- Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation by Earl J. Hess
This study by the prolific historian Earl Hess focuses on one aspect of Civil War logistics: "the transportation of men, material, food, and animals in support of military operations in the field" (xi). Hess outlines four primary means of transportation. Three of these, river-based civilian steamboats, locomotives, and coastal ships, utilized steam power in whole or part. The use of steam engines was highly significant, allowing [End Page 712] the U.S. and Confederate governments to supply enormous field armies on a regular basis. Wagon trains pulled by horses and mules constituted the fourth major transportation system. Ultimately, Hess presents extensive quantitative evidence to support his argument that the United States created a highly sophisticated logistical system that the South could not replicate, one of numerous factors contributing to Confederate defeat in the Civil War.
Hess draws a stark contrast between the northern and southern use of railroads. The U.S. government created a successful cooperative agreement with private railroad companies early in the war and also organized the U.S. Military Railroad, which hired civilians with experience in constructing and managing railroads. Federal logistical successes were particularly impressive in the western theater, given its great size, wide rivers, and mountains. Hess rightfully heaps praise on the efforts of the U.S. Military Railroad in the West, pointing out the enormous volume of traffic it managed and the many bridges and miles of track constructed by railroad crews. The Confederate rail system, by contrast, suffered from poor management, including the unwillingness of railroad companies to cooperate fully with the central government, as well as the inability to repair and replace deteriorating trains and track as the war progressed.
Despite its serious weaknesses, the Confederate rail system did manage a small number of large-scale movements of soldiers across great distances as outlined in a chapter on troop transfers. This chapter focuses not only on the most famous transfer of Union and Confederate troops from Virginia to the west during the 1863 campaign for Chattanooga, but also on other significant but lesser-known troop episodes. Hess calls the transfer of the remnants of the Confederate Army of Tennessee from northern Mississippi to North Carolina to face Sherman in January and February 1865 "nothing less than a miracle," but a shortage of documentation restricts his discussion to a few paragraphs. This is clearly a topic that deserves more attention.
The final two chapters of Hess's book deal with Confederate attempts to target Union supply systems. Hess concludes that the South could never afford to devote enough men and resources to halt in a significant way Union traffic on major rivers. Railroads were much more vulnerable, and as Union armies penetrated deeper into the Confederacy, the Federals had to create an extensive system of defenses, including blockhouses and garrisons, to maintain hundreds of miles of critical rail lines. While Hess describes several spectacular examples of Confederate horsemen disrupting Union campaigns, such as Earl Van Dorn's capture of Holly Springs, Mississippi, the author agrees with other historians like Richard McMurry [End Page 713] who argue that Confederate cavalry raids were usually unable to achieve more than temporary disruptions to Union rail lines. Sherman, Hess argues, achieved the greatest success of any field commander when it came to disrupting enemy logistics during his march across Georgia and the Carolinas in the final year of the war.
The great majority of Hess's analysis focuses on Union transportation systems. Hess claims that this was "not by design but by necessity," the Federal logistical system being "far larger … and far better documented than its counterpart in the South" (xiv). The Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Hess rightfully points out, contains a wealth of material on northern quartermaster work and far less on Confederate activities. While describing bureaucratic differences that contributed to the disparity between the volume of surviving Confederate and Union records, Hess also makes the somewhat dubious claim...