When we look at the course of the Civil War, it is obvious that logistics played a major role in how the war was fought and won or lost by its combatants. Different aspects of the Civil War demonstrate the importance of logistics to the waging and winning of the war. Whether we look at the horrors of prison camps like Andersonville or Elmira, discuss the hard hard of war placed on the agricultural areas of the South in operations like Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas or Sheridan’s victory in the Shenandoah Valley, discuss the decline of morale in Confederate armies as railroad lines and open ports failed and food became increasingly scarce on the homefront as well as for the soldiers in the armies, logistics is a major aspect of warfare. Indeed, the importance of rivers and ports and railroads demonstrates the way that armies were often tied to their logistical bases, unless they sought to live off the land and thus disrupt the logistical capacity of the enemy. When it comes to putting a face on the Union’s logistical superiority in the Civil War, it is easiest to look at the general in charge of Union armies when victory was achieved, the unassuming Midwesterner Ulysses S. Grant.
Yet it should be noted at the outset that Grant’s focus on logistics is not something that was his alone. In general, it was known in the United States, both North and South, at the beginning of the Civil War that the North had a superiority in logistics. Sherman commented on the logistical disparity to Southerners who were hot for war in 1860, and it is telling that he ended up being such an important figure in using logistics as a decisive element within the Civil War himself. Throughout the war logistics was a major aspect in the popularity of George McClellan among the troops of the Army of the Potomac. If he did not know how to fight himself, at least he was able to secure the wherewithal by which the Northern armies could fight. Other generals had nicknames that were related to their logistical expertise, like the generally incompetent Banks receiving the moniker Commissary Banks for the way that his headquarters served as an important aspect of Confederate logistics when he inevitably retreated after some sort of defeat in the field. Yet it is notable that logistical capabilities are most known as being an aspect of the North within the Civil War, but logistical vulnerabilities ended up being most decisive for the Confederacy, which mistakenly thought that its supposedly martial culture and elan could overcome their material and demographic limitations.
How was it that Grant acquired his logistical skills? Most of Grant’s prewar career outside of the army was in tough circumstances, but it is noteworthy that he was a quartermaster during the Mexican War, and developed not only a high degree of personal bravery in combat but also skill in managing the materials by which wars are fought and won. Not only that, but Grant’s background with a shopkeeper father likely helped him become aware of the importance of food and ordinary items to the well-being of people both in civilian and military life. It would appear at least that Grant’s own upbringing, his experiences roughing it in the prewar period, and his own military education as a quartermaster helped him to appreciate both the means of mastering logistical warfare in the positive sense of ensuring the proper supplies of food and materiel for one’s soldiers but also in the negative sense of understanding what the absence of food and other resources does to one’s morale and one’s capacity to fight and even to live. This was experience that many people lacked because logistics is something that is easy to take for granted when life is going well. It is those for whom life is a struggle that logistics becomes a subject of conscious thought and attention, and Grant’s own struggles may have been decisive in giving him a conscious awareness of logistics and how to exploit it that many of his opponents lacked.
It is beyond dispute that Grant was able to exploit logistical matters throughout the course of the Civil War, and that it marked him as a particularly dangerous general as a result. Three times in the Civil War he forced a major army to surrender, and given the South’s manpower problems these losses were decisive. First, in February 1862 he captured some fifteen to twenty-thousand soldiers at Fort Donelson, breaking the extended defenses of the upper South in the Western front and opening up large parts of the South to invasion and conquest. Later, in July 1863, after having besieged thirty thousand Confederates in Vicksburg, he knocked another army out of the war after forcing them to surrender at the point of considerable deprivation. By this point, any army fighting Grant should have been aware that he would not only seek victory, but seek it through depriving them of the ability and will to fight. And this is exactly what happened to the Army of Northern Virginia as it was first squeezed in the lengthy trench warfare outside of Petersburg and then in the following Appomattox campaign that ended ultimately in Lee’s surrender and the dissolution of rebel armies throughout the South.
Logistics matter because human beings cannot fight without food. Moreover, they cannot fight well without clothing and shelter as well as weapons and ammunition. The increasing technological sophistication of the nineteenth century, something that has only continued further in the 20th and 21st centuries, has made the acquisition and maintenance of equipment and supplies of considerable importance, such that far more contemporary soldiers work in the logistical tail of the armed forces than in the tactical tip of the spear that is engaged in active combat. We tend to ignore the importance of logistics in that most portrayals of war throughout history to the present-day focus on soldiers in combat, and not soldiers engaged in handling supply depots and the shipment of food and other materiel to others. And yet these depots were frequent targets of Confederate attacks from such raiders as Nathan Bedford Forrest and others. If Grant’s expertise in logistical warfare is so notable it is because he made the South’s vulnerability in logistics an explicit area of attack even as he took advantage of the strength of logistics in the North to make sure his armies were well-fed and well-supplied as they ground down increasingly starving and deprived rebel enemies.
And maybe this isn’t the most glorious sort of warfare, but there is no denying that it worked. Throughout history people have tended to dismiss the importance of logistical aspects of war, but over and over again armies that were led skillfully and have fought bravely have nonetheless been forced to surrender because they could not feed or supply themselves. This is as true of the Confederates in the Civil War as it is of the Germans in World War I. Grant’s ability to fight and win in this sort of warfare was based on a lot of factors. For one, he led an army that fought with a lot of logistical superiority, which is one of the aspects that, at least since the American Revolution and War of 1812, has been an area of American strength in comparison to its opponents. For another, he was himself well-trained in being a quartermaster and understood the material requirements of what we consider as modern warfare. In addition, he was a man who knew the soul-destroying effects of prolonged economic insecurity, and having suffered himself because of logistical matters in the period just before the Civil War he was able to understand and exploit the logistical weaknesses of his enemies. It is good that he was on the right side, at the very least.