Friday, October 23, 2020

Nineteenth Century Army Quartermasters

For land armies, the term quartermaster was first coined in Germany as Quartiermeister. It initially denoted a court official with the duty of preparing the monarch's sleeping quarters. In the 17th century, it started to be used in various militaries in the sense of organizing supplies.

The Quartermaster Corps is the U.S. Army's oldest logistics branch, established 16 June 1775. On that date, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution providing for "one Quartermaster General of the grand army and a deputy, under him, for the separate army". From 1775 to 1912, this organization was known as the Quartermaster Department.

Montgomery C. Meigs


During the Civil War, Major General Montgomery C. Meigs lead the Quartermaster Department as it expanded to support an Army over 900,000 strong. He found himself over a dozen of the most important quartermaster officers came to their posts after training at West Point. They knew their business better than their boss, at least at first, and provide a service as vital to military operations as harnesses are to a four horse wagon. Without their determined efforts, the war machine would go haywire, pulling in a thousand directions. The supply system relied heavily on depots, the spending needed to arm the fastest growing army in the world.

Meigs hated the waste inherent in a military force. However, during the Civil War era, he developed a sense of practicality in response to soldiers who threw away clothing and supplies on a march or during battle. He is quoted as saying, "That an army is wasteful is certain, but it is more wasteful to allow a soldier to sicken and die for want of the blanket or knapsack, which he has thoughtlessly thrown away in the heat of the march or the fight than to again supply him on the first opportunity with these articles indispensable to help and efficiency."

He held this position until forced to retire in 1882, which meant that he also served as the quartermaster general throughout most of the frontier Indian wars era.

Quartermasters purchased clothing, equipment, animals, and services at an unprecedented pace. They operated a system of field depots and a transportation network to deliver the goods to the soldiers. Also in 1862, the Quartermaster Department assumed responsibility for burial of war dead and care of national cemeteries.

The quartermasters duties included: supplying horses to haul artillery, cavalry, and wagon trains, as well as the forage to feed them. The quartermasters built barracks and hospitals. The department furnished uniforms, socks, shoes, needles, thread, pots, canteens, and other goods to the men. The department's men also constructed and repaired roads, bridges, railroads, and military telegraph lines. Quartermasters chartered ships and steamers, providing the coal to fuel them and the docks and wharves to unload them.

Quartermaster & Ambulance Camp, Brandy Station, Virginia 

Throughout the nineteenth century the Quartermaster Department functioned differently than today's Quartermaster Corps. It did not have specialized military units. Instead Quartermasters relied upon contracted workers or detailed Soldiers. The Quartermaster Department did not purchase subsistence, although it did store and transport the provisions.

The efficiency of the frontier army which averaged about 20,000 men in the period 1855-1875 depended on the food, clothing, ammunition, forage, shelter, livestock and other supplies furnished by the government. The frontier military post, usually at some distance from the settled areas, was almost solely dependent upon supplies brought from a great distance. Gen. W. T. Sherman reported in 1869:

Quartermaster and Ambulance Camp, 6th Corps, Brandy Station, Virginia

If the army could be concentrated and quartered in the region of supplies, the expenses could be kept down to a comparatively small sum; or if we had, as in former years, a single line of frontier a little in advance of the settlements, the same or similar would be the result; but now, from the nature of the case, our troops are scattered by companies to posts in the most inhospitable parts of the continent, to which every article of food, forage, clothing, ammunition, &c., must be hauled in wagons hundreds of miles at great cost. For the same reason this department [quartermaster] is heavily taxed by the cost of fuel and materials for making huts, sometimes at a distance of one or two hundred miles from a place where a growing twig as large as a walking stick can be found.


Two-wheeled man-pulled wagon from Quartermaster Museum Ctsy Larry Pieniazek

While the pay and allowances of a soldier remain the same in all parts of the country, the cost of his maintenance in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, is two and three times as great as on the Kansas and Nebraska frontier.

