The United States Army in April, 1861
On the eve of the Civil War, the regular United States Army consisted of 16,000 soldiers, most of which were deployed out west. Other than maintaining the always-touchy peace with the native tribes, there was little need for armed forces. The 1100 officers were, for the most part, West Point graduates, either fulfilling their obligations or pursuing a career.
The Quartermaster Department was miniscule. There was, of course the Quartermaster General. He was in charge of a mere thirteen clerks and a budget of about $4 million annually. This covered all supplies except for food and weaponry, which were assigned to other departments.
When the Union began to split following Fort Sumter, a full third of those officers resigned to re-enlist with the Confederate army. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers.
With little mechanism in place for raising the kind of army that was needed, northern states were obliged to send their individual militias, most of which had little resources of their own. Private individuals were permitted to raise companies or brigades. Governors were authorized to commission officers.
Within three months, the Union Army had 235,000 men in military service. By December, there would be 640,000. They all required uniforms, shoes, tents, mess kits and sundries – and a means to transport them deep into rebel territory.
Montgomery C. Meigs: The Right Man for the Right Job
Whether Lincoln was a particularly good judge of ability, or he was incredibly lucky – or both – he found the perfect man to administer the mammoth job of supplying the army.
Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892) was Southern born to a prominent patrician family. Smart and well-educated, he entered West Point at sixteen, and graduated fifth in his class. An engineer by training, and indeed by preference, he would spend his entire career associated with large public works. In the twenty-five years prior to the Civil War, he was engaged building forts, improving river navigation and aqueducts.
When Lincoln took office, Meigs was a Major. He had come to Lincoln’s attention as the supervisor in charge of building the wings and dome of the U.S. Capitol building. Lincoln assigned him the unenviable task of attempting to provision the small force that was trapped at Fort Sumter. The project, of course failed, but not from want of effort. Meigs was promoted on successive days: first to colonel, then to brigadier general, and placed in charge of the huge task of provisioning the Union Army.
Engineers usually have a reputation for meticulous organization, with a temperament to match. Meigs was no exception. His detractors considered him stubborn, self-serving and thin-skinned. His admirers considered him scrupulously honest and an organizational genius.
Saddled with previous procurement scandals in his department, and determined to overcome them quickly, he instituted competitive public bidding for military contracts, which included speedy delivery of all goods. Bottom line: he would provide extraordinary service and exemplary results.
The Quartermaster Department: 1861
Little materiel was on hand when Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs assumed responsibility in June, 1861. One of his first orders of business was to determine what the needs were, and in what order they should be supplied. As he noted in his records, “men must be clothed before they could fight.”
Under Meigs’ administration, detailed records was collected with an eye toward providing the kinds of statistics needed. A uniform wore out in four months; thus three uniforms per year must be procured for each soldier. Shoes barely lasted two months, requiring millions of pairs to be furnished. As the Civil War dragged on, the sheer numbers of supplies needed were staggering.
And if that were not enough, Meigs needed to create some standardized warehousing for all those supplies.
Military Transportation During the Civil War
Unlike the Confederate Army which obtained most of its supplies close to home, the Union Army had to ship its necessities deep into enemy territory.
For General George B. McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign into Virginia during 1862, Meigs would supply a 100,000 man army. Six hundred tons of clothing, shoes, tents, blankets and sundries would be necessary every day.
Providing the various wagons and animals for transportation also fell under Meigs’ control. In one year, 200,000 horses were procured for the cavalry, 20,000 for the artillery; more than 60,000 mules were purchased to haul supply wagons. Each horse and mule consumed nearly twenty-five pounds of forage daily. The Quartermaster records indicated that more than half the daily provisions shipped to the army in the field consisted of forage.
Quartermaster General Meigs rose to the challenge of co-ordinating the efforts of private and public railroads. The department also organized a huge fleet of water transports, suitable for ocean, bay and river travel. Thousands upon thousands of wagons, plus the materiel for bridges, roads and infrastructure repair were also supplied.
The Quartermaster Department By the Numbers: 1865
Brigadier General Montgomers C. Meigs was the first government official in United States history with a budget of more than $1 billion.
A total of 3.5 million pairs of trousers, 3.7 million drawers and 3.2 million flannel shirts had been purchased and distributed.
The thirteen clerks of the Quartermaster Department in 1861 had grown to more than 650 by 1865.
At the end of the War, Senator James G. Blaine would comment that “Perhaps in the military history of the world there never was so large an amount of money disbursed upon the order of a single man … The aggregate sum could not have been less during the war than fifteen hundred million dollars, accurately vouched and accounted for to the last cent.”
Secretary of State William H. Seward’s estimate was “that without the services of this eminent soldier the national cause must have been lost or deeply imperiled.”
Henig, Gerald S. and Niderost, Eric – Civil War Firsts: The Legacies of America’s Bloodies Conflict, Stackpole Books, 2001