Over the years, I have collected quite a few volumes on the War. They include general reference works, biographies of military and political figures, books on places, and on battles. In only one of these multitude of volumes can I find one chapter on the subject of wagon trains. That would be found in Earl Hess’s Civil War Logistics, and this chapter looks at the role of wagon trains mostly on the Federal side.
When most people think about Confederate wagon trains, the retreat of Confederate forces from the battle of Gettysburg is the primary event that pops into mind. Under the command of Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, that wagon train of supplies and wounded stretched 15 to 20 miles (probably more) and was attacked several times by Federal cavalry. While these transportation systems are now an important piece of history, seeing a wagon or a train of wagons was a common occurrence in the 1860s.
Turning first to Army Regulations (1863, Confederate. The Federal 1861 regulations are almost identical), we find that each infantry regiment is entitled to six wagons. A textbook regiment is 1,000 men, so overall, that is not a lot of room to haul food, mess equipment, and officer’s baggage on campaign. Of course, save for the opening days of a campaign, regiments were seldom at full strength. By mid-1863, at least in my experience, a regiment had 400-600 men. Plus, the medical department for each regiment “is allowed two four-wheeled, and the same number of two-wheeled ambulances; and one wagon for the transportation of hospital supplies.” Federal regulations actually specified the size of the wagon – 22x41x114 inches, inside measurement. It seems this was omitted from Confederate regulations. Of course, we know that wagons were always in short supply for the Confederacy. The wagon train for a regiment was under the command of the colonel of that regiment. The actual commander of the wagon train was the wagon-master, who, according to regulations was under the command of the quartermaster’s Department. The wagon-master had command over the teamsters or wagoneers. Strangely enough, a “wagon-master” is not a rank that I have encountered on the Confederate side.
Digging a little deeper, Scott’s Military Dictionary (1861) tells us that for “each regiment of dragoons, artillery, and mounted riflemen in the regular army there shall be added one principle teamster with the rank and compensation of quartermaster-sergeant and to each company of the same two teamsters, with the compensation of artificers.” (610) It is interesting that there is no mention of the Infantry.
|Edwin Forbes, "The Supply Train" 1876.|
So how well do these numbers stand up to what actually happened? That, my friends, is a hard conclusion to reach. Just how many wagons were with each regiment? Five to six seems to be the rule. In August 1862, when Col. John B. Palmer was ordered to move his regiment, the 58th North Carolina Troops, from the present-day Johnson City area to Cumberland Gap, he was instructed to take just five wagons (Hardy, The Fifty-Eighth North Carolina Troops, 39). A field officer in Colquitt’s brigade (ANV), writing in December 1862, complained that his brigade (five) regiments only had thirty-seven wagons, six of which were worn out. He needed six foraging wagons, but only had one.” (Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army, 212) What I do now know is this: does the number of wagons, both for Palmer and Colquitt’s brigade, include the ambulances and wagon for transporting medical supplies? Or, were those two always separate?
Peter Wellington Alexander, a correspondent for several war-time Southern newspapers, fills us in with several important observations early in the war. Writing in December 1861, he has this to say about the Quartermaster’s Department: “It is the duty of this department to provide transportation, fuel and quarters for the men, and forage for the teams and staff and cavalry horses. The rules adopted in the Army of the Potomac [later Army of Northern Virginia]—and the same is true, I presume, elsewhere—had been to impress all the transportation and forage in the counties adjacent to Manassas. Where the owners were willing to part with their teams or provender, they received pay for them; otherwise, they were seized and the owners turned over to the government for remuneration. There cannot be fewer than 1,500 to 2,000 wagons, and six to 8,000 horses, in the service of the Quarter-Master’s department for that division of the army… At first drivers were impressed with the wagons. Now, they are detailed from the ranks, of the army—young men who have no experience in driving and who complained that they did not enlist to drive wagons. They were required to alternate, and thus every day or two there was a new driver, who was ignorant both of the ability and disposition of the horses, and who soon teaches them bad habits.” (Styple, Writing and Fighting the Confederate War, 59)
There is a lot to unpack, at least for early war, in that statement. The Confederate army would have had next to no wagons at the start of the conflict. Maybe a handful found at various captured military post throughout the South, but really not enough to provision and equip the army. So, military officials bought or impressed both wagons and teams. I’m sure this is not only true for Confederate forces in Virginia, but Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina as well.
Second, the drivers of these wagons came from the ranks. For many who write about the war, we often see long wagon trains driven solely by impressed or hired slaves/free people of color. That might be true, especially after mid-1864, but not entirely. I’ve noticed over the years quite a few men detailed from the ranks to drive wagons. In the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, I documented fourteen men who served as teamsters. The average age was 36. (The youngest, fourteen, the oldest forty.) The records are really spotty, as with most Confederate regiments. All of these men save two were listed as teamsters when the compiled service records of 39th Batt. VA Cav. end in December 1864. Only one of those men, Pvt. Alexander J. Ramsey, was listed as being sick and wounded prior to being assigned as a teamster. I can’t really say that those who were disabled or unfit to march with the infantry were assigned to this duty. Another interesting example from the 39th Battalion is Pvt. Anthony S. Butts. Private Butts was conscripted into the Confederate army in 1863, and was assigned to ANV headquarters staff. For the rest of war, right up until Robert E. Lee arrived in Richmond on April 15, 1865, Butts was driving Lee’s personal ambulance. Of course, the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry did not function as a traditional cavalry command. Many of these men detailed as teamsters, like Butts, were serving in other commands.
Did Black men serve as teamsters? Yes. Where they prominent in that role? I really can’t say. There were a couple of attempts in 1864 to get detailed men back in the ranks. Marion Hill Fitzpatrick wrote in November 1864 that “Jeff Davis recommends the calling out of Forty Thousand able bodied negroes [for teamsters].” (McCrea, Red Dirt and Isinglass, 528) Obviously, some of them could have been used to replace white men detailed as teamsters. Some regiments did have Black teamsters. The 30th Virginia Infantry had six. (Pamplin Historical Park) Tim Talbot has an account on his blog of a member of the 1st Maine Cavalry capturing (in late 1864) ten Confederate wagons loaded with provisions, along with their “drivers (all colored men).”
How did the men in the ranks feel about the men detailed as teamsters? Another good question. Joshua Lupton, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, was detailed to serve as the wagon master for ANV Headquarters staff. His brother John thought Joshua’s assignment was an easy one. All he had to do was “issue forage to General Lee's horses twice a day.” (Hardy, Lee’s Body Guard, 25) Undoubtedly, there was some resentment over this “easy assignment." At Appomattox, when the time came to surrender, those men who had been detailed as teamsters were sent back to their regiments to march in the proceedings. Brigadier General James H. Lane felt that these men should all be placed in a group together. "I did not wish to surrender any but those brave fellows who had followed us under arms,” he wrote after the war. (Fayetteville Observer, June 8, 1897.)
I think this subject needs a lot more research, so, more to come.