History lesson

Feb. 1, 2001
Fleets build superb supply and logistics networks with teamwork Though it ended more than 135 years ago, the Civil War still resonates in the modern-day United States. Let's bring it a little closer to home: What can fleets learn from the Civil War? I'll sum it up in two words: Josiah Gorgas. Don't know him? You're not alone. He was the Confederacy's chief of ordnance during the war, the man in charge

Fleets build superb supply and logistics networks with teamwork

Though it ended more than 135 years ago, the Civil War still resonates in the modern-day United States. Let's bring it a little closer to home: What can fleets learn from the Civil War? I'll sum it up in two words: Josiah Gorgas.

Don't know him? You're not alone. He was the Confederacy's chief of ordnance during the war, the man in charge of supplying Southern armies with rifles, cannons, gunpowder and bullets. I won't debate the morals of the war here (for the record, I'm wholeheartedly in the Union's corner), but Gorgas' accomplishments can provide a few lessons for fleet managers.

Gorgas developed an unfailing supply of munitions and he did it with the worst possible logistics and supply-chain scenario. In Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson describes Gorgas as an unsung hero of the Confederacy. “Unsung, because while other men were winning glory and promotion on the battlefield, officers like him — without whom the battles could not have been fought — languished in the lower ranks.”

Dr. Frank E. Vandiver, former president of Texas A&M University, puts it this way: “Gorgas deserves high rank among the true geniuses of American logistics.” Author of Ploughshares to Swords: Josiah Gorgas & Confederate Ordnance, Vandiver told me in a recent interview that Gorgas' career holds lessons for anyone involved in the business of logistics.

“Gorgas took over an impossible job, