Diary, April 28, 1864: “we should howl in unison”

For once, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright started his diary entry without mention of the weather.  Instead, he announced meager success on his “waggon” lobbying efforts:

April 28, 1864, Thursday. We have got back one more waggon for each battery, which gives us three for forage instead of two; still we ought to have one more, for though I have taken eight from the ammunition train to carry forage for the batteries in, we shall be loaded too heavily should the roads be bad at the start, and will have to set out with some on the carriages. One forage waggon is to march with each battery. I have had all my train out for inspection. It looked very well; the mules are good and in capital order, the waggons all nearly painted, and new covers marked with cross cannon and the corps badge.

My train now comprises 103 army waggons and eleven ambulances, and 781 horses and mules; the grand total of carriages of all sorts is 225, which when on the march, allowing fifteen yards to each, will cover just about two miles of road….

And what forced the commander’s hand and loosened the constriction on “waggons”?

[Brigadier-General Henry] Hunt writes me that the howl with regard to their losing one waggon per battery was universal, and thinks that with a little practice, so that we should “howl in unison,” we might really be able to accomplish something. There is just where the trouble has lain; several I think most, of the artillery officers have heretofore leaned towards their corps commander, and for their own advancement have sought to please him; they have identified themselves with the corps to which they were attached rather than with the arm in which they belong….

Interesting observation about relations between artillery officers and their corps commanders.  Were he around to comment today, I think Hunt would quickly point out the installation of field grade officers, to head the artillery brigades assigned to the corps, would alleviate much of that problem.

Wainwright next looked to an issue, while not directly impacting his artillery batteries, did play against the strength of the Army of the Potomac – expiration of enlistments.  Wainwright feared “short timer” attitudes as the army entered the campaign:

We are entering on this campaign with the term of quite a number of the regiments almost out. The question arises, how will these men behave when they have only a few weeks to serve before going home? Meade has considered it of sufficient importance to issue an order on the subject, exhorting them “not to suffer the honourable fame they have won to be tarnished by acts of insubordination”, at the same time warning them that “extreme measures” will be resorted to to stop any such trouble if necessary.

But, as for the artillery of the Fifth Corps, Wainwright was ready.  And elsewhere across the country other formations were nearing readiness:

Yesterday I notified both General Hunt and Warren that all my preparations were complete, and I was ready to move at any time…. Lieutenant-Colonel [Cyrus] Comstock, Grant’s senior aide-de-camp, was expected back from Chattanooga last night with information as to the state of readiness in Sherman’s army.  Burnside’s corps did embark according to the rumours in my last entry, and disembarked on Monday at Alexandria. He is to relieve the half of this corps now guarding the railroad; but after all the fuss made about him, and his big corps it is not to be supposed that he will remain there all summer….

In regard to poor Burnside, not like Wainwright was a gifted prognosticator.  Though I would like to listen to a gifted historian flesh out the reasons Burnside was there in the spring of 1864.  There were justifications – valid, though we might not consider them well grounded.  Anything besides “what ifing” the situation to a logical dead end.

Wainwright touched next upon reports of the Sanitary Commission Fair in New York… and that ceremonial sword:

The great fair is over in New York. The sword goes to Grant; McClellan was ahead at the close of the public subscribing, but afterward they claim to have received $1,000 from somewhere outside the city in votes for Grant; it was given by the Union League in New York, who presented that in this way they are supporting the Union.  All the ladies engaged in it are completely used up; many of them sick; and at least one Mrs. D. D. Field, has died from sickness brought on while there.

Wainwright closed with an interesting observation from one of his employees back in New York:

Lydia, my black cook, who did not want me to come and fight for the freedom of the slaves, now says that she “wishes a pestilence would carry the all off if they are to be set free without any means of being taken care of; for then they would fall by the hand of the Lord; now they are falling by the hand of men”….

There’s a springboard for a “what if.”  And one of far greater importance than Burnside’s command of a corps.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 344-5.)

Wainwright’s Diary, April 24, 1864: “With the warm days have come clouds of rumours”

With April coming to a close, Colonel Charles Wainwright began his diary on this day in 1864 with a notation about pleasant weather, yet predicting storms rising from the south:

April 24, Sunday. Spring is upon us now, almost at a jump. The last three days have been fit for June; fires are abandoned and replaced by open doors and windows. Today the air is heavy with the moisture of a strong south wind, betokening rain.

