THE SUPPLY TRAINS

From:
ONE HUNDRED YEARS WITH THE SECOND CAVALRY
By Joseph I. Lambert, Major, Second Cavalry
Copyright 1939 Commanding Officer, Second Cavalry, Fort Riley, Kansas
Capper Printing Company, Inc.

CW2It was the writers good-fortune to have charge of a supply-train which left City Point on the afternoon of July 30, 1864 – Destination, “the Reserve Brigade, on the march”. The scenes of that march are well worth noticing here, as they give us a picture of army-life that has not yet appeared in print or on canvas.

The train is parked in an open field, teams hitched up, teamsters at their posts, and the order given to move. The regimental wagons are loaded with officers baggage and regimental and company records and effects, the supply-wagons with rations and forage.

Not a cloud or a tree breaks the blinding, scorching rays of the noonday sun. The flies are in countless millions, and as vicious as numerous. It takes some time to pull out, and the head of the train is a long distance on the road before the last wagon leaves the park. Several miles are marched before the train is well closed up, the trotting of the teams to accomplish this filling the air with clouds of dust and adding the pangs of suffocation to those of cremation. Suddenly the road begins to slope, and deep gullies and steep banks are on either side. Frequent stoppages indicate trouble ahead, and as we ride forward a teamster is seen locking his chain-brake. “What’s the matter?” “An ugly piece of corduroy through a swamp just at the foot of the hill.” It looks next to impossible to get down the hill, over the corduroy, and through the swamp, with wagons so heavily loaded, without some serious accident. Yet skillful driving, and no small amount of courage on the part of each teamster, take the train safely through.

Alternate stretches of dusty and muddy road are passed over, and night draws on.

The heat and dust are making long gaps, and, though frequent halts are made, it is impossible to close up. Night overtakes us in the thick pine forest, slowly but surely making our way through difficulties that to the uninitiated would seem simply insurmountable.

About midnight the head of the train comes to a halt. It is clear, though intensely dark. A ride to the front discloses a dilapidated narrow bridge over a creek.

We dismount and examine carefully the approach to the bridge, and finding it dangerous, hastily build a fire. There is nothing like light on every subject; army transportation is no exception.

The fire lightens up the scene, giving a weirdness and grotesqueness to our consultation that are well worth a sketch from the pencil of Nast.

“All right! Go Ahead!”, and the lead team is safely over. The same good fortune attends the greater portion of the train, and we are congratulating ourselves on our success, when lo! a crash, and through the flickering light a wagon is seen with two wheels in mid-air and two hanging over the side of the bridge. Dismounting, we gather around it. Had the wagon been built on the bridge, it is doubtful if it could have been put in the position in which we found it. Oh! for a veil, or a tarpaulin, to cover from view the scene around that wagon, the suppressed sighs and groans – yes, and oaths; for cavalry teamsters are proverbial for their profanity. The effects of the heat, dust, darkness, and fatigue seemed to find vent on the inanimate wagon. But a few cheering words broke the spell. Instantly the mules are unhitched, and, without attempting to clear the blockade, we seek a crossing through the mire and water below. We work with a will to cut away the undergrowth and scrub-pines, examine carefully both sides of creek and its bed, and then start across the next team. The splash of the mules as they take the water, the creaking of every board and timber, the crack of the teamster’s whip, and his stirring talk as he encourages his team to their work, brightens up the scene as the thought steals over one that the humblest callings are filled with brave and devoted men whom no circumstances, however dispiriting, can make flinch.

True grit, though on the back of a wheel-mule, carries a force with it that is alike inspiring and contagious. We are not long in suspense. The team has reached the opposite side safely, and is quickly followed by others – each one, however, tearing up the muddy grounds and making the passage more difficult and dangerous.

One team, not so sturdy as the rest, stalls in the creek, and instantly we are in the water, prying with levers and tugging at the wheels. But “Fit via vi” is as true in army transportation as at the siege of Troy. Three o’clock in the morning finds us past both Scylla and Charybdis, and again on the march. If it is difficult to pass from the rear to the front of a column of cavalry, on the march, along a narrow road, it is more so, on a dark night, to ride from the rear to the front of a column of wagons and mules. This feat was accomplished – not successfully, however; for in one of those “last ditches” so common “on the road to Richmond” rider and horse disappear from view, soon to emerge, beautified by close contact with the sacred soil, and brimful of new experiences.