The military stores were usually purchased from the large markets. Clothing, blankets and other quartermaster supplies were purchased in the East, or on the Pacific coast, and then were shipped to the numerous depots and posts. Large quantities of grain, hay, lumber, wood and commissary supplies were bought from the local markets near the posts, if they could be procured more economically.

Oxen teams

The quartermaster department of the army made all the contracts for transportation. Bids were received for the transportation of 100 pounds of goods over a certain route at a certain rate per 100 miles. The transportation of supplies from the army depots to many of the larger and more permanent posts was more economical and satisfactory when done by contractors than by the use of military trains. The contractors generally used ox teams on the Plains because there was less danger of stampedes from Indians (for the Indians did not care for oxen), and the oxen were better able to subsist on grass alone than mules or horses.

Army mule-pulled wagon

However, when the Army transported goods by wagon, they used mules-a team of either six or four, depending on the weight. The driver rode the near-wheel mule and controlled the team with a single jerk line.

Many military authorities agreed with Gen. John Pope who condemned the practice of making contracts for military stores at a great distance from the posts to be supplied. The objections were that the officers in charge of letting the contract were often unacquainted with the resources, people, manner of doing business, prices, or anything else in the districts to be supplied. They were without experience or knowledge of the peculiar service on the frontier. All these factors resulted in unnecessary and additional expense, and the needs of the service were not satisfactorily met.

Several depots were established on the frontier from which its dependent military posts were supplied. Fort Leavenworth was the great supply depot for the posts on the Plains and along the Missouri river. Fort Riley also served as a supply center for the Department of the Missouri which included Kansas. As the railroad advanced into western Kansas, Fort Hays became a supply center to serve those frontier forts in the region that were not along the rail line.

My hero in both of my Hannah books, Hannah's Handkerchief and Hannah's Highest Regard, became a quartermaster almost by default.

What started it all was the character of Captain Prescott in Kizzie's Kisses, my first novel set in this region. I did not know about quartermasters at the time or the difference between them and the line officers over subsistence (Please CLICK HERE to see last month's post about subsistence). However, as part of the plot, I wrote about the captain being in charge of livestock acquisition. More to the point, he insisted on being able to buy Kizzie's horse.

Capt. Prescott was particularly interested in quality stock born locally because they were already acclimated to frontier weather and conditions. Horses brought in from east of the Mississippi needed about a year to acclimate. Without it, many failed and died early. Kizzie refused to allow it to happen. With the cooperation of my hero in that book, Kizzie's mare was bred to produce horses for the Army.

You may read the book description for Kizzie's Kisses by CLICKING HERE.

However, I chose to open Hannah's Handkerchief with the scene of the Ft. Riley 1865 dance to celebrate the end of the Civil War-the same scene at the end of Kizzie's Kisses, but from the point of view of Kizzie's cousin, Hannah. From there, the course of Hannah's story was set to include the frontier military. The link between the Atwell families and Capt. and Mrs. Prescott was already established. Who better for my love interest for Hannah than a young lieutenant, an assistant quartermaster to the captain? Shortly after the dance, he is sent to the Kansas frontier to help set up the five frontier forts established there between 1864 and 1869. Eventually, each received their own quartermaster. Although I don't know what happened in real history, I wrote my story as though, while in the early planning and construction stages, these newer forts fell under Capt. Prescott's supervision.

Tomorrow, Saturday, October 24th, please join me and the other authors who blog for Cowboy Kisses as we hold our fifth annual Fall Round-up. I’ll be sharing more about my latest books at that time.



O’Harrow, Robert Jr.; The Quartermaster: Montgomery C. Meigs, Lincoln’s General, Master Builder of the Union Army. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY: 2016



GiniRifkin said...

Thank you for the interesting and informative post on a subject about which I knew nothing. So many facets to the military that one doesn't think about.

Julie Lence said...

Great blog, Zina!! So informative and just what I need to jump start my muse with my next book. Hugs!