One of the more lamentably common aspects of reading about the Civil War is the massive inferiority that the Confederacy had with regards to logistics. While it has been fashionable among Lost Cause narratives to blame the Civil War on the material and industrial superiority of the Union, it is not as if the Confederacy was unaware of these glaring lacks when it decided to rebel against the incoming presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It was pointed out to southerners by others–including most notably and fiercely by William T. Sherman, who was at the time departing a job at a Louisiana military academy for service in the Union army–that the South had a serious material inferiority to the Union, but southerners mistakenly thought that their gallantry and native military excellence would overcome such logistical shortcomings. Nor has it always been that logistical superiority has led inevitably to victory, as many revolutionary causes have been able to keep fighting despite logistical shortcomings and gain eventual victory over better equipped forces.
Why is it that logistics was so decisive in the Civil War? There is little mistake, if we look at the course of the Civil War, that logistics had a huge importance in the course of the war. It was the Union control of the ports and railroads and rivers that eventually starved the Confederate armies into submission. The reason why generals like Sheridan and Sherman are so hated by neo-Confederates is because they struck at the food supply of the Confederacy and demonstrated that it did not have the military strength to defend its homes and its food supply, which ultimately belied its claims to be a sovereign and independent nation. And for that these generals, Sherman especially, have never been forgiven. One can admit to losing in a stand-up fight, but there is something shameful about being starved into submission and being unable to resist because one could not feed one’s armies or one’s people. Such things tend to leave a deep wound when it comes to getting over a war, as we have seen with the Civil War and World War I, and the way that wars lost by logistics do not always feel decisive in the way that other wars do.
What was the gulf between the gallantry that the South sought to portray and the logistics that kept them from winning? Is logistics distinctly non-brave? To be sure, logistics does not allow one to win battles, usually, but it is frequently decisive in campaigns. Ideally logistics is not the only strategy that a given general or nation has in winning, but equally ideally it is something that is taken care of. It is said that amateurs focus on tactics and masters focus on logistics, and when it comes to winning wars, logistics matters a great deal when your opponent has enough will to win that one must shepherd one’s resources wisely. In the Civil War, the South had insufficient resources in men and material to waste them as they did. Knowing what one has inferior supplies should mean that taking care of what one has so that the lack does not become critical would be an obvious area to focus on. Yet that is not what we see. It was thought, and not for the last time, that material matters were of no importance whatsoever. The fact that they do not count for everything does not mean they count for nothing. Determining how much they count, though, is the hard part.