But he went on to point out gathering clouds… not not the type hanging in the sky…

With the warm days have come clouds of rumours as to the spring campaign and all that is to be done. The newspapers are full of dark hints, principally meant to make the public believe that the editors and correspondents know more than other people; which is all bosh. Every officer returning from Washington brings down his pockets full; quartermasters, having more transportation than anyone else, bring the most and the biggest.  But among them all I have yet to see the man bold enough to attempt predicting what the first move of this army will be. One report says that Burnside’s corps has left Annapolis, in steamers for somewhere; another that Baldy Smith, of whom Grant is said to have the very highest opinion, is getting up a strong army on the Peninsula. Common sense would say that these two were to make one command, to advance on Richmond from the James while we looked after Lee here; but then common sense has always been the rarest of the military qualities at Washington, and one cannot well imagine Burnside and Smith acting together after all the trouble that had at the time of and after the “mud march.”….

As of that April, Grant’s objectives were set, but not communicated down the ranks. We, with the luxury of 150 years distance, know Grant was to focus on the Confederate forces in the field and hold Richmond as a secondary objective.

The burr under Wainwright’s saddle remained – wagons… or as he put it “waggons.”

I have figured out our transportation allowance, which is about as absurd as it well can be.  I often wonder whether General Meade himself apportions the waggons or whether it is done by Ingalls; also, whether whoever draws up these orders has a special spite against artillery horses, or is utterly ignorant.  The order allows one waggon to each battery for baggage, mess furniture, desks and the like, and three waggons for subsistence, and forage.  Ten days’ small stores and one day’s meat for 140 men, about the average of my batteries, will with its forage take up one waggon (Captain Cruttenden says more), which leaves us two waggons to carry ten days’ forage for 120 horses, or 6,000 pounds per waggon, beside the forage for its own teams!  Five days’ forage is all we can possibly manage, and then the loads will be very heavy at the start.  As for loading five days’ more on my artillery carriages, I can’t and won’t do it.  Such absurdities as this take away all my pleasure and pride in my command.  I wrote it all out for Hunt and sent it up to him.  He replies in a most characteristic note, beginning: “The Jews of old were required to make brick without straw; anybody could do that if not responsible for the quality of the bricks delivered. You lose one waggon and are required to increase the forage carried from seven days to ten.  Now that beats the Jews.”  Hunt is evidently discouraged, and beginning to give up all hope of our ever getting what is right….

In Ingalls defense, there was a lot to the logistic and transportation system which escaped Wainwright’s notice. Sending meat to the front “on the hoof,” for instance, would greatly reduce the need for rolling stock.  For greatest efficiency, military logistics must be arranged at the highest practical level.  Simply determining the needs of one battery, then multiplying that times the number of batteries in the army would introduce many inefficient allocations.  And those, multiplied across the army, would translate to burdensome trains and other impediments to movement.  And in the spring of 1864, the army needed no additional impediments.

However, as Wainwright argued with vigor, logistic efficiency does not always bring “freedom from want” in the ranks.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, page 342-4.)

150 years ago: Canvas or wood for your pontoons?

As our attention turns to Fredericksburg, the topic of pontoon bridges enters the sesquicentennial threads.  I’ve discussed the nature of constructing these bridges in detail, with respect to those placed at Edwards Ferry in June 1863.  We think of the wooden pontoons most often within the context of the Civil War.  Big wooden boats like the ones on display at Chatham overlooking Fredericksburg today.

Chatham 13 Dec 014

These were not the only type of boats used for pontoon bridging during the Civil War.  One alternative was a frame, either wood or iron, with either canvas or rubber covering.  An example of the frame with canvas type appears in a wartime photo taken at Rappanannock Station in 1864.

Almost looks like it was setup on some display just for the benefit of the photographer!

The canvas boat was of course lighter and easily broken down for transport.  But there were some down sides to canvas boats.  A message from Major (or was it Brigadier?) General Horatio Wright to Major General William Rosecrans in early December 1862.

