Supply Chain Management Lessons From the Civil War

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.”

Supply Chain Guru

Montgomery Meigs, an engineer, served as quartermaster general for the Union Army  in the U.S. Civil War, revolutionizing many aspects of logistics and supply chain strategy.

Montgomery Meigs, an engineer, served as quartermaster general for the Union Army
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.

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14 comments on “Supply Chain Management Lessons From the Civil War

  1. William K.
    April 19, 2013

    Of course one other thing that did help the north quite a bit was all of the manufacturing industry was in the north. While farming and food production are vital to a war effort they are not enough to support an army that has to fight.

  2. Patriot
    April 28, 2014

    Lors de la lecture excellence mains lumineuses font plus claire et parfaite. Avec copie cas ovale boutons replique montre de luxe Cartier Tank, couronne exquise conception intelligente, mais aussi touchés par elle ne considèrent même pas taper mètres ingéniosité, style de production méticuleux.

  3. William K.
    April 28, 2014

    My translation from the French lost a great deal in the translation.

    But thanks for the complement.

  4. ahdand
    April 29, 2014

    @William: Knowing another language is really an asset mate.        

  5. William K.
    April 29, 2014

    My other languages include PLC, basic, Autocad, TBOSE, and some Mexican. And also a rather inferior understanding of German, based on two semesters in college back in 1966, and no practice since then. Likewise a bit of Fortan.

  6. William K.
    April 30, 2014

    I recognize that the card in the picture starts out with the alphabet and numbers, but I can't make out the second part of the field. And how does that help to understand anything? What is the claimed mechanism for the improvement of understanding? Please exoplain.

  7. William K.
    May 1, 2014

    I was aware that it was an image of a punch card, which was indeed used for both loading Fortran programs, data, and (probably) assembly language programs. And while the card is an icon of the era it is still unclear what it is intended to convey.

    President Lincoln is no longer in a position to either receive or benefit from any advice, regardless of it's value.

  8. Ariella
    May 2, 2014

    @Brian If you are in or around NY, you may want to check out the New York Historical Society's Civil War objects. Some time ago, the Met also ran a photographic exhibition on the war, though I didn't check if it's still up.

  9. Ariella
    May 2, 2014

    I don't think it goes that far back, @Rich. I realized after I left the comment that this blog appeared back then. But you're the one who bumped it up with comments this month.

  10. William K.
    May 2, 2014

    Ariella, It is not that this blog goes back that far, but rather that many of us are able to recall the past. Not only that part that we have experienced, but those portions that we have read about. AND there is one vary large benefit to living in the past,mwhich is that the past is so much more predictable.

  11. Ariella
    May 2, 2014

    “the past is so much more predictable.” Can't aruge with that @William

  12. Ariella
    May 2, 2014

    @rich in that case, I was responding to your revival which was a response to theirs. Time to get to work on a TARDIS.

  13. Ariella
    May 2, 2014

    @Rich Honestly, I'd rather have a TARDIS, more options for past, future, and outer dimensions of space. Plus you may get to ride with a slightly wacky alien with a strong sense of adventure oddly combined with an English taste for tea.

  14. William K.
    May 5, 2014

    Ariella, while a TARDIS would indeed be very handy for a whole lot of things, I beklieve that it one of them is far more complex than what would be needed for simple time travel. And since the effort woulkd undoubtedly be a bit less for a machine with much less functionality, I would suggest that direction until our understanding of time travel becomes much greater.

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