Quartermasters Battling Rain, Roads and Mud

The movie Glory includes a scene in which Col. Robert Gould Shaw confronts a group of condescending, well-fed quartermasters sitting in a warm warehouse, overflowing with supplies, in an attempt to procure shoes for his men.  While I cannot speak to the accuracy of this particular image as regards Colonel Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, numerous quartermasters did, unfortunately, succumb to monetary temptation during the war and run afoul of the law.  Still, after several years of sifting through records of the Quartermaster Department, my view of the men is overwhelmingly positive and their efforts are sadly underappreciated.

The more I look through the records, the more intrigued I am by the logistical challenges overcome by the army.  I also realize that the effusion of blood on a battlefield makes for a more gripping story than the effusion of toil and sweat along railroads, rivers and roads.  Thus, the men who struggled to keep the army fed and supplied with everything from beans to bullets remain in the shadows, largely ignored by historians, except in a few ‘big-picture’ studies.

I suspect many readers have a sense of the degree to which abysmal weather and roads contributed to Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s short and inglorious tenure in command of the Army of the Potomac.  The accounts of the misery endured by the soldiers, and the animals, as they waited for food and warm clothing are familiar to students of the Fredericksburg Campaign.  History tells us that after replacing Burnside in command of the army, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker quickly corrected the many shortages affecting the men and morale.  I wonder, however, if historians have given Hooker too much credit for corrective actions set in motion during Burnside’s tenure, but which only began to produce positive results after Burnside had been relieved.  In other words, would Hooker have enjoyed any more success battling the elements and keeping the supplies flowing to the army if he had been in overall command in November and December?

The picture we receive of the often appalling conditions is usually presented from either the soldier’s point of view or from the army command level.  Until this year, I had seldom, if ever, seen a contemporary account from a quartermaster actually struggling to get his wagons through the mud and to deliver needed supplies to the army.  Then, quite by accident, I encountered William LeDuc.  An attorney before the war, LeDuc accepted a commission as a captain of volunteers in the Quartermaster’s Department in April 1862.  He learned the intricacies of his job during the challenging Peninsula Campaign.  Assigned as Chief Quartermaster for the XI Corps on November 7, 1862, LeDuc received a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

IMG_0416Brevet Brig. Gen. William LeDuc

On December 13, while Burnside flung his divisions against the stout Southern lines along Marye’s Heights, LeDuc struggled to keep his wagons moving along the route from Fairfax Station to Dumfries; twenty miles of roads churned into a deep viscous mud by thousands of men, horses and wagons.  Frustrated and exhausted, many teamsters resorted to heaving supplies from overloaded wagons in an attempt to ease the burden on their struggling horses and mules, before finally abandoning both wagons and animals mired in the mud.

From Dumfries, LeDuc warned his subordinates at Fairfax Station to “Load the trains very lightly with oats or corn, and some hay but only a small proportion.  Load say 1000 lbs. as to the train and come down the road gathering up…all government property perishable, helping and assisting all who need it and giving forage to hungry horses.” A standard army wagon carried one ton of supplies.  Seeking to aid his struggling horses, mules and teamsters, LeDuc ordered the weight cut in half.  Most, if not all of the oats, corn and hay carried on the wagons, probably never reached the army.  Rather, LeDuc’s teamsters may have fed the majority of the forage and fodder to their horses and mules in an effort to maintain their strength.

The army also awaited the arrival of fresh remounts, and LeDuc asked his subordinates to let him “know what has been done with the cavalry horses, whether they have been started and when.”  Herding re-mounts through the clinging mud sounds like utter-foolishness.  Why wear out a fresh cavalry horse before the animal ever reaches the army?  In short, the demand for cavalry and artillery horses never ceased, and the men making the decisions had no way to know when conditions might improve.

The next day, December 14, LeDuc sent the following message to an individual at Fairfax Court House.  The name of the other man is, unfortunately, unreadable, but few, if any, messages I have ever read carry the immediacy and stress of LeDuc’s plea.

“There is plenty of forage at Fairfax Station.  There are 13 [drivers] at the pontoon train encamped near Gen. [Franz] Sigel’s Head Quarters at Fairfax Court House.  Get them or get drivers from somewhere, start those trains through under an experienced wagon master at once.  Load them with 800 lbs. of oats at station and have them hurry through.  The rear of the transportation of this corps is starving and dying for want of that six-mule train which left Washington [at two o’clock p.m.] last Thursday [December 11].  Where in God’s name have they been and where are they now?  Ask the officer in command at Fairfax Court House to take the matter in hand and please do what he can to urge my train through.  I should have 44 wagons… For God’s sake, for the sake of the good cause and for the sake of everything human push them forward under good drivers.  The roads are damnable and our transportation is extremely short – animals utterly exhausted and dying of hard labor in the mud… You say you have picked up 12 teams on the road without drivers, explain yourself more fully and say who you are but whoever you are you are to push them forward.”