I’m pulling this message out of context, so some background is in order.  Considering his orders and line of march, Rosecrans decided the Army of the Cumberland, or Fourteenth Corps if you prefer, needed a pontoon bridge set.  He figured on about 700 feet of bridging.  Authorities in Washington approved, and directed Rosecrans to order the equipment from Cincinnati, where engineers in General Wright’s Department of the Ohio could supervise the outfitting.  There was some back and forth about the type of boat to issue – wood or canvas.  The preference of the Army’s engineers is apparent in Wright’s response on December 7, 1862:

Canvas boats are not so reliable as wooden ones. Unless great care is used, canvas necessarily mildews and then soon rots. If used by soldiers for shelter, it would soon become damaged for boats. It is not entirely water-proof, even after it lies in the water some time. It is doubtful whether canvas boats are as reliable in ordinarily rapid streams as wooden ones, especially if the bridge’s required to serve a long time, as on a line of communication. Canvas is more easily punctured and worn by floating bodies, and requires to be taken out of the bridge to be well repaired. It takes more time to unload, put together, and launch a canvas boat than to simply unload and launch a wooden one. According to Duane’s book, a canvas boat train requires as many wagons to transport it as a wooden one. Wooden boats can be produced here as rapidly as canvas ones, and are rapidly calked and repaired when leaky, provided they are made of seasoned timber. Wooden boats are much better for use as boats, or to combine into rafts. Unless for a very short campaign, with careful and experienced engineer troops, I would advise the adoption of wooden boats. Buell’s pontoons were made of green lumber. We can get seasoned now. Shall I order wood or canvas?

The reference of “Duane’s book” is, I believe, to the Manual for Engineer Troops by Captain James C. Duane.  As an instructor on various engineering topics, Duane had the opportunity to research pontoon bridging, compare to practices in other armies, and experiment with different materials.

I could probably pull another dozen pages from the manuals and wartime accounts to further illustrate respective advantages and disadvantages of wooden boats vs. canvas frame boats for pontoons.  Wood, at least seasoned wood, was more durable and required less maintenance.  Not mentioned, but cited in the engineering manuals of the day, wood stood up well against rocky stream bottoms, where canvas ripped.

With respect to the number of wagons needed, there’s a lot of other factors that were not considered with Wright’s response.  Duane indicated a wooden boat, or “French style,” pontoon train required 34 wagons each loaded with a pontoon boat, seven balks, numerous lashings, oars, boat-hooks, and an anchor.  On the other hand the canvas train required 29 wagons each with a canvas pontoon, trestle, with balks, oars, and boat-hooks.  Notice the canvas boat wagons included some, if not all, the superstructure of the bridge.  The wooden pontoons, being fixed size and structure, were much more bulky on the road.  The wagon carrying the canvas pontoon was smaller and lighter.

Wartime experience called upon some reassessment in regards to the preference of materials.  In 1869, a board of engineers submitted a new manual covering bridging operations (eventually approved and published in 1870).  The board noted:

With regard to the canvas boat, it soon became apparent that it was precisely what we required for our advance-guard train. It is light, simple, strong, easily repaired, and when packed can safely be transported with the superstructure of the bridge as rapidly as any column of troops can move.

The board of officers submitting this manual included Duane.  The board also noted that the canvas bridging also worked well for expedient ferry operations.

I’ve found no direct record to confirm the type of pontoons delivered to Rosecrans.  The Army of the Cumberland used both types at times later in the war, for what it is worth.

But turning back to the Eastern Theater for a moment – what if  Major General Burnside’s pontoon train had included a set of these “advance guard” canvas pontoon boats?

150 Years Ago: Hard war or conventions of war at Fredericksburg?

On this day, November 21, in 1862, Major General Edwin V. Sumner forwarded this demand to the city officials in Fredericksburg:

Mayor and Common Council of Fredericksburg:

GENTLEMEN: Under cover of the houses of your city, shots have been tired upon the troops of my command. Your mills and manufactories are furnishing provisions and the material for clothing for armed bodies in rebellion against the Government of the United States. Your railroads and other means of transportation are removing supplies to the depots of such troops. This condition of things must terminate, and, by direction of General Burnside, I accordingly demand the surrender of the city into my hands, as the representative of the Government of the United States, at or before 5 o’clock this afternoon.

