Laboring for the Army – Part 2

The army’s labor shortage meant that soldiers did not receive needed materiel, due to delays at the railyards, wharves and at the arsenal in Washington. In the days when telegraph messages or couriers could take hours to reach their destination, the uncertainty as to the reasons for the delays added to the confusion and created additional stress for quartermasters. On July 9, Gen. Herman Haupt told Meigs, from Hanover, Pennsylvania, “I am on my way to Gettysburg again. Find things in great confusion. Road blocked; cars not unloaded; stores ordered to Gettysburg, where they stand for a long time, completely preventing all movement there; ordered back without unloading; wounded lying for hours, without ability to carry them off; all because the simple rule of promptly unloading and returning cars is violated…”

Meigs passed Haupt’s complaint to Ingalls, who in turn queried Capt. William Rankin at Gettysburg. “Haupt reports that there is confusion and detention of cars at your place.  Why do you permit it?  Do not detain cars one minute.” Rankin responded to Ingalls twice, though only one message was published. “…The telegraph line is again in working order… Forage has arrived in sufficient quantity and has been issued… A regiment of militia from Harrisburg reached here this evening and will, I expect, guard the prisoners.  The laborers I expect will arrive tomorrow…” In a later published message, Rankin, who must have been up to his eyes in work, explained: “We are about straight again at Gettysburg. I have put the road in charge of our own men. I have also sent 150 track men, on special train, on way to Gettysburg. I will march them over the mountain and set them at work at Chambersburg to reconstruct the road. The Northern Central is open to York, but the opening to Harrisburg will be delayed a couple of days by the loss of some of our bridges by high water…” Rankin mentions other concerns plaquing the army’s supply problems (some of which I’ll touch on in a later post), including weather and enemy related damage to roads, railroads, and, though not mentioned by Rankin, the C&O Canal, but the solution to every problem required men with shovels and wheelbarrows. In fact, on July 14, Ingalls ordered 50 wheelbarrows to Berlin, Maryland to aid with repairs to the C&O Canal.

The army had opened several temporary depots along the Potomac River, to include those at Berlin and Sandy Hook, Maryland. On July 13, an officer asked that 250 laborers be sent to Sandy Hook to alleviate a shortage. With none to spare, Meigs replied that a ship had been sent to Fort Monroe “to procure Negroes,” but even if successful, he had no idea how many might make the trip or when they would arrive. But he reminded the officer that he needed 500 men at other locations.

The problem seemed to have an obvious solution. Responding to Ingalls, as well as the officer who raised the matter, Meigs asked, “Cannot the troops do their own work?” Ingalls agreed, telling the officer at Sandy Hook to, “Call on the commanding officer nearest your station for a detail of troops to assist you in unloading cars, issuing forage, etc.” The army consumed the materiel, so why not put them to work? Soldiers may have responded to such calls or orders for help, but one can understand if they refused or if commanders refused to ask or to order them. Afterall, they did the bleeding and the dying, and for less money than even the black laborers.

By late-July, with the army back in Virginia and with fewer depots to man, the shortage eventually resolved itself, at least in the short term. On August 5, Ingalls told the officer at Gettysburg to return all Black laborers still there to Warrenton Junction in Virginia “at once.” The matter of the money withheld for the support of families, however, remained an issue throughout the remainder of the war and into the postwar years.

That the government had impressed men as a means of alleviating manpower shortages surprised me. Newspaper accounts of men being impressed from the streets of Baltimore by city police for the same purpose also came as a surprise. Just as surprising was the fact that Free Blacks living in and around Washington and Alexandria and who supported themselves and their families without government assistance had also had the monthly tax withheld. I found three letters in the files, all written in August 1863. Though unsigned, all appear to have been written by the same man, a Free Black who worked for the Commissary Department and lived and or worked in Alexandria, Virginia. I include here the last of the three letters, written to Secretary of War Stanton and have made only minor corrections.

“Dear Sir,

We a potion of the free people of Alexandria Virginia, that has been employed in Lieut. Col. [George] Bell Commissary in this place ever since the commencement of the war, and has labored hard though all wheathers, night and day, sundies included, and we hope that you will pardon us for these liberties in writing to your honour for the purpose of asking you to add a little more to our wages, as Col. George Bell says it is with you to raise our wages or not[. W]hen we first went to the commissary to work, our pay was $30 per month, after one or two months they was curtailed to $25 per month with which we made out to get along with[. S]ince the first of December 1862 we has been curtailed to $20 per month so said to be for the benefit of the contrabands, and the men that is in the employment is provided for by the government houses to live in, provission for them selves and families, and even wood & coal to cook with, and has all the attention, and we the free men has to pay a tax of $5 per month for they benefit, and have to support ourselves and families, and provide for them in every respect with the exception of our own rations, and we have tried to get along without saying anything, but Sir every thing is so high that you know your self Sir that our $20 will not go any whare[. It] is true that the government has a great expence, and it is no more than wright that the contrabands employed in the government service should be curtailed in wages for the support of they fellow men, but we free people I don’t think Sir has any rite to pay a tax for the benefit of the contrabands any more than white labours of our class, which we have on our works, which they receive 25 dollars and Col. Bell has some favourite men whom he pays 25 dollars to and others has to get along the best they can, and undergo deprivation, so we embraced this opportunity of laying the case before you and if you thinks that right, Sir then we made ourselves satisfied, but we believe that you will do all for us you can in the case, as we believe Sir that you is a gentlemen that works on the squar

We remain your obedient servants, Colored labours of Alexandria, VA Commissary Dept.”

The monies collected from the Black laborers remained an issue for years after the war. In 1900, Virginia Congressman, John Franklin Rixey of Culpeper, submitted a bill that read, in part: “That the Secretary of War be, and is hereby, authorized and directed to furnish the Secretary of the Treasury a list of the names of all laborers employed by the War Department, or any other bureaus thereof, whose wages or portions thereof were withheld, ostensibly for the support of indigent freedmen, or for any other purpose, and the amount so withheld from each laborer. And it shall be the duty of the Secretary of the Treasury to adjust the accounts of the said laborers, and pay to each and all of them, or their legal representatives, the amount so withheld and found to be due them; and the sum of seventy-five thousand dollars, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby appropriated…” The fate of Rixey’s measure and the withheld money is unknown.


Documents in the National Archives

3 thoughts on “Laboring for the Army – Part 2

  1. Another interesting and informative post! You mentioned the Baltimore newspaper account of the impressment of men by city police as a means of alleviating the manpower shortage of the Union Army. Does the newspaper article tell if these men were Free Blacks, recently freed African-Americans (contrabands) or white males not eligible for the draft because of their age? Thanks again Bob


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