But daylight brought delight, as its first rays revealed the bivouac of the “Second” near Jones’ Hole – a name suggestive of the night’s trials and tribulations, but happily ending them. We had been seventeen hours on the road, and traveled forty miles. The strongest teams were exhausted and barely able to drag the supplies to the different regiments for distribution.

After allowing the teams a few hours to rest, the First Cavalry Division, Brigadier-General Merritt, took up the march for City Point.

It was on this march that we received the information that the First Division was to be transferred at once to the Valley of the Shenandoah. The delight we experienced, at this unlooked-for news of an immediate change in our field of operations, tempered the rays of the scorching sun; and through the suffocating dust and thick pine forests we pictured the well-graded roads and verdant fields of that valley, which, until now had been the granary of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The work of embarking the division began as soon as we reached City Point, on the night of the 31st of July. Two days elapsed before the last regiment left. The Second were aboard transports on the afternoon of August 1, and reached Giesborough Point, opposite Washington City, on the 3rd. By special order from division headquarters, the writer was detailed to ship its trains; and as most of the work was done at night, it was no easy task for officers or enlisted men.

Many of the wagons were literally picked to pieces – wheels, poles, bows, etc., taken off to economize space. The mules were not so easily handled.

Memory can readily picture them now, as, with head and tail erect, each one approaches the gang-plank of the steamer. A man stands on each side, one ready with a hood to throw over the eyes, the other with a rope to slip around the haunches. Quick as a flash each man has done his part, and the men aboard at both ends of the rope pull the mule, braying and kicking, on the steamer. As a rule, river steamers were used in shipping most of the cavalry and the trains, but in a few cases large ocean steamers were substituted. The use of the ocean transport necessitated the slinging of the horse or mule, raising him by a block and fall to the upper deck, and then lowering him through the hatches between decks. One of these transports through insufficient ballast, on reaching the rough water near the mouth of the James, careened so much as to shift her cargo and throw her on her beam-ends, and the river was dotted for miles with the floating carcasses of cavalry horses.

As we stood at the bow of the swift mail steamer, rapidly overtaking and passing the smaller and slower transports, the cooling breezes of the James seemed to refresh our memories as well as our bodies. Passing Old Point Comfort in the early evening our thoughts reverted to the spring of 1862, when the Second lay in transports under the guns of Fortress MonroeGordon and Duke, with half the squadron, in the brig yclept Mayflower, a veritable old hulk; and Rodenbough and Harrison in the modern schooner Grace Darling. The manly form of our good skipper seemed to rise out of the water, stand before us, and, with his jolly face all aglow with smile, propound the question as we did years ago, “What do you think of the ‘Jack Downing Letters’?” This book and the Bible were the Captain’s library, and could always be found on the table in his cosey little cabin.

On the 3rd of August the regiment reached Giesborough Point, and the work of disembarking began immediately. A year had elapsed since the Reserve Brigade encamped on the same ground after the Gettysburg campaign, and organized what subsequently became the Cavalry Depot. Our mutual friend and fellow-officer of the Second, Captain Edward Ball, Quartermaster of the Depot, was on hand to give us a hearty welcome; his form is manly, his face is good-natured, but his hair and beard a trifle silvered with advancing years and the cares of his department. We spent a pleasant day together, and partook of his hospitality, and, parting, regretted we could not renew the associations of the first two years of the war.

T. F. Rodenbough
From Everglade to Canon

2 Replies to “THE SUPPLY TRAINS”

  1. Sir,

    I particularly enjoyed your discussion of the supply trains, teamsters, and City Point. I am currently researching that very subject and in connect with City Point during its occupation by the Union Army as Grant’s supply center.

    While it seems like an elementary question, do you have a comprehensive description of the breadth of activities that the teamsters and wagonmasters (wagoners) would have to do during the Civil War, particularly on the Union side and in the later years of the war.

    Sort of a position description, you might say, for these types of positions. I can infer a great deal of what might have been within their responsibilities, but would like to have primary (or secondary) sources to point to.

    Thank you.

    Jon

    Like

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