Laboring for the Army – Part 1

In my next several posts I will discuss several matters, that for the sake of convenience, I will lump under a general heading of logistics in the Gettysburg Campaign. Purists will argue that logistics is the movement of materiel, and I won’t argue the issue, but I will broaden the definition. I will look at the labor force employed by the Quartermaster Department and then discuss some ordnance concerns. A third post, with an even broader scope, will look at supply depots and the movement of materiel between depots as the campaign progressed.   

I will not offer any deep dives into any of the topics. Rather, I want to present what I believe will be unpublished correspondence regarding the topics, similar to several Second Manassas posts I began here in 2019 and concluded here. Some of you may also have read my article published by America’s Civil War online during the pandemic, in which I focus on horse supply for the Union cavalry during the campaign, but also touch on some of these other concerns.

In a circular published on November 1, 1862, Col. Rufus Ingalls, chief quartermaster, Army of the Potomac, listed 55 positions within the army’s labor force, as well as the maximum monthly pay allowed each employee. 1st Class Clerks earned the highest salaries of $125 per month, Horse Inspectors, $100, Forage Masters, $75, Superintendents of Horse Corrals at Depots, $75, Wagon Masters, $50, Teamsters, $25, and Blacksmiths, depending upon position and skill, $25 to $75. Ambulance drivers received between $15 and $25 per month depending on the size of the team they could handle. The general labor force, men listed simply as laborers, may have been the largest component of the work force, as well as the most vital. White laborers received $25 and Black laborers, including Free Blacks and escaped slaves, received $10. As will be seen, Union officials made no effort to differentiate between Free Blacks and escaped slaves but spoke of them simply as Contrabands. In most cases, all workers received one food ration per day, in addition to their wage.

There appears to have been some lack of uniformity in the pay scale between armies and cities, in terms of wages paid and grades within positions. Thus, a quartermaster in Washington told his counterpart in Alexandria in June 1862, that he paid blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, and saddlers $35 per month, with no apparent change based upon skill. Five months later, Ingalls listed five grades of blacksmiths, four grades of carpenters, two grades of wheelwrights, and three grades of saddlers.

But just one month after the officer in Washington listed the pay at $35 per month, he told the same officer in Alexandria that those men made $45 per month, and one ration per day. The next day, and apparently responding to a request for clarification, the officer listed the top pay for a carpenter at $75, and $60 for wheelwrights. He then explained that he had no master blacksmiths, but that his general superintendent handled that role and earned $100 per month. In his November circular, Ingalls listed several superintendents’ positions, but none directly related to the blacksmiths, so a direct comparison is difficult. According to a document from December 1862, men in the 1st Maryland Cavalry received an extra 40 cents per day for each day they worked as blacksmiths. Thus, if they worked all month smithing, they could earn another $12. Added to their monthly pay as a private, the stipend would bring them up to about the pay for an entry level civilian blacksmith.

Not surprisingly, word of pay disparities spread quickly from depot to depot and army to army, and led to conflicts, as suggested by the following message from Gen. Montgomery Meigs to a subordinate in Indianapolis in March 1863: “In reply to your letter… relating to the demands of teamsters, laborers, etc., at Indianapolis for an increase of their wages, you are informed that $25 per month are given to teamsters & laborers in Washington.  Wages in the west should not exceed those paid here.  They receive an addition of a ration a day… If the ration is not given [there], an increase might be authorized…” In May, Ingalls sent a similar message to a superior in Washington, explaining, “It is reported the subsistence depot at Aquia and elsewhere is paying $30 per month for white laborers.  I have never permitted the rate to exceed $25 for white and $20 for colored teamsters and laborers…”

I have been asked several times during presentations if I have located any new information regarding the enslaved men and women in the Loudoun Valley during the cavalry fighting in June 1863. The short answer is that I have not. A Northern paper reported on June 15, that, “Our cavalry have… brought away numberless Contrabands,” but Pleasonton’s forces had yet to enter the Loudoun Valley in strength by June 15, so crediting the Cavalry Corps in such cases is difficult.

John Mosby began his partisan career in early-January 1863, just days after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Mosby’s actions resulted in Union cavalry expeditions into the Loudoun Valley on an almost one for one basis. The near constant presence of the Union cavalry, generally from Maj. Gen. Julius Stahel’s division, would have allowed most enslaved families to escape bondage. The Federal government then housed these men, women, and children, in camps or villages established for the purpose, including several in Northern Virginia, as well as others at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and at James City, part of present-day New Bern, North Carolina.

The movement of Union troops through Southern states, combined with the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862, and Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation in September 1862, meant the government had begun establishing these camps well before Lincoln’s proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. As the camps grew, the government provided housing, food, and medical care. The Quartermaster Department also found a ready source of labor at these camps, and the rest of this post will concern Black laborers employed by the army.

