Posted by: Jim E | July 13, 2011

The Civil War…Horses, Trains…Oh Ya…Jefferson, Lincoln, Filling Of The West…And Mackinac Island…

I have mentioned before that since this is the beginning of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War…well, really I don’t know if I pronounce it correctly…it means it is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War in 1861…(it’s a 5 year celebration of the Civil War, celebrating each of the years, 1861-1865)…anyway, because it is so…I am reading a number of books about the war…some very good some not so good, but all are enlightening to me…there is so much I didn’t know, though I taught American history and knew quite a bit…it just shows how we just “touch” the surface of any subject we learned about in school…

So it has been great and I’m not finished yet…still more to go…one of the subjects that amazed me was transportation during that time of our history…the mix of horses and wagons and railroads and steamships and telegraph…it was a mixture of what most of us would say for that time…new and old…but it was a mixture that was in transition…the railroad was just coming into it own…there were rail lines into most major cities…and across a lot of the North…the South to a lesser degree…that’s because the North was more industrial and the South was more agrarian…and that would play an important part in the war…

It was only a little over 50 years since President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery (1804-1806) into the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase…when they left in 1804 there was no steamboat, no railroad…and when they came back there was nothing that moved any faster than it had when the left…and George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Andrew Jackson couldn’t move any place any faster that Napoleon could or Caesar…there was no telegraph, so you couldn’t move ideas or mail…nothing faster than a horse could run…but by 1859 (only 50 years later) when Abraham Lincoln stood on one of the bluffs near Council Bluffs, Iowa and predicted that someday not one but many railroads would cross into the west from that place…and by the end of the 1800’s the west was closed…it took less than 100 years (Jefferson thought it would take 100 generations to settle the wild and vast west but it took only 5)…in fact it was Lincoln who signed into law the act (in 1862) that started the transcontinental railway system…during the Civil War…

So what about the Civil War…what a mix of old ideas of war and new technologies…the troops for much of the beginning of the war fought as Europe did…lines of soldiers marching toward one another, using some tactical moves…but for the most part standing erect and being shot at by very accurate weapons (sometime up to 100 yards or more) that would tear apart flesh and bone (it wasn’t until later in the war that they hid behind cover)…and that is why so many died during this war…more Americans died in this war than all others put together…and these armies were huge…20, 30, 100 thousand, and more, men marching and fighting from the east coast to the Mississippi River and all the way to New Orleans…and beyond…

So how did they get supplies to these armies…here is were the “mix” comes in…wagon trains and railroads and steamships…horses and mules and steam…I guess I never imagined this, that they were supplied by wagon with horses or mules pulling those wagons…typically, 25 wagons were needed to supply a thousand men…Sherman used some 5,000 wagons during his Atlanta campaign…his trains in one line would be strung out along sixty miles of road…and on these narrow roads of that time it would be in this order…ammunition, then troops and artillery, and lastly quartermaster supplies (food)…wagons were built and repaired and horses and mules re-shod at large wagon parks, which contained repair shops, saddlers, carpenters, harness makers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and other craftsmen…and could service hundreds of wagons and animals at one time…and when they moved they had to have food not only for the soldiers but for the animals as well…tons of it…

The estimate of the number of horses was immense…some 3.4 million for the North and 1.7 million for the South…horses and mules killed is estimated at 1 million…they served right up on the front lines, moving wagons, artillery, ambulances…on the average a horse needed 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain, usually oats, corn or barley, everyday…and they needed to be fed everyday whether the army moved or not…pasturage was not good enough, it does not have the food value an animal needs…so this was a huge job and the quartermaster was in charge of meeting the quota…which did not always happen…many animals died of overwork or lack of food or disease…and the army needed to be near water…the animals needed to be watered everyday…and one army may have 14 thousand horses and mules to take care of everyday…there may be more or less…

Sidebar…I don’t know if we can imagine what cities and towns were like during that time…with horses and mules doing most of the work…most of our experience is watching movies about cowboys coming into town and going to the “livery” and telling them to take care of his horse…we don’t get the smells and the ambiance of the place…let me take you to Mackinac Island, in Michigan…it is out on Lake Huron…it is beautiful…but on that island they do not allow cars…only horses…we have been there a few times…one time in particular as our “ferry” pulled up to the dock…there was a distinctive “smell” that wafted over the boat…I knew it was familiar to me…”horses” came to me right away…on the dock were horses pulling wagons used to carry the goods and baggage off the ferry…and as we stayed for the day there were horses all over the island…with people right behind the horses to “clean up” after them…this lessened the smell (which is not totally disagreeable to me, by the way)…but in towns and cities of the 1860’s that would not be the norm…let’s say you had to “watch your step”…and on the battlefield I don’t think they cared nor could they avoid…End of Sidebar…

This is something I really didn’t think about before reading about the supply side of the armies…it just struck me as unbelievable…thinking about how many animals were involved and the number of wagons and the man hours needed just to feed and care for the animals themselves…along with repairing and building if necessary, the wagons…buckets of grease hung underneath the wagons for lubricating the wagons, all these things needed men to be maintained…I suppose these men were the lucky ones not being on the front lines…how different it was for these armies…being “between”…using the most modern to the oldest mode of fighting a war…I still stand amazed at how they did what they did…and the suffering of all who were involved…

And along with animals came the steamboat and railroad…telegraph as well as couriers…these entered into the Civil War and growing in number from year to year…the armies became railroad builders as time went on…and most of it done by hand…this was a time of transition and would take the better part of 100 years to make the change from hand labor to machines…but the Civil War, like all wars, pushes new discoveries that would change America for the better, though it came from horrible circumstances… 

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Responses

  1. Thanks Pops…always very interesting. You are right, our imaginations are so limited with stuff like this because our experiences are so far removed from those realities. Nonetheless…it is enough to give us pause of how fortunate we are…no matter our circumstances…and certainly grateful for those who believed in something so much that they persevered through agony and tragedy.

  2. Your article here is a great example of how easy it is to take modern technology for granted. A journey that took Lewis and Clark 3 years can be done now in a matter of days by car, or hours by plane. Think of how such limitations affected people and society, or should I say think of how such conveniences affect us…that’s what makes history fascinating.


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