Quartermasters Battling Regulations, Rivers and Ice

In my last post I examined Lt. Col. William LeDuc’s efforts to keep the XI Corps supplied with food, forage and ammunition in mid-December 1862.  With his teamsters struggling valiantly to keep their wagons and animals moving along the mud-choked roads through Fairfax and Prince William Counties, LeDuc sought an alternative avenue by which to bring supplies into Dumfries.

On December 14, LeDuc, recognizing the necessity of having forage and grain at Dumfries for the exhausted animals as they arrived, asked Capt. William Stoddard, quartermaster at the Alexandria Depot, “If you have not already sent another load of oats to the mouth of Quantico [Creek] send it as soon as the [land] and steamboats will permit.  We are having a damnable time with the roads.”

Stoddard responded promptly, telling LeDuc, “I will have your forage at Quantico Creek at [three p.m.]”  Lt. Colonel LeDuc then contacted Capt. Colin Ferguson, also at the Alexandria Depot, asking if he had “any pontoons or flat-bottomed boats?  I need two at the mouth of Quantico Creek to load supplies.”  Captain Stoddard had also received an urgent request from Lt. Col. Rufus Ingalls, chief quartermaster, Army of the Potomac, requesting forage to be delivered to Belle Plain, on Potomac Creek.  Before replying to Ingalls, Stoddard queried his civilian forage master, “Can you supply it from the river?”

Dumfries had prospered as a port town during the Colonial Era, but Quantico Creek had long since silted in, preventing deep-draft vessels from reaching the town and ending the once thriving commerce trade.  As Brig. Gen. John Buford explained in late-May 1863, even vessels of shallow-draft had trouble reaching the town.  “From Dumfries to the mouth of the creek (the Steamboat landing) a distance of 3 ½ miles there is a road which is frightfully rough and at present is impracticable for loaded wagons. Barges are sent from Alexandria to the mouth of the creek where the supplies are [transferred to] lighters and a small boat (tug) brings them to within a mile of this place – from that point the lighters are pushed up by poles until they get to a bank to unload. At high tide there is but 2 feet of water in the channel. At low tide the lighters cannot run, and when there is a strong west wind there is no water in the river for over a mile from the landing.”

The problem of access, as Buford explained, may have been exacerbated by summer drought, but other obstacles needed to be overcome, even in winter.  On December 19, Captain Ferguson notified Col. Daniel Rucker, his superior in Washington, of a bureaucratic holdup impacting the prompt delivery of supplies.

“The utmost difficulty is being experienced by me in forwarding supplies to Aquia & Belle Plain after the transports have been loaded up and in readiness to start,” Ferguson told Rucker.  “The commanding officer of the gun boats off Alexandria notified me that every vessel leaving here with public supplies must clear regularly manifested at the custom house before being permitted to proceed.  It must be apparent to you that the Army of the Potomac cannot possibly be supplied if this continues… I find it very difficult to procure quartermaster supplies and put them in readiness to transport without having this trouble in connection with their transportation.  An arrangement should be made by which transports with supplies for the army from Washington and [Alexandria] should be permitted to pass unmolested especially during the night, [and] until today this matter has been so arranged.”

Aquia Landing

Aquia Landing

Colonel Rucker forwarded Ferguson’s complaint to his superior, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs.  “As most of these stores are loaded in barges, schooners and other small vessels and are sent off at irregular hours, often at night,” Rucker explained, “it will be difficult if not impossible to pass the papers through the Custom House with any degree of rapidity or promptitude, and if the demands of the Navy Department are insisted upon and complied with, the Army will probably suffer from delays in forwarding supplies.  I would therefore…request that you take some measures to insure the forwarding of stores as heretofore, without these formalities.”

General Meigs and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles resolved the matter quickly, with Welles ordering the Navy “to pass all vessels engaged in the service indicated upon the certificate of either Col. Rucker or Capt. Ferguson.”  Some inspections by customs officers continued, however, as Meigs indicated in January when he asked Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, to clear a ship carrying sutler supplies to the army.  In his letter, Meigs assured Chase, “The said vessel and all her cargo [will] be forfeited to the U.S. if any other goods are found on board her than those specified on examination by the custom house officers or by the military or naval authorities.”

Still, in an attempt to keep ship captains honest, Col. Lafayette Baker, head of the Federal Secret Service, placed undercover detectives aboard the transports.  Baker sought to end the illicit contraband trade, and when Meigs learned, in mid-January, the detectives might be removed he told Baker, “If your detectives are withdrawn [from Gov’t transports] I fear that the passage of improper persons to Aquia Creek, which was so great an evil last spring will be again resumed, and I advise, therefore, that you apply to the officer of the War Department, under whose direction you act for instructions.”

