Today in AFJ History

January 12, 2014  

1866: Ode to the quartermaster

Petersburg, Va.: Part of Quartermaster Department, 1st Division, 9th Corps, in November 1863

Editor’s note: The following was part of the Journal’s approving response to a proposal by General Ulysses S. Grant to reorganize the Army’s quartermasters and lessen their responsibilities.

From the archive: January 13, 1866

The Quartermaster’s Department

The late General Jessup [sic], for a long time Quartermaster-General, once remarked that quartermasters and mules are the pack animals of the army. Any quartermaster in active service during the past war will readily award the choice of position to the mule, which has not had super-added to his heavy labors the burden of such possibilities as his two-legged master has had to bear. He is mason, builder, and hotel-keeper; commission and forwarding merchant, wholesale clothing dealer, hardware merchant, horse dealer, wheelright [sic], and universal blacksmith; he clothes the soldier, pursues him as a deserter, pays the expenses of his conviction, transports him in an ambulance to his place of execution, hauls the ammunition with which he is shot, furnishes his coffin, and has him decently buried. Or, to take a more pleasing illustration, he manufactures a cradle for the baby born in garrison, hangs the first drum on his neck upon his enlistment as a drummer, clothes him in the paraphernalia of war, hauls medicines to him when sick, transports him to the theater of action; conveys his rations, ammunitions, and shelter on the march; carries him off the field wounded, makes him a coffin when his troubles are over, furnishes an ambulance for his hearse, throws over his remains the flag in defense of which he died, and lays him away in the grave; and finally, marks his resting-place with a handsome head-board, and transmits to posterity his brief and honorable record in the cemetery registry.

The enumeration of the quartermaster’s duties is scarcely begun. He builds railroads and manages them; bridges of stupendous size rise with magic-like rapidity under his supervision; engines and cars pour in continuous streams from his workshop, and the whistle of his locomotive is heard close behind the beaten and retreating foe. He charters ships, and fills them with every requisite for the comfort of an army. He purchases everything but food, medicine for men, and ordinance. He is paymaster of thousand complicated accounts, and of ten thousand different purchases. He is stationer, horse-doctor, cabinet-maker, printer, upholsterer, undertaker, sexton and collector of internal revenue. He makes everything, with the exceptions above noted, from hamstring to steam-engine, and is expected also to perform every duty not specifically assigned to officers in other departments; be patient under all trials and adversities, and to wear always a gracious smile while his general commanding heaps vituperation on the inefficiency of the quartermaster department in general, and some of its officers (meeting him) in particular…

We have scarcely begun adequately to describe the multiple duties of a Quartermaster, who if he had all the virtues of the most virtuous and all the abilities of the most capable, could not perform efficiently one-half of the labors which are thus crowded upon him. That the department was conducted so well by men new to the business, and untried, is one of the marvels of the war. Young men, fresh from college or professional life, shoulder the responsibilities of this department with the courage of veterans. And the extraordinary and thorough equipment of the Army are more wonderful than its invincibility. In the clothing division alone, there were manufactured or purchased and issued to the troops, in the year just ended, 3,463,858 trousers, 3,708,393 drawers, 2,647,560 pairs of boots and shoes, 5,684,572 pairs of stockings, 722,264 coats and jackets, 698,187 tents, 16,330 drums, and other articles almost innumerable, from the small brass letter that designates a soldier’s company and regiment to the splendid silk standard which cheers them on to victory…

And all this was provided, transported, and distributed with such uniform regularity and success, that even the most veteran grumbler had to acknowledge that history does not furnish its parallel.

But it was done through the ceaseless and untiring energy of the Quartermaster, of whom was required more than doubled the labor which should be demanded of one man.

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