When Union Major General George B. McClellan invaded the Virginia Peninsula in the spring of 1862, he had to face two enemies: Confederates at the front, and severe obstacles to logistics everywhere else. With over 100,000 troops, 30,000 animals, and some 3,000 wagons, his was the largest force ever assembled on the North American continent. Handling supply and transportation was his Chief Quartermaster, Brigadier General Steward Van Vliet.
Almost all progress stopped in April, as McClellan was forced to lay siege to Yorktown for an entire month. As soon as the Confederates evacuated Yorktown on 4 May 1862, opening the York River to Federal shipping, Van Vliet moved in with hundreds of transports and barges loaded with food and supplies.
Their problems, though, were far from over. Roads on the peninsula were too few and too narrow. And the spring rains soon turned the subsoil into quicksand, making them virtually impassable. A veteran of the Old Army, Van Vliet had campaigned in Florida, Mexico, Utah and the Plains, but had never seen anything as bad as this -- where "empty wagons even [sink] to their beds" in the mud.
Through organization, skill and perseverance, the Army of the Potomac eventually triumphed on the logistics front. But McClellan had less success dealing with Robert E. Lee.
Compiled by Dr. Steven Anders, former Quartermaster School historian
Event: Federal Depot at Yorktown, Virginia
Date: May 1862
"The line that connects an army with its base of supplies is the heel of Achilles - the most vital and vulnerable point."
- Colonel John S. Mosby, CSA War Reminiscences