Despite the available technology of roads and steamships, Civil War armies were supplied much like the Roman armies had been. North and South still relied on the simple strength of wagons, the brawn of mules, horses and oxen, and the skill of unheralded wagon masters and teamsters to drive them.
Wagon masters and teamsters generally worked under the thumb of a quartermaster, whose duties included making sure food and supplies reached the men on the front lines when they needed it. Quartermasters had little patience with incompetence or mistakes, and these hard-pressed supply czars often vented their frustration on their underlings driving the teams, who in turn cracked their whips, alternately eased and yanked the leather reins, and made “the air blue with profanity addressed to their mules, individually or collectively, so that the anxiety to get through was felt by all the moving forces in the train,” as one observer put it.
Among the teamster and wagon man’s many enemies were shoddy, stump-filled roads, sucking mud that threatened to swallow up teams and wagons whole, and lame or otherwise injured animals. Drivers often found themselves down in the dirt, digging out their wagons or helping mechanics with repairs. They were also responsible for the care of their hard-working teams and constantly fed their animals from the sacks of forage they lugged in each 2,500- to 2,800- pound wagonload.
By 1862, driving teams was one of many jobs that had opened for free blacks in Union outfits; Union officers, in fact, often preferred African-American drivers to whites. By 1864, troop-starved Confederate armies were also replacing white teamsters with impressed slaves—supervised by white wagon masters.
The importance of all these workers was reflected in their salaries: skilled wagon masters earned upward of $75 a month; assistant wagon masters might also earn $45- $50; white teamsters earned $25-$30 a month, while blacks were paid $10-$20. Wagon masters occasionally earned extra money (as much as $10-$25 per load) transporting the considerable wares of sutlers—a risky proposition that could result in forfeiture of pay or immediate discharge for everyone involved in their conveyance.
Some soldiers considered driving an escape from the front lines, but a mule team or a mule train under fire was a diverting spectacle to everyone but the mule drivers. Teamsters transported all sorts of valuable goods and were under constant danger of capture or worse—even when they had large escorts of armed troops. And the ponderous size of wagon trains (especially Union trains) often made them inviting targets and easy to find.
During the fall of 1862, for example, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s huge Army of the Potomac moved toward Fredericksburg with at least 4,000 wagons stuffed with everything necessary to sustain 100,000 men in enemy territory. Even Robert E. Lee’s leaner Army of Northern Virginia presented attractive targets as it snaked north some 100 miles through backcountry roads in 1863.
Smaller, lightly guarded trains rushing from supply depots to field units were especially vulnerable, and the unofficial noncombatant status of drivers meant nothing to supply-hungry enemy cavalry. In early August 1864, Confederate Lt. Col. John Singleton Mosby and 300 of his partisan Rangers pounced on a Union train rumbling into the Shenandoah Valley.
“The whole wagon train was thrown into a panic,” Ranger John W. Munson later testified. “Teamsters wheeled their horses and mules into the road and, plying their black-snake whips, sent the animals galloping madly down the pike, crashing into other teams which, in turn, ran away. Infantry stampeded in every direction. Cavalry, uncertain from which point the attack came, bolted backward and forward without any definite plan. Wounded animals all along the train were neighing and braying, adding to the confusion.” The stunned Federal guard scattered as Mosby’s men gathered up 150 supply-filled wagons and a herd of cattle.
On another occasion, William Clarke Quantrill’s Confederate raiders killed six Yankee soldiers and a half-dozen teamsters (allegedly “from pure maliciousness and after they had surrendered”) after attacking a small Federal train in Kansas and finding its wagons empty. And in October 1863, Yankee Lieutenant Richard N. Batchelder was forced to quickly issue guns to his teamsters in order to fight off a Confederate raid on his train while it was en route near Fairfax Station, Va.
The work required of wagon masters and teamsters was stressful, backbreaking and often dangerous. At least one infantryman admitted that all the drivers labored in “one of the most wearing departments of the service.”
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.