Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Humble, but Essential, Supply Wagon




At the time of the Civil War relatively new steam-powered innovations such as railroads and steamboats grabbed the vast majority of the attention when it came to army logistics. Things have not changed much since. However, it was the humble and underappreciated supply wagon which proved to be the backbone of Union and Confederate supply efforts. The wood and iron supply wagon was to the Civil War what the Deuce and a Half truck was to World War II and the Korean War.
   

Civil War supply wagons most often consisted of either four or six mule or horse teams. These animals provided the power needed to pull heavy loads. A four mule team could haul a wagon loaded with about a ton of freight. Add two more mules and they could move another 1000 pounds or so.  

Northern and Southern armies included hundreds of wagons. One can imagine how much road space wagon trains occupied when one realizes that a six mule team and wagon compares equally to the length of a modern motor coach bus. It has been estimated that as the Army of the Potomac headed into what would become the Overland Campaign their supply wagon train would have measured 64 miles if placed end to end.


Almost everyone has heard that an army marches on its stomach. Yes, a large part of the supply wagon's freight consisted of food for the fighting men. Consider that each soldier was supposed to receive roughly three pounds of food per day. For a 14,000 man army corps, that was 42,000 pounds of food per day. That much freight would require about 14 wagons alone; and that's just one day, and one corps.

Often wagons also had to carry food for the horses and mules, too. Army regulations set rations as 14 pounds of fodder (hay) and 12 pounds of grain (corn and oats) per day per animal. Basically about 30 pounds of food per day was needed to keep horses and mules energized. Therefore a wagon team of 4 horses and mules required about 120 pounds of food per day. If that team was to travel 120 miles over 12 days, each wagon would need to carry 1,440 pounds of fodder and grain just for the teams pulling those wagons.

As hard experience proved teams that did not receive enough food could not pull the freight they were asked to move. Hundreds of thousands of horse and mules expired from sheer exhaustion and being malnourished.


Wagon trains also transported an army's necessary baggage, which might consist of tents, stoves, kettles, pans, chairs, desks, trunks, and other similar items, especially those of officers.

Armies, of course, were created to fight and they needed supplies of ammunition. A single box of 1000 cartridges weighed about 100 pounds. And while each soldier carried between 40 and 60 rounds of ammunition on his person, it was soon expended in fierce fire fights and resupply needed. Consider this: If a 500 man regiment shoots 50 shots each, that is 25,000 rounds of ammunition, which would weigh 2,500,000 pounds, or 1,250 tons of ammunition. That is just one regiment of 500 men! Think of the requirements for a 75,000 man army!

Teamsters drove the basic Civil War supply wagon. They were often African American men, both in the Union and Confederate armies. The teamsters did not have a seat on the wagon, rather they rode on the left mule or horse closest to the wagon. As much space as possible was reserved for the freight. The two animals closest to the wagon were known as the "wheel pair." The two in the middle, if a six team, were called the "swing pair." The front two, were the "lead pair." Men who had experience in driving and caring for horses and mules proved invaluable to the army as teamsters. Canvas covers protected the valuable contents of the wagon from the elements. Wagons also came equipped with a tool box for basic repairs on the front, and a feed box on the rear. An iron bucket which, contained grease, swung from the rear axle.

Although the army supply wagon has been underappreciated, hopefully with greater exposure and examples of their value to the armies they will gain a place as recognized as their more innovative and steam-powered logistic companions.


Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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