The "Ghost Train" in the Army of the Potomac
by Gordon Thorsby
Does History repeats itself? Of course it does. Current events confirm it as we witness the Ukrainian conflict in Europe in terms of the results of properly or improperly supplied forces on the battlefield. The same occurrence was visible in July, 1863 in Pennsylvania. Fortunately for the Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General Henry Hunt thought to make certain that the artillery was properly supplied by a "ghost train" that would help supply every battery on the field.
Brigadier Henry Hunt was put in central authority for artillery in the Army of the Potomac by Gen. George McClellan after the successful massing of artillery at Malvern Hill on Jul 1, 1862. Artillery proved its contribution on the field that day. Previous to Hunt's appointment, the responsibility of the artillery was decentralized and infantry commanders managed the supplies based on their efficiency and many were found lacking. Hunt saw the artillery differently. Some batteries might have plenty of ammunition and others fought while lacking in proper stocking and equipment preparedness. His tool was simple. he didn't bother to ask for permission and often when nobody would be looking, or caring.
Henry Hunt, a Major Duane (Waud)
Hunt fell under Burnside's command (who shelved McClellan's centralization idea) in the Fall of '62 so Hunt operated "under the radar" in modern terms. Hunt established his own secret wagon train, a "ghost train" that existed within the hundreds of other army supply wagons, under his command and with the sole purpose of supporting the artillery with an added layer of supplies. Nobody knew about the train, nobody that is, except Brig. Gen. Rufus Ingalls, the supply officer at Alexandria, VA. Ingalls knew about the train and did as much as possible to support Hunt's building the train without divulging the train's existence nor its use.
Hunt proceeded to order ammunition, tack, horses, wheels, everything but mostly it was ammunition. When Hunt put in a requisition, he did not order just once for his needs. With the first in process, he ordered again, and sometimes he ordered a third time. Higher command didn’t know but the artillery was set….really set to take on anything that would be required of them. By Chancellorsville, the “ghost train” was forty wagons in addition to the brigade level wagons dedicated to the artillery batteries. After Chancellorsville, Hooker reconstituted Hunt’s artillery authority. By then, Hunt already had an existing undercover supply train consisting of sixty wagons. The ghost train stocked approximately 7,700 rounds of artillery ammunition while 90,000 rounds were carried by the reserve and brigade trains. The artillery of the AOP could easily outgun the Army of Northern Virginia.
Fast forward to Gettysburg, Union light artillery batteries assisted in the fighting and when the brigade batteries and infantry were under threat, Hunt fed reserve batteries where most needed. The “ghost train” waited at the George Spangler Farm while the fighting continued. On July 3rd, when Union batteries ran low on ammunition, where guns were put out of action, and equipment fell into disrepair, Henry Hunt quickly accessed the "ghost train" for help. After the Confederate cannonade was over, when the long gray lines of Infantry crossed the fields toward Cemetery Ridge, the Federal batteries of Union artillery from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top delivered concentrated fire with ghastly results.
George Meade never knew of the “ghost train.” It was a idea devised by a lower level officer to achieve the results for a commander on the field without an order given. The concept of centralized command and control of the artillery was visible on both sides at Gettysburg; Henry Hunt on the North and Edward Porter Alexander for the South.
Henry Hunt proved once and for all that best practices in logistics and supply made a significant difference in battlefield outcomes. His artillery concepts were used through World War I and today, the logistics science continues to make the difference in victory and defeat.
Note: U.S. Grant recognized Rufus Ingall’s contribution and placed him in charge of all supplies for the Army of the Potomac during the Petersburg Campaign, but that is another story.
Double Canister At Ten Yards, Schultz, David L., Savas Beatie, 2017.
"The Evolution Of Field Artillery Organization and Employment During the Civil War,” by Lt. Col. Jerre W. Wilson, United States Army, Approved for public release. Distribution is unlimited. USAWC Class of 1993.