Exhausted teamsters, utterly defeated by the mud, continued to abandon their wagons and teams along the impassable roads, and LeDuc, who may have been nearing the end of his own rope, ordered the maximum weight limit for the wagons reduced by another 200 pounds.  Lt. Colonel LeDuc then sent the following message to a Lieutenant Jordan at Fairfax Station:

“A [man] at Fairfax Court House telegraphed to me that he has picked up in the road 12 teams – six-mule – without drivers and asks what to do with them – that he has no forage.  By any means have these teams sent forward to this place loaded light… Get the assistance of the commanding officer at the [post].  Call on Col. [Frederick d’Utassy] for help.  Get all together you can hear of and start there.  Our teams are utterly exhausted and dying in the mud from fatigue and want of food.  Stir the matter up immediately… Do something about this matter at once and keep in communication with me.”

At the end of a trying day LeDuc told General Sigel, commanding the XI Corps:

“With considerable difficulty the supply train of forage and commissary stores has been brought up to this place and is now (at dusk) unloaded and the exhausted animals are feeding… all the animals utterly exhausted.  It is useless, worse than useless to try to urge the [ammunition train near town] forward tonight.  They will be fed and rested during the night and the loads divided as directed by you and pushed forward at early dawn.  191 horses have arrived…without food since yesterday morning.  Would have been here last night but were delayed by not being able to pass the trains.  Many of the team horses have given out, some dying in the road.  I have issued others to supply their places, also to the body-guard, scouts and …cavalry.  Have issued about 95 in all, will send the others forward in the morning…  Col. [unreadable] has sent a note saying his teams are exhausted and cannot move, and asks assistance.  He is about, or was when heard from, about three miles from Wolf Run Shoals.  The road was so blocked up with teams it was impossible to send him from here any help.  I therefore sent an orderly to him with an order to the wagon-master in charge of the train coming from Washington to furnish him forage and help him along.  That train of 29 six-mule wagons should be up with him some hours before this time if they have had no misfortune.  I can hear nothing from those at Fairfax Station; can get no answer to my dispatches… Col. [unreadable] has just come in, reports his train [stuck in the mud].  I must help him through but God knows how, only it must be done somehow.”

Two days later, with the roads conditions unchanged and his supply trains still struggling through the mud, LeDuc told Capt. George Robinson, who may have been Sigel’s ordnance officer, “There are seven loads of ammunition about [two and a half miles] from Dumfries.  Seven teams of the ammunition train having given out and unloaded by the side of the road.  Have it put on the empty wagons that leave this morning in light loads and sent through.”  And, when LeDuc finally received word from Fairfax Station, the news was not encouraging; “roads awful, some mules lost and harness broke.”

By December 18, temperatures had dropped steadily, from a high of near 70 on the fifteenth to a low of 21 on the eighteenth.  An afternoon high temperature in the mid-30s, however, kept the roads largely impassable.  Lt. Colonel LeDuc, now at Stafford Court House, told Captain Charles Stoddard, “I have no forage.  My horses many of them have had none for 3 days, more than 2000 head of horses are nearly starved.  I can get nothing… Horses died last night from hunger and more will die tonight unless we can get a little from the Railroad, which I am expecting.  My teams have been waiting all day at the station for it… [do not] fail me.”

The abysmal weather and roads, as well as several successful Confederate cavalry raids against his logistical train in November and December, finally convinced Burnside, on December 23, to shift his supply line from the Telegraph Road to the Potomac River or to a land route through Southern Maryland, with supplies then being ferried across the Potomac.  His decision brought new challenges for his quartermasters, and I’ll look at some of these trials in my next post.

Lt. Colonel LeDuc served with the XI Corps throughout the war.  In April 1865, he was in Nashville, as a member of a panel examining the qualifications and fitness of other quartermaster officers.  By then, either weary of his duties, or otherwise bored, LeDuc ran afoul of his superior, Col. Ralph Webster, who asked that LeDuc be removed as a member of the panel; “the interest of the service positively demands it.”  As Webster explained, “Col. [LeDuc] seems almost crazy on the subject of speculation in oil and mineral lands… and is often tardy in his attendance by reason of visits to the country around Nashville for the purpose of prospecting, [etc.].”  Regardless of Webster’s complaint, and possibly with the help of Tennessee Unionist politician Joseph Fowler, LeDuc received a brevet promotion to brigadier general, effective March 13, 1865, “for efficiency, intelligence and zeal in the discharge of his duties.”

After the war, LeDuc traveled to Utah to indulge his interest in prospecting, before returning to Minnesota, where he practiced law and became involved in a host of other ventures.  He also served as Commissioner of Agriculture under President Rutherford B. Hayes.

When LeDuc penned his recollections years after the war he devoted three chapters to his early service with the army during the Peninsula Campaign, but just two sentences to his battles with rain, roads and mud in December 1862.


Documents in the National Archives

Robert K. Krick, Civil War Weather in Virginia

William G. LeDuc, Recollections of a Civil War Quartermaster, the Autobiography of William G. LeDuc

The Official Records


Special thanks to Mike Musick

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