The Navy’s regulatory demands may have briefly affected the prompt delivery of a massive amount of food and forage already en route by water.  By December 17, Stoddard had more than two million pounds of grain and hay en route to Aquia and Belle Plain.  “I have now 60 vessels loaded with forage on the way from New York and Philadelphia, many of which have been out more than two weeks,” he told Ingalls.  On the same day, a commissary officer reported having either afloat or on shore “191,330 lbs. of pork and bacon, 437,309 lbs. hard bread, 54,800 lbs. rice, 51,200 lbs. coffee, 2552 lbs. tea, 71,800 lbs. sugar, 4,020 gallons vinegar, 2,500 lbs. candles, 8,400 lbs. soap, 370 bushels salt, 5,000 gallons molasses, 926 lbs. dried apples, 1,637 lbs. mixed vegetables, 11,700 lbs. desiccated potatoes and 937 bushels potatoes.”  The officer reported an additional “246,350 lbs. hard bread, 300 barrels of sugar, 300 barrels pork, 250 barrels coffee, 100 barrels salt [and] 270 boxes candles,” as having just been unloaded.  “My arrangements are ample for a full supply,” Stoddard assured Ingalls, “and nothing but the elements shall prevent it being sent to you promptly.”


Sure enough, Mother Nature soon threw another obstacle into the mix.  On December 20, with temperatures dipping into the teens, Ingalls warned Stoddard, “You must see that the river is kept open for forage vessels.  We are short of forage now… You must prepare ice boats to keep the river open.  Spare no efforts.  The matter demands all our energy.”

On the same day, Mr. John Flanagan, of Philadelphia, contacted Captain Ferguson at the Alexandria Depot.  “Thinking you might desire to have a reliable Ice Boat at your command I…inform you we have a very economical side-wheel Tow Boat & Ice Boat of 600 horse power & the most efficient Ice Boat in the country,” Flanagan explained.  “We usually employ her during the winter in towing ships & breaking ice.  She has come through 12 inch solid ice.  Should you be in want of such a boat I would be pleased to obtain a charter for her for 2.5 or 3 months & could have her ready [with a] weeks’ notice.”


Alfred Waud Sketch, Library of Congress

Also on the twentieth, Commodore Andrew Harwood, commanding the Potomac Flotilla, queried Burnside as to when he could “dispense with any or all of the gunboats in the Rappahannock.”  Harwood then warned Burnside, “They should be removed before the ice [forms].”

General Meigs saw the matter differently, at least in regards to the Potomac River, and asked General Henry Halleck to keep “a powerful gunboat [in] the Potomac to assist in keeping open the river, which the cold weather threatens to obstruct with ice.”  Halleck referred the matter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, noting, “It is deemed important that this application be made immediately.”

On December 21, Ingalls harangued Stoddard; “The whole army complains of want of forage.  For God’s sake, see that it comes quickly, and have ice boats on the river.  See to it in person.”  Had ice already begun forming in the shallows around the wharf, preventing or inhibiting the unloading of ships or was Ingalls simply seeking to be prepared for the day ice did close the rivers and creeks?

In reply, Stoddard told Ingalls, “I have just received a dispatch from…my forage superintendent at Aquia stating that there are 17 vessels now at Aquia and Belle Plain loaded with forage.  Most of these vessels arrived yesterday and the day before and none of them unloaded.  I will make every effort to have the necessary ice boats on hand.”  Stoddard’s reply fails to clarify whether ice had already formed around the wharf at either Aquia or Belle Plain.

Forwarding the above two messages to Meigs, Colonel Rucker added: “I am now of the opinion that it will require at least four boats to keep the river open if cold weather should be at all severe.  Two large-sized boats of great power to run between [Washington] and Belle Plain via Aquia Creek, one light draught boat for service in and about Aquia Creek, and one light draught boat for Belle Plain.  I think it important that the boats should be sent for with as little delay as possible.”  Rucker’s statement suggests that ice had yet to impact shipping, but the matter remains unclear.

Captain Stoddard sought clarification the next day, asking an officer at Aquia, “Have you any trouble with ice?  Have you any boats suitable for breaking it up?”  He also queried a civilian forage agent at Aquia, “Is there any ice to obstruct navigation at Aquia and Belle Plain?”  Neither reply has been located, but Stoddard offered the same advice to both men in the event ice had already begun to close access to the wharf; “keep the steamer Eagle for an ice boat until better can be procured.”

Ice and the need for shallow-draft vessels built to break through ice dominated the attention of several senior quartermasters through Christmas.  On December 22, Meigs informed Lt. Col. George Crosman, Quartermaster at Philadelphia of Mr. Flanagan’s offer.  “Such a boat is much needed here,” Meigs told Crosman.  “Charter and dispatch one or two fitted to navigate in ice with the utmost speed.  The river now grows difficult daily.  One of light draft is also needed.”  The general sent a similar telegram to Maj. Stewart Van Vliet in New York.  Updating Col. Rucker of his efforts, Meigs told the colonel, “It will take two or three [ice boats] to keep the river open if the cold weather continues.