In late-September 1862, the adjutant general of the army told Meigs, “The Secretary of War is informed that a large number of colored men are employed in this District and in Alexandria as teamsters and laborers, at the rate of $25 per month, and a ration to the former and $20 and a ration to the latter.  In view of the fact that the Government is supporting several hundred women and children of the same class who are unable to find employment and also furnishes medical care, support and attendance to the sick and helpless; the Secretary directs that you cause five dollars per month to be deducted from the pay of the said colored teamsters and laborers in the Quartermaster Department, to be paid over to a commissioner who will be appointed by the Secretary of War, and who will expend the fund thus accruing, for the benefit of the women and children and as a hospital fund [for those] from who it is derived.” Meigs forwarded the order to Ingalls, telling him to “give the necessary directions for carrying the order into effect.”

Shortly thereafter, Meigs told a subordinate, “Gen. [John] Barnard [has] requested that some 500 Contrabands be brought from Fort Monroe to [Washington] to work upon the fortifications.  Gen. [John] Dix [at Fort Monroe] reports that there are some 700 males and 2400 women and children and that 100 or 200 able-bodied men might be found among them, most of them having wives and children whom they would wish to take with them…  You will send a steamer for these persons… and bring them to this place and turn the men over to Gen. Barnard [chief engineer of the fortifications around Washington] to work upon the fortifications…” The men who took employment would support their families through their own wages, though the $5 would be deducted. Four days later, Dix sent nearly 200 men north to the capital, about half of them men who could be employed. In mid-November, the army transported another 200 men north to work at the depots scattered around Manassas. In March 1863, Ingalls sent a vessel to New Bern to bring another 500 men north. These numbers represent only a fraction of an unknown total, based upon located and copied documents.

In a letter from February 1863, an officer in Washington reported having collected $7100 to date from men employed in the city. At the same time, the total amount of money withheld from his Black employees led Ingalls, with the Army of the Potomac, to ask, “What will be done with the money?” Since Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War, had already explained the purpose of the fund, Ingalls’s question suggests that no system had yet been established to transfer or collect the money at a central location in the capital. In other words, his subordinates may have been holding onto vast sums of money waiting for further direction from his superiors. In September 1864, an officer reported having collected nearly $22,000 (about $512,000 today) from the black men employed at the Cavalry Depot for the period of September 1863 and May 1864. That this amount refers only to the new Cavalry Depot at Giesboro Point in the capital, nearly 490 black men may have worked there, exclusive of all the other depots, wharves, and warehouses in and around the capital.

Quartermasters opened and closed temporary depots based upon the needs and movements of the armies and other subordinate commands. Rather than tying up large numbers of troops to guard the depots, the commanders tried to establish them far enough behind the front lines to discourage enemy raids, while also keeping the supplies close enough to roads, rails, and rivers for quick, easy shipment.

John Mosby’s earliest raids had been along the Fairfax County – Loudoun County border. Likewise, Maj. Elijah White and his 35th Virginia Battalion had long operated in the region. Union supply depots made tempting targets and Black employees would have been at risk of capture and a return to bondage or worse. Thus, when the quartermaster commanding the Fairfax Station depot found himself needing to move 100 tons of forage daily, he asked for additional help, if the men could be “guarded from Rebel Raids.”

The temporary nature of many of these facilities, as well as the other work for which the men were hired, meant they found themselves routinely moving from job to job and location to location as needs and workloads demanded. For instance, when a captain commanding the depot in Hagerstown, Maryland, found himself with more Black workers than he could employee in April 1863, he was directed to send them back to Washington.

On May 16, 1863, Ingalls, who had depots scattered throughout Stafford County, needed 300 teamsters and laborers and he asked Meigs to send them from either Washington or Fort Monroe. But Meigs had none to spare, and he authorized Ingalls to send a ship to Fort Monroe and to New Bern, if necessary, to bring back not only the 300 men Ingalls needed but an additional 150 men to work in the capital.

The shortage of workers became more dire on May 20, when the officer commanding the troops defending Washington learned of a possible raid on the city, targeting President Lincoln and members of his cabinet. Unable to ignore the threat, commanders quickly sought to bolster the defenses around the city. Work on the fortifications seemed to proceed in direct correlation to the threats against the city. Thus, the rumored raid brought intense pressure to finish the work which had lapsed following the campaigns the previous fall. Repairs needed to be made, blockhouses completed, barricades erected, and new entrenchments dug.

