As Christmas 1865 neared, newspaper editors across the country received a gift from the U.S. Quartermaster’s Department— Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs’ fiscal report for the year ending June 30. After printing the massive missive, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune commented: “So we find ourselves in a state of bewilderment wandering down these long columns of Gen. Meigs, looking at this thing of war—its science, its maneuvering, what it cost, and how the money was spent, how the swift marches were made, and whence came all the coats, and boots and shoes, and tin cups, and blankets that go to make up our army. Gen. Grant gave us the dramas of the war— clear, fresh, and concise. Gen. Meigs shows us the business of the stage manager.”
The Union and Confederate quartermaster departments were responsible for providing uniforms, rifles, canteens, entrenching tools, wagons, horses—virtually all of their respective armies’ needs save ammunition (Ordnance) and food (Commissary). For Meigs and his Southern counterparts, Abraham C. Myers and Alexander R. Lawton, this meant negotiating with everyone from mill owners to foreign governments for large amounts of items such as cloth, blankets or wool (England supplied goods to each side, in exchange for Union cash and Southern cotton), hiring merchants to make pants and shoes, and keeping tabs on all the spending.
At the field level, where most of the wheeling and dealing took place, unit quartermasters armed with the almighty requisition form arranged for the transport of goods from massive supply depots to the men in the field. With that done, they could always turn to the gargantuan and endless task of replenishing forage—tons of hay and grain—for the thousands of mules and horses on which armies relied.
In exchange for little recognition and occasional scorn, these army providers were expected to exhibit great energy, initiative and creativity. Men in the ranks derided their “safe” position away from the fighting. But quartermasters were also responsible for arranging transportation—by wagon, rail or steamboat—a duty that included having wagon trains ready to move at battle’s end, and keeping potential routes of escape or advance clear.
At the beginning of the war, especially, waste and graft plagued both departments; incompetent or criminal quartermasters lined their pockets while soldiers trudged along muddy and freezing roads in rags. One New York purchasing agent threw away $21,000 on “linen pantaloons and straw hats,” better suited to gardening than campaigning. Others skimmed profits from purchases of third-rate shoes whose soles were filled with “chips” that fell apart almost immediately. Another agent acquired and shipped a lot of 252 broken-down horses to Illinois, where shocked Union inspectors condemned all but 27 of them—some of which were blind!
In the South, where dedicated Confederate quartermasters struggled to do their jobs in the face of constant wagon shortages, transportation problems and endless red tape, suffering troops blanketed the entire department with derision. “The organization of [the quartermaster] department,” one Rebel wrote, “was defective in consequence of the appointment of incompetent officers and assistants. Men who were afraid to expose their hides to the enemy’s bullets obtained through favoritism lucrative positions in the department of subsistence, hence the disastrous consequences.”
But life as a quartermaster was not easy. It was thankless, stressful and challenging hands-on work. Union Quartermaster William G. Le Duc, for example, spent much of May 1863 dispatching uniforms, rounding up forage from the Virginia countryside and helping to corduroy a road. He began June up to his knees in Chickahominy River mud—helping clear a tangle of stuck wagons and exhausted horses. An impressed General George McClellan rewarded Le Duc with an order to plank a nearby railroad bridge.
“The officers who direct and lead troops in battle,” one appreciative officer wrote, “are—if they come out alive— those whom the people delight to honor. But the man whose business skill, energy and fertility of resource makes possible the marching and fighting of an army, rarely gains fame beyond the commander, or the troops with whom he serves.” None of the other blue- or gray-coated masters of supply and logistics would have the kind of fame Montgomery Meigs did as head of his department: They had to take solace in the fact that armies could do no fighting without them.
Originally published in the July 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.