George S. Leland and Civil War Logistics

By Matthew E. Stanley
Filson Intern

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Ulysses S. Grant's supply depot at Columbus, KY. The word “logistics” derives from the Greek adjective logistikos, meaning “skilled in calculating.” In that sense, its definition is appropriate in describing how the Union Army utilized its logistical systems to prevail in the American Civil War. In short, military logistics is the discipline of maintaining large military forces in the field. This practice often encompasses the acquisition of stores and their distribution, as well as the maneuvering and coordinating of large armies along bases of supply. When executed properly, as exemplified by federal forces under Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, military logistics can be a deciding factor in an operation, campaign or war.

Capt. George S. Leland of the Office of Commissary Subsistence in the Department of West Virginia, headquartered at Harper’s Ferry, VA., and operating along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad supply artery, was but a “link in the chain” of broad Union logistical systems. Nevertheless, his papers provide a detailed insight into the daily activities of a Civil War quartermaster and the typical supply situation of a Union field army. The Filson’s Leland collection, which spans from 1862 to 1864, comprises of store estimates,George S. Leland's 4 December 1862 letter discussing auction of federal stores.invoices, lists of provisions, and complaints from soldiers and local civilians. Leland composed public letters, food orders, tallied railroad cargo, and telegrams requesting rations and supplies. His offices also stocked hospitals, transferred goods and evaluated troop numbers. From Leland’s Papers, researchers can likewise determine the daily eating habits of the men within his department. The evidence suggests that Union soldiers in West Virginia consumed salt bacon, hard bread and Rio coffee with expected regularity. They also used amenities such as soap, whisky and adamantine candles on a daily basis. 

Leland’s duties were wide-ranging. The captain acquired stores and equipage, upheld an inventory of detailed ration lists, addressed captured property and calculated how much subsistence a body of troops consumed over a period of time. Payment issued for services rendered by federal employees, including bricklayers, slaughterhouse workers and government bakers, was disbursed through Leland’s offices. Leland also received formal complaints regarding substandard rations. “There has been much complaint from Wheaton’s Brigade,” one officer informed. “The quality of the bread issued to them is inferior and badly baked. Put an end to this grumbling,” he warned. Another officer protested, “One Third of the hard bread issued to my command is unsound and totally unfit to be eaten.” Conversely, in Nov. 1863 under Special Orders No. 18, the department ordered Leland to “take charge of the [captured] Hershman, an alleged blockade runner.” In an unrelated duty, Leland was instructed to discharge deserter employees who had absconded from the government bake house in Annapolis, MD. From blockade runners to runaway cooks, Leland’s Papers underscore the variety of his responsibilities in the field. 

Leland also received food requests from impoverished civilians. “Unless you offer me something, me andGeorge S. Leland's October 31, 1862 letter describing stores he ordered destroyed. my children will suffer . . . I see no possible way of getting along without your help,” implored one distressed citizen. In other cases, Leland’s offices provided compensation to civilians for military destruction. Under Special Orders No. 133 in July 1864, Leland was “authorized to issue rations [to families] in destitute conditions . . . or whose homes have been destroyed for military purposes.” In some of the more fascinating correspondence, Leland was responsible for determining the fate of spoiled goods. His offices pawned off “unsound stores” such as “maggoty bacon, honey-combed by vermin,” “musty beans” and “decayed salt beef ” to unsuspecting local buyers. Though the practice of peddling “goods unfit for use” was not exclusive to his department, it is surprising that Leland kept a catalog of such ominous transactions. “I have sold at public auction the following condemned government stores,” he notified his superiors. Whatever the outcome of such matters, the number of sales to and requests from citizens speaks to the multiplicity of Leland’s tasks as quartermaster. 

Historians are just beginning to appreciate the need for an understanding of the role of logistical preparations in modern military organization. The Filson’s George S. Leland Papers, which also includes a chart for converting the bulk amount of various types of subsistence into the corresponding number of troops, is sure to profit researchers working on Civil War army and supply studies. Although recent scholarship has contributed greatly to our understanding of how Civil War armies were maintained on the campaign trail, the need for studies of logistics remains.

Volume 7, Number 3

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