One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 7, Number 11
November 1999

Many books and articles have been written attesting to the fact that the South suffered from shortages of men, guns, ammunition, and other basic resources necessary to sustain effective armies in the field for any length of time. Contributing to the deficiencies in supplies were the Confederate logistical problems involving a primitive transportation system, a disorganized, incompetent and mismanaged quartermaster department, and the ill-conceived commutation system which required soldiers to furnish their own clothing in exchange for a biannual fixed sum of money. The problems were manifest from day 1 of the war, but the shortages became especially critical to the Army of Northern Virginia by the late summer of 1862, and had a significant impact on General Robert E. Lee’s strategy at the time.

In August of 1862, while Lee and George McClellan were stalemated east of Richmond, a new Union army under General John Pope began to push southward from Washington towards central Virginia. To counter the threat to his left and rear, Lee detached Stonewall Jackson with 3 divisions west where he soon put a stop to Pope’s incursion at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Adding to Lee’s motivation was the fact that Pope had issued a series of draconian general orders, which directed his men to “subsist upon the country” and take from the Southern civilians without reimbursement. This was strong stuff indeed. But as Bob Krick has noted, in two years this type of warfare would become common with other Union armies in Virginia and Georgia. In 1862, however, there was still a modicum of chivalry left in the war, and Lee referred to the new Federal leader as “miscreant Pope,” and wrote to Jackson: “I want Pope to be suppressed.”

Following the “suppression” at Cedar Mountain, Lee and Longstreet joined Jackson and the re-united Army of Northern Virginia moved north to fight a pitched battle with Pope again in late August, this time at Second Manassas. The resutl was that Pope was forced to withdraw his army into the fortifications of Washington, leaving Lee in control of almost all of northern Virginia. Now what?

Lee had two basic choices: 1) Follow Pope and lay siege to Washington; or, 2) Move his army elsewhere. Attacking the Federal army entrenched in the fortifications of Washington was bad enough, but as Lee noted, by doing so he would be “unable to supply provisions for the troops.” After a year of war, northern Virginia had been devastated, and was so barren of subsistence, and the transportation system of Virginia so poor, that Lee asserted that he could not maintain his army in the vicinity of Washington. (The statement was an amazing and almost incredible admission of the inadequacy of the Confederacy’s resources when it could not supply its main field army less than 100 miles from Richmond.) Thus, the second choice seemed more logical at the time—”an expedition to Maryland” would allow his army to subsist off a countryside untouched by war. With luck, it would also draw the Federal army north of the Potomac River, giving much-needed respite to northern Virginia’s farmers and allowing Confederate commissary agents to gather cattle, wheat, and forage from the region. Despite the obvious risks of moving away from his railroads and major Confederate supply depots in places like Richmond and Staunton, the allure of an unravaged countryside, from which the army could supply itself with provisions and forage, proved to be irresistible.

So, in September 1862, Lee took his army north across the Potomac to the tune of “Maryland, My Maryland.” Thousands of his men were either barefoot or had only remnants of shoes, and their limited rations were supplemented by only green apples and corn gathered from the countryside. It was not a healthy died for the footsore fighting men and chronic diarrhea and other digestive disorders were soon rampant in the ranks.

Once in Maryland, Lee soon realized that subsistence off the Maryland countryside alone was insufficient to sustain the army, and that the Union garrisons at Harpers Ferry and Martinsburg had to be dislodged “in order to open our communications through the Valley for the purpose of obtaining from Richmond the ammunition, clothing, etc., of which we are in great need.” If that wasn’t reason enough to occupy the two outposts, there was also the fact that both places also contained considerable commissary supplies as well as valuable military stores.

In hindsight, we may or may not agree with the logic of Lee’s strategic decision to invade Maryland. The campaign resulted in the bloody standoff at Sharpsburg, a more critical appraisal of the Confederacy by European powers, and the Emancipation Proclamation and all its ramifications. Regardless of the consequences, according to Lee, the action was precipitated primarily by his army’s problems of supplies and logistics.

It is difficult for us today to imagine the devastation and ruin in northern Virginia during the Civil War. What we see today, for the most part, on a trip north from Charlottesville to, say, Warrenton is a lovely pastoral and prosperous countryside. But is was not so pretty and peaceful after numerous armies marched through, made camps on its soil, and fought pitched battles in various places.

One resident reminisced that: “It is hard to describe the change made by the encampment of an army. In an incredibly short time a splendid field of luxuriant verdure had been beaten down as hard as a turnpike road and every blade of grass had disappeared. It was years before the most careful cultivation could restore the land to anything like its former primitive condition. When it was finally plowed, the land broke up in great clods and lumps which had be pulverized with axes and mallets.” The damage to the land is easy to understand when we consider that in addition to the thousands of men tramping over the ground, there were also thousands of horses, wagons, and ambulances. And not only were there hungry men and animals, they were also thirsty—it was said, for example, that a horse or mule would drink at least 10 gallons of water a day. It was not unusual for wells and small streams to dry up after the passage of an army.

Unlike the Federal armies which were usually well-supplied with foodstuffs and other necessities, it was not uncommon for many of Lee’s men to forage the surrounding countryside for sustenance for both themselves and their animals. This was true in both Virginia and in Maryland. Orchards, gardens, cultivated fields, barns, pastures, meadows, bee hives, and almost any animal, fish, or bird that they could get their hands were all possible sources of food. A groundhog, for example, when slow-roasted over a campfire, was considered to be a succulent delicacy. Wood was also another critical resource—not only for cooking purposes but also for building winter quarters. Wooden fail fences made wonderful firewood, and the few trees still standing at that time soon vanished. Contemporary photographs taken near Centreville in the spring of 1862 document the barren countryside with hardly a tree left standing, not to mention the absence of fences, barns, and other trappings of inhabitation. Several travelers through northern Virginia during the war noted the almost total absence of hogs, chickens, cattle, or domestic animals of any kind. It was, indeed, a ravaged and desolate area.

Although numerous supply and logistical problems continued to plague the Army of Northern Virginia and other Confederate armies throughout the war, by the spring of 1863, the situation in Lee’s army, at least, had begun to improve substantially. Food, shoes, and clothing supplies all became, if not adequate, more plentiful. But it would be decades before the people and the devastated countryside of northern Virginia would be restored.