Failing an affirmative reply to this demand by the hour indicated, sixteen hours will be permitted to elapse for the removal from the city of women and children, the sick and wounded and aged, &c., which period having expired, I shall proceed to shell the town. Upon obtaining possession of the city, every necessary means will be taken to preserve order and secure the protective operation of the laws and policy of the United States Government.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Bvt. Maj. Gen., U.S. Army, Commanding Right Grand Division.

Backing up the demand with iron, Sumner ordered up two batteries.

The reply from Mayor Montgomery Slaughter arrived later in the day.  After complaining of delays with delivery of the demand, and repeating the demands for clarity, Slaughter responded to the conditions noted by Sumner:

In reply, I have to say that this communication did not reach me in time to convene the council for its consideration, and to furnish a reply by the hour indicated (5 p.m.). It was sent to me through the hands of the commanding officer of the army of the Confederate States near this town, to whom it was first delivered, by consent of General Patrick, who bore it from you, as I am informed, and I am authorized by the commander of the Confederate Army to say that there was no delay in passing it through his hands to me.

In regard to the matters complained of by you, the firing of shots upon your troops occurred upon the northern suburbs of the town, and was the act of the military officer commanding the Confederate forces near here, for which matter [neither] the citizens nor civil authorities of this town are responsible. In regard to the other matters of complaint, I am authorized by the latter officer to say that the condition of things therein complained of shall no longer exist; that your troops shall not be fired on from this town; that the mills and manufactories here will not furnish any further supplies of provisions or material for clothing for the Confederate troops, nor will the railroads or other means of transportation here convey supplies from the town to the depots of said troops.

You must be aware that there will not be more than three or four hours of daylight within the sixteen hours given by you for the removal of the sick and wounded, the women and children, the aged and infirm from this place; and I have to inform you that, while there is no railroad transportation accessible to the town, because of the interruption thereof by your batteries, all other means of transportation within the town are so limited as to render the removal of the classes of persons spoken of, within the time indicated, an utter impossibility.

The assurances and explanations assuaged Sumner, who then replied:

Your letter of this afternoon is at hand, and, in consideration of your pledges that the acts complained of shall cease, and that your town shall not be occupied by any of the enemy’s forces, and your assertion that a lack of transportation renders it impossible to remove the women, children, sick, wounded, and aged, I am authorized to say to you that our batteries will not open upon your town at the hour designated.

General Patrick will meet a committee or representative from your town to-morrow morning at 9 o’clock, at the Lacy house.

Despite the tone of compromise in the last message, there were still details to work out and a few misunderstandings to resolve.  More negotiations took place the following day, and only then was the city spared the threat of bombardment (for the time being).

Not reflected in the dialog between Sumner and Slaughter was the input given by General Robert E. Lee, who had arrived outside Fredericksburg along with the lead elements of General James Longstreet’s corps.  Lee’s response was to withdraw his troops from the city and not use the city for military purposes.  Lee did, however, reserve the option to counter any move by the Federals into the city.  In short, Lee proposed, that while the city remained between the two armies, it would be spared the ravages of war.

Wishful thinking.  Perhaps the dialog reflected notions of earlier times – that warfare was an activity confined to the battlefields and fought out between organized armies.  (Although I’d be the first to point out such a time scarcely existed at any point in history!)  The “rules of war,” or more so the conventions of war, required the protection of civilians and private property.

Sumner’s initial demands had the weight of “hard war” in them.  Fredericksburg was an instrument of war as much as the Army of Northern Virginia was.  But Sumner, at heart, was not a true practitioner of “hard war.”  Perhaps John Pope or William Sherman would have responded with harsher terms, or followed through with more resolve.  Not “Bull Head” Sumner.

On the other hand, Robert E. Lee was willing to cast aside the conventions of war.  Within a few weeks, Lee changed the situation by not only reoccupying Fredericksburg, but fortifying it.  Lee was leading an army at the front of a rebellion and could little afford to give the enemy an opening.  Lee would put Fredericksburg back into the crucible of war.  There would be no safe zones on the Rappahannock in December 1862.


Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 21, Serial 31, pages 783-758.   Also see Frank O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), pages 36-37.

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.