The arc of most companies is that they start small and grow, and at some point their supply chain lengthens and gets complex.
Often this has to happen almost overnight. That's a daunting thought… until you consider the American Civil War.
When southern batteries fired on Ft. Sumter in South Carolina 152 years ago this week, it triggered a bloody war that would drag on for four years. Neither the South nor the North was prepared for it at first.
How large corporations manage supply chains is the stuff of Harvard Business Review case studies. How the federal government reacted quickly and effectively to wage war is the stuff of legend and lessons.
British military historian John Keegan lays it out brilliantly in his excellent history of the Civil War.
Starting from scratch
After the firing on Ft. Sumter, a key resource concern — soldiers — was quickly ameliorated as volunteers by the hundreds of thousands signed up, especially in the North. But getting them trained, clothed, moved, and fed was a task no one was prepared for — at first.
Structurally, the US Army was a relatively skeletal operation in 1861. Philosophically, the United States still embraced the colonial-era system of state and local militia as the primary unit of armed force.
To change philosophy and structure was entrusted to a brilliant few, Salmon P. Chase and Montgomery C. Meigs, to name two key players.
Chase and his lieutenants proposed an army in the European model, and after some pushback from the states, compromised on a hierarchy that accommodated state militia inside a centrally controlled army.
“They realized they need hierarchy,” Keegan writes. “An army of Napoleonic formality would have to be formed.”
in the U.S. Civil War, revolutionizing many aspects of logistics and supply chain strategy.
Devil in the details
And so it was. And then it fell to Meigs, quartermaster general, to work on many of the operational details. Meigs had a reputation as efficient and incorruptible.
Within months, Meigs had devised a system and a structure to feed, clothe, and move every Union soldier.
Union solders got bread, hardtack, molasses, coffee beans, pickles, and molasses.
“It rarely amounted to a feast… but it made the northern soldier the best fed man in in the history of warfare to that time.”
The North standardized on Springfield rifles partly because the ordnance (.58 caliber Minie balls) could also be used with captured Southern Enfield rifles.
Meigs built an unrivaled transportation network and structure to move material and men.
His formula became one horse or mule to every two to three men and one wagon to 40 men in Confederate territory. So a unit consisting of 100,000 men, 2,500 supply wagons, and 35,000 wagons was at the ready, consuming 600 tons of supply each day.
“By 1863, the Union Army had half as many horses as men, a proportion hitherto unknown in warfare,” Keegan writes.
This ramp took just two years, all the while battles raged.
It shouldn't surprise you, then, that Meigs was an engineer.
His story should offer lessons and inspiration for those tasked with trying to achieve the seemingly impossible in supply chain and logistics in a very short amount of time.