Prior to the rumored raid, officers traveled to the Contraband camps seeking volunteers, but demand for workers increased so quickly after May 20 and continued to escalate at such a rate through the Gettysburg Campaign that volunteers alone could not fill the needs of the army. By June 1, the wording in some of the orders had changed, as suggested by the following communication from Meigs to Ingalls. “You are authorized to send a steamer again for further supply of Negro labor to be obtained from Fortress Monroe or from the Department of North Carolina for the service of the Army of the Potomac… In this transfer only such as are willing to go should be included.  Their places it is supposed can be supplied from the Negroes who are idle in the Department of Virginia and of North Carolina…”

But not every man who had just found a taste of freedom and could now enjoy time with his family cared to leave, especially if taking employment meant separation from his family. To meet expected shortfalls, Meigs added, “All who are receiving aid from the Government for themselves, or families should be compelled to do such work for the army as needed.” In addition to the men being brought to the city from the Peninsula and North Carolina, several hundred had recently followed a Union cavalry force off the Northern Neck of Virginia. More than 100 of them reached the capital on June 4.

The sudden influx of cheaper labor may have triggered several acts of violence against the men. A Washington newspaper reported an attack on a camp that left two Black men seriously injured. Troops had been called out but arrived after the “disorderly gang” had left the area. After first terming the incident a “riot,” one paper changed its description to “an affray.” In another case, “a party of Irishmen” attacked “a number of Contrabands employed in the commissary department at the 6th Street Wharf…without provocation.” On June 10, Ingalls distributed a circular throughout the army, reminding everyone, “it is strictly prohibited, that [any person] other than the authorized agent of the Quartermaster Department will be permitted in any way to interfere with the colored employees of that Department.  Any officer or unauthorized person found tampering with them or endeavoring to entice them away from the service of the Quartermaster Department will be arrested.”

The military also competed against the city government for Black laborers. Newspapers reported rivalries between free Blacks in the city and the recently arrived men and women seeking employment. With the fears of an enemy invasion reaching a fever pitch, one correspondent described a police roundup in Baltimore on June 20 and 21. “Quite a lively business was done on Saturday and Sunday by the police in gathering in the colored men and putting them to work in the fortifications on the suburbs of Baltimore… Fully one thousand were gathered and put in squads of forty, under the charge of white overseers… They were taken indiscriminately and compelled to go, but they will be paid by the city authorities for the time they are employed.”

In mid-June, as the army began abandoning its base at Falmouth and establishing new bases farther north, a quartermaster in Falmouth asked for “25 contrabands or whites” to unload five forage trains. At the same time, Ingalls sent an assistant to Fairfax Station, just ahead of the advancing army, “with 150-200 Negroes.”

Shortly thereafter, and with demand increasing, Meigs told Ingalls, that he understood his subordinate’s need to procure additional men from Fort Monroe and New Bern, but that Stanton was not yet ready to intervene. As Meigs explained, “The Secretary of War on the 19th decided that when advised the necessity of impressing these idle Negroes he would give the authority.  As the necessity does not now exist the matter had better be deferred until the necessity arises.”

By June 26, with the army beginning to cross the Potomac, quartermasters began closing depots in Virginia and opening new ones in Maryland, including one at Edwards Ferry and another at Frederick. Sending a train of forage north from Alexandria, an officer instructed that all the laborers who could be spared at Alexandria were to be sent to Edwards Ferry and half of the laborers at Fairfax Station, then being closed, should be sent to Frederick. Additional men were also needed in Baltimore to handle the increased workload at the Baltimore and Ohio rail yard.

By July 2, the need for men had become so great that Stanton relented.  When Meigs told a subordinate to send a ship “to Fort Monroe and Norfolk to procure Negro laborers,” he added, “The supply of labor in the Quartermaster Department at Washington is not sufficient to meet exigencies of the public service.  The Secretary of War therefore directs that you impress as many able-bodied colored laborers not exceeding 1000, as can be found among the colored refugees in the vicinity of Fort Monroe and Norfolk and send them to this city to be employed by the Quartermaster… They will be paid wages and rationed and will be well treated.” Though the promise of payment and good treatment had been included, as in the earlier newspaper account of the roundup in Baltimore, impressment still meant taking the men against their will and possibly separating them from their families.

But such trips took time, even as the demands grew. On July 7, the quartermaster at Frederick asked for another 100 men. The quartermaster at Gettysburg had begun using Southern prisoners to unload trains but he still needed another 100 laborers. He closed his request by noting, “Prisoners are constantly coming in and giving themselves up.  We have no troops here even for guards & I cannot get one of these citizens to work for love or money.”  


Unpublished documents from the National Archives

Daily National Intelligencer

Daily National Republican

Philadelphia Inquirer

One thought on “Laboring for the Army – Part 1

  1. A very interesting and informative article in area that I believe has been neglected by Civil War historians. You mentioned Fairfax Station, Alexandria and depots “scattered around Manassas” as Federal depots that hired contrabands and free blacks, were there any others in Fairfax County that you have uncovered in your research? Thanks again Bob, another excellent blog!


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