Quartermasters: Supplying the Military

By arohmiller, posted on December 16th, 2013.
Filed under: News
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Written by: Roger Micker

After April 14, 1861 the logistics for the U.S. Army changed dramatically. Following the attack on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for enlistments, the number of troops swelled from 16,000 to 500,000 over the next two years. Significant responsibility for the success, or failure, of a campaign could be determined by the operations of the Quartermaster. Generals who led campaigns into enemy territory in earlier wars had to take into consideration the time and distance between their positions, target, and supply depots. For example, one of Napoleons chief concerns was how to remedy food spoilage and its consequences.

Through 1860 and the start of the war the Quartermaster Department was plagued with issues such as: an inefficient chain of command, fraud, shoddy uniforms and equipment, and broken down horses. After routine drilling and marching, uniforms and brogans would fall apart at the seams. Most tents provided little shelter from rainfall. The quality of materials purchased by the Army went unchecked. The Quartermaster General who oversaw expenditures of over $35 million in 1861 was expected to provide depots for the army to fight a campaign effectively. With the increasing size of the military that figure would increase by approximately $100 million in 1862.

According to the Guidelines for The Quartermaster Department, 1861, the quartermaster is responsible for: “… transportation by land and water for all troops and war material; supply tents, camp, and garrison equipage, forage, lumber, and all materials for camps; constructing or repairing roads, bridges, and railroads; construct barracks, hospitals, wagons, ambulances; provides harness, builds or charters ships and steamers, docks, and wharves; and clothes the army.”

Soldiers were requisitioned a uniform and accoutrements from the quartermaster. Each army of the military was generally assigned 3,000 wagons and 600 ambulances along with 50,000 horses and mules. Each animal, valued around $110, consumed 25 pounds of feed per day. When necessary the cost for public modes of transportation by rail or water had to be included in the department’s expenditures.

For transportation fuel, the quartermaster’s annual purchases would normally be for over half a million bushels of coal and about 20,000 cords of wood. According to the Guidelines “… at least 200 miles of fencing … to make bunks, cots, and coffins” were needed. Additional expenses were necessary for: officers’ “mileage”; buildings; burials; veterinarians; mechanics; laborers; and salaries for contrabands working as teamsters, cooks, or laundry workers.

Clerks (who could make up to $100 a month), police, spies, scouts, and corps quartermaster fell under the responsibility of the Quartermaster General. White workers were paid $25 a month, contrabands $10 a month. At the request of the quartermaster, payments for goods, services, and supplies were made by the Treasury Department.

The Commissary Department provided the rations for each soldier and laborer. The food was procured by public contract and transported under the guidance of the Quartermaster General. On the average, each soldier was expected to receive 3 pounds of food per day. A ration generally could consist of various amounts of: pilot bread (hard tack), pork, bacon, salt, beef, coffee, peas, and vegetables. The cost for a single ration was 20 cents. In one month, it was estimated that one army consumed 20,000 bushels of potatoes. The preserving and preparation of food was considered so valuable that a good cook could be worth 10 physicians.

The Quartermaster General position was established in 1775. Prior to the appointment of Montgomery Meigs to the position, the department was at the mercy of many unscrupulous contractors. Compounding the problem of fraud, contracts for domestic and foreign for tens of dozens of various types of arms were fulfilled.

Ohio’s industries and agricultural centers provided necessary goods for the military. Since 1844 Goodyear produced soldiers’ gum blankets. In Steubenville, tailors sewed depot jackets and trousers. Bakeries in Cincinnati were one of the chief sources for providing pilot bread. (The Henry Varwig bakery produced 3 million pounds of hard tack). The contract (for soap) with Proctor and Gamble helped that company to survive.

Imagine being in Meigs’ position in 1862 when he was faced with the prospect of sending, and supporting, McClellan’s 100,000 plus Army of the Potomac on its Peninsula campaign. The failure of the campaign could not be blamed for a lack of supplies and transportation.

For Further Reading:

Second Only To Grant: Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs by David Miller.  The Quartermaster Review, 1928.


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