The following day, December 23, Crosman, commanding the large coal depot in Philadelphia, told Meigs, “Large steam tug Ada Douglass, well adapted for an ice boat, left here on 6th with coal barges for Alexandria and is probably there now; another large steam tug William Stroud, also adapted for an ice boat, leaves tomorrow morning, with coal barges, [and] orders to report to Capt. Ferguson at Alexandria.”  Then, referring to Mr. Flanagan’s offer of his boat, Crosman explained, “Mr. Flanagan wants two hundred and seventy-five dollars per day for his boat ($5450.00 in 2016 dollars), and cannot have her ready for a week.  Shall I charter her?”  Captain Ferguson also received permission to retain two other vessels, currently towing coal barges to Alexandria, as ice boats once the vessels arrived.

Lt. Colonel Ingalls, who could have stated directly whether or not ice had begun to impede the flow of supplies to the army, remained ambiguous, telling Col. Rucker, “The depot at Aquia requires two more light draft vessels drawing not to exceed three feet.  They should be sent at once and should be able to run through ice…They will be indispensably requisite during the winter.”  Regardless of ice, “extreme low water” had impacted shipping since December 11, when Meigs reported “nearly all the small propeller [craft] are aground” in the river.

With both Meigs and Ingalls worried over their ability to keep the river and creeks open to navigation, Halleck and Burnside threw another wrench into the mix.  Following two successful Southern cavalry raids, led by Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, against the Union supply lines in November and early December, as well as the continuing battles with nearly impassable roads, Halleck and Burnside decided, on December 23, to close the land route to further shipments of supplies.  All future shipments would be sent either by water or through Southern Maryland and then ferried across the Potomac.

With the army now totally dependent upon the waterways, the quartermasters received a gift from Mother Nature; temperatures began to moderate on December 23, and remained above freezing, with the exception of one brief dip between December 29 and January 1, 1863.  Still, provisions had to be made in advance of potential severe weather and contracts had to be signed in order to have the necessary vessels on hand.  On Christmas Eve, Lt. Col. Crosman, not willing to assume the responsibility for chartering Mr. Flanagan’s vessel on his own, again sought guidance from Washington, asking Meigs, “Shall I charter her?  No light draft steamers to be obtained here.  They are all in government service.”

Colonel Rucker forwarded Crosman’s letter to Meigs, advising the general of his own action on the matter.  “I…directed [Captain Ferguson to] fit such light draft steamers as are in the river, for ice-boats, by sheathing with wood or iron.  I fear however that he will find it difficult to procure the necessary material, and that some delay will occur in consequence.”  With the army out of options, Meigs told Crosman, “If no other or better than Mr. Flanagan’s is to be had it should be sent upon the best terms attainable.  To lose the navigation of the river might cost us millions.”

In a Christmas Eve missive to Major Van Vliet, Meigs reported “the fair charter of these boats should not be more than $80 or $100 per day [$1,600 to $2,000 in 2016 dollars].  Charter these if they can be obtained at reasonable prices and send them to Aquia Creek.

General Meigs updated Ingalls the same day, telling him that all vessels at Philadelphia, suitable for breaking ice, had already been chartered.  Other ships available for charter in New York would incur obvious delay in reaching the Potomac River and Aquia Creek.  And, as Meigs told Ingalls, a vessel had already been sunk by ice, though he did not say where the mishap occurred.   The accident, to the Frederick Graff, probably occurred near Aquia Landing, though Meigs may have exaggerated when he reported the vessel as having sunk; Colonel Rucker reported the vessel repaired as of January 2, “at an expense of $263.54” or $5200.00 in 2016 dollars.

As an alternative to costly charters, Meigs encouraged Ingalls to employ soldiers, as “there is a limit to the power of the Quartermaster’s Department to furnish steamers.  When a few more are sunk, it must come to hand labor,” he warned Ingalls.  “Boats will be sheathed and prepared for ice here, as far as possible, but much more of the work of supply ought to be done by troops themselves, and the sooner it is understood and begun the better for the Army and for the Treasury.”

Soldiers resented being asked to load and unload supplies as they were paid less than civilian laborers employed by the Quartermaster Department.  Angered by his superior’s lecturing tone, Ingalls responded on Christmas.

“I …acknowledge …your telegraphic dispatch of yesterday in answer to my application to Col. Rucker for [two] more light draft boats for service at Aquia & Belle Plain… For the past ten days this army has suffered much for want of forage, mainly because the depots at Washington and Alexandria have failed as usual to put their establishments on a scale commensurate with our actual wants.

In September…I expressed…a fear that unless energetic and immediate measures were adopted winter would find us deficient in supply.  It seemed as if the magnitude of five thousand tons of hay, the amount I ordered to be placed in depot at Alexandria, alarmed the officers in charge.  It was in September that the forage should have been provided.  We had the experience of the preceding year and still did not benefit by it.  The Treasury is not depleted so much by the charter of a few light draft boats, as it is by delay and inefficient arrangements in the purchase of supplies.  Oats were only 65 cents then, now they are 89 cents per bushel.

The first ten days on this line exhausted the supply of forage on hand; since then, we have been at the mercy of contractors with a constantly increasing price.  We want here now, at least a twenty days’ supply: 600 tons hay and 225,000 bushels oats and corn, to answer for any severe weather or closing up the Potomac.  I think Capt. Stoddard is now equal to the task, and has his arrangements quite perfected, to insure the delivery of what we may require, but I have spared no pains to bring it about.  To land this forage and other supplies requires great system, and very many facilities.  [You] are aware that the water at Aquia is shallow & the channel narrow, at Belle Plain it is still more so, the bottom at the latter place being a very deep soft mud, through which barges cannot be poled.  In times of low water and ice, nothing can be done with barges.  It is only with the aid of light draft steamers, that the work can be done.  I wish no expensive vessels, but cheap stern and side wheel steamers, sheathed for breaking ice when necessary.  We should have four at each place for local use.  This is exclusive of vessels used for other purposes… We must have ice boats which can be sure to keep this river open all winter, else this army must go elsewhere very soon.  This is a very important consideration.”


Some of the old piers revealed in low water

Two days later, in a letter to John Tucker, Assistant Secretary of War, Ingalls reiterated his pressing need for “light-draught steamers,” and “boats armed to break ice,” but he also contradicted his earlier assertion to Meigs, stating, “So far the army has been well supplied.”

On the same day, Ingalls learned a steamer named Achilles had been chartered in New York for service as an ice boat.  If she had left on Christmas, as expected, she might have reached Washington on the twenty-seventh.  Major Van Vliet also believed the Moses Taylor “can be chartered at a reasonable rate,” but reported another vessel, the Waterman as “frozen in at Hudson.”  And, while Mr. Flanagan’s ice-breaker underwent repairs, a Mr. Cary, of Philadelphia, offered his steamer as “ample for the purpose” of keeping the river open to navigation.  Mr. Bayard Clark, of New York, also offered his ship, the Antelope, then in Canada, to the government for $30,000 or nearly $600,000 in 2016 dollars.

Moderate temperatures continued through January, however, and when a cold snap arrived in early February, Ingalls had collected enough ice boats to maintain the flow of supplies along the river.  The crisis had passed, but by then Burnside had resigned and Joseph Hooker had been promoted to replace him.

In my previous post, I wondered if history has perhaps judged Ambrose Burnside too harshly for the supply problems which plagued his army along the Rappahannock River or if perhaps Joseph Hooker has received too much credit for relieving those same concerns.  Certainly Burnside must have pondered the role he had played in destroying the facilities at Aquia Landing, including the wharf, rail lines and bridges, in early September.  The wharf had been rebuilt by mid-November, as Meigs told Senator William Fessenden, but even at a thousand feet in length, the wharf “is still insufficient for its purpose,” as “over a hundred vessels are constantly in that harbor.”  On December 15, Meigs approved a request for one million board feet of “timber and plank” to extend the wharf and to improve and complete the rail facilities at Aquia.

I suspect Burnside is indeed judged too harshly, while Hooker receives too much credit.  No man could totally defeat Mother Nature and overcome all she threw at the army during Burnside’s tenure.  The men who came closest to doing so, and who receive too little credit, are Montgomery Meigs, Daniel Rucker, Rufus Ingalls and all of their subordinates in the Quartermaster Department.  As Meigs told Senator Fessenden, “the Quartermaster Department was called upon to change all its arrangements for feeding considerably over 100,000 men and 30,000 horses,” with “no previous notice…given of the intended movement.  It was debated on the 12th November, sanctioned on the 14th and executed immediately.”  The army, the equivalent of the nation’s ninth largest city, literally picked up and moved overnight, and when the men arrived they expected to be fed, clothed and provided with shelter.  With the aid of a hastily assembled “fleet of light draft vessels and steamers,” Meigs worked a miracle.

In fairness, Brig. Gen. Herman Haupt and his engineers and construction crews also deserve great credit, but their story remains for another day.


Sources –

Documents in the National Archives

Robert K. Krick’s Civil War Weather in Virginia

The Official Records

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