Wagon Train Guard Duty on the March

Tom Elmore

2nd Lieutenant
Member of the Year
Jan 16, 2015
Regiments (and brigades) in both armies on the march typically rotated their positions on a daily basis within their brigade (and division). This meant that once every few days, a given regiment could expect the assignment to guard the accompanying wagon train that brought up the rear of their column. Soldiers might briefly mention the arduous nature of this particular assignment, but Thomas F. Galwey of the 8th Ohio did a thorough job explaining the reasons behind their annoyance and discomfort:

“This is an extremely disagreeable task. A well-drilled body of soldiers can march for hours without either losing or gaining enough distance to make the march irregular, but it is very difficult to train mules to do the same. What is more, they have to pull loads over very bad roads. The head of a wagon train comes to a slough, then goes through it slowly, each wagon halting or checking its pace at it arrives, to prevent collision with the one in front. But having passed the obstacle it is necessary to take up the trot to catch up with the wagons in front, already over. And so it goes. Slow walk, then run. Sometimes a bad stretch of road perhaps a mile long is reached. This is passed over slowly; a little distance is lost by each wagon, which has to be made up by running to catch up. In a long wagon train it often requires a great deal of running to do it. Imagine then, the feelings of the infantry who have been detailed to guard the wagon train. Two men go with each wagon. Of course they walk, creep, run or halt, just as the wagon they accompany walks, creeps, runs or halts, and in twelve or fifteen hours this becomes not only monotonous but maddening.” (The Valiant Hours, by Thomas Francis Galwey, Company B, 8th Ohio)

July 1. We are to guard our division train today, lovely job. (Diary of Manley Stacey, 111th New York, Navarro College Archives, Corsicana, Texas)

[Enroute to Gettysburg] we moved slowly and with difficulty through fields and woods, guarding, it might be, long trains of ammunition and supplies or batteries of heavy guns, which occupied and oftentimes blocked up the soft and deeply rutted roads; when the sun went down we were pushed forward far into the night to make up for our retarded progress in the day. … Monday, 29th [June] – The day was rainy and the road was filled up with wagon trains; about 6 o’clock in the evening the road was cleared before us and we started off almost on a “double-quick.” (Sergeant Major A. P. Morrison, 9th Pennsylvania Reserves, Pennsylvania at Gettysburg, I: 258-259)

June 29. The regiment was detailed as guard for the wagon train. Whenever the wagon train was temporarily blocked, many of the men sank down in their tracks, in the mud and rain, and snatched a little sleep. (The History of the Fighting Fourteenth [Brooklyn], New York State Militia)

June 12. Today our company marched in the extreme rear of the division – wagons and everything, and was detached to act as rear guard. … During the evening our regiment [5th Alabama] and the 12th [Alabama], which had been in rear of the wagon train as guard were ordered to go ahead and overtake the brigade, so we had to cut across through the field and march pretty fast to get ahead of the wagons. (Samuel Pickens, Voices from Company D, Diaries by the Greensboro Guards, Fifth Alabama Infantry Regiment, ed. by G. Ward Hubbs)


Feb 18, 2017
My understanding is that the speed of the wagon trains is the fundamental limit on the manoeuvre speed of an army, at least if operating as an army capable of any kind of sustained operations rather than as a pure combat force which can last for a few days on its own.

This is why you see armies moving fast sometimes, when they need to, but it's fairly rare for armies to move fast for long periods of time - if they do this the wagons can't keep up. Indeed a burst of high speed can be followed by a period of slower movement or outright rest, partly to let the wagons catch up.

It's also why armies move faster over good roads like the Valley Pike, and why the possession of road junctions could be so essential.
Usually units which do march fast for a long period of time are quite small (and able to effectively supply themselves with food by foraging instead).