In December 1861 Lewis Baldwin Parsons was placed in charge of all military rail and river transportation within the Department of the Mississippi, which extended from Pittsburg to west of the Mississippi and south to New Orleans. In a war that made huge use of steam to move troops and supplies, Parsons was a crucial player.
Lewis Parsons was born in New York State in 1818, the year of Illinois statehood. After graduating Yale in 1840 he began teaching in Alabama against the wishes of his father, who feared the influences of living in a society based on slavery. He soon began the study of law at Harvard, and after graduation began a practice in Alton, Illinois. Parsons soon began to invest in land, by 1855 owning an estimated 2,000 acres. About the same time he began work as an officer of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad. He left the company in 1860, as the nation’s sectional crisis reached a new level of intensity.
War’s early days
Parsons lived in St. Louis when secessionists fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861. Southern sympathizers and Union men struggled for control of the city. The former railroad attorney served as a volunteer aid to unionist politician Francis P. Blair, Jr., taking part in the capture in May of secessionists gathered at Camp Jackson on the city’s outskirts.
Months later Parsons served on the staff of Gen. George B. McClellan, an old acquaintance. McClellan had been named president of the eastern division of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad at the time Parsons left the company in 1860. After small but notable early victories in western Virginia, McClellan was called by President Lincoln to reorganize the Union forces that had been trounced at the First Battle of Bull Run. On November 1, 1861, Parsons’s friend was named general-in-chief of Union forces.
Bringing order from chaos
The day before McClellan’s promotion Parsons had been transferred to the army quartermaster’s department at St. Louis, where he served on a commission to make sense of financial claims against the government that had been incurred during the command of Gen. John C. Frémont.
Parsons’s most important wartime service, however, began with an order issued December 9, 1861: “You will take charge of all the transportation pertaining to the Department of the Mississippi by River and Railroad and discharge all employees not required to facilitate this particular service.”
The former railroad man quickly set out to put the transportation of masses of men, equipment, and animals on a businesslike basis. Up to the time of his appointment quartermaster officers had operated largely on their own. The result was a chaotic system without an overarching plan of operation. Parsons established a strict standard of accountability for officers’ actions, declaring that if the U.S. treasury was not to be bankrupted “some general system would be required for the entire West.” That shaking up caused anger among some shippers, who quickly protested Parsons’s orders.
Other problems came from lack of communication within the army. The important Illinois Central Railroad, which had been financed largely by a federal land grant, complained that it was not being paid for its services. Parsons wanted to pay but could not get information from superiors about rates. Final orders regarding the payment did not come for almost nine months. Parsons also felt in a bind because he was not informed of plans for the future campaigns and the transportation needs that they might involve. Able only to guess at the army’s future plans, Parsons could write to his subordinates in December 1862 only that “Large Movements are in prospect, and you will require very soon, a large supply of coal….”
Parsons also shook up the system by which basic transportation costs were established. In the early days much of the transportation was arranged by charter and rates thus varied from project to project. The business-like Parsons established regular rates by term contracts. This was especially important in arranging steamboat transport, which carried the majority of food, equipment, and clothing to the army. While railroads were owned by corporations, steamboats were owned by individuals or small groups of investors. Arranging to use many boats meant dealing with many owners. The contract negotiated in December 1862 for all river transport between St. Louis and New Orleans provided for “precedence and prompt dispatch to transportation of the United States” and set rate specific rates for passengers and goods. (For the specific rates see his Reports to the War Department link at the end of this feature.)
The pre-arrangements provided by contracts made by Parsons allowed for quick movement of troops and military equipment. In early 1862 his work played a crucial role in supporting water-based campaigns including Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, and Island Number 10. When in late December 1862 Gen. William Sherman planned an attack on Haines’s Bluff, Mississippi, and Parsons provided transports for 13,000 men on twelve hours’ notice. When the assault failed the transports evacuated Sherman’s army and their equipment by next morning, saving the force from real trouble.
More rank and responsibility
Parsons’s work in quickly moving troops and war materiel was hailed throughout the army. On August 26, 1864, he was promoted to Chief of the Quartermaster Department’s Division of Rail and River Transportation. He was now in charge of all military rail and river operations.
Parsons soon received the biggest test of his career. In January 1865 he organized and supervised the movement of the 20,000 men and 1,000 animals of the 23rd Army Corps from Eastport, Mississippi to Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic coast, where they would join the war’s final campaign. After receiving his orders Parsons began to gather hundreds of railroad cars and the locomotives needed to move them. He then began the process of dealing with managers of the different railroads whose lines would be used. He also arranged for enough steamboats to bring men to the major rail center of Parkersburg, West Virginia, from which they would move east by rail.
It was not an easy proposition. Freezing on the Ohio River forced many boats to land at Cincinnati, where the men transferred to trains that had been rerouted from their original starting point. The trains then contended with miles of snow-drifted track. In spite of these problems things could not have gone much better. In a bit over two weeks Parsons and those working under him moved 20,000 men, with artillery and animals, a distance of about 1,400 miles. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called the successful effort “without parallel in the movement of Armies.” Months later President Lincoln signaled his appreciation by calling for Parsons to be promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
It is impossible to know the exact numbers of soldiers, animals, and tons of equipment moved under the superintendence of Lewis Parsons. One small sign is a record of the amount of military transportation (by rail and river) that moved through the single city of St. Louis during the year ending June 30, 1863:
|Food, ammunition, clothing, medical equipment, etc.
|Wagons and ambulances
|Board-feet of lumber
Interested in learning more?
A short sketch of Parsons’s life and work is Harry E. Pratt, “Lewis B. Parsons: Mover of Armies and Railroad Builder,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 44:4 (Winter 1951): 349-54, which can be found online at:
After the war Parsons wrote about his work- Reports to the War Department by Brev. Maj. Gen. Lewis B. Parsons, Chief of Rail and River Transportation (1867) http://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044086280112 and Rail and River Army Transportation in the Civil War (1899)http://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000004306702
The major collection of Parsons’s papers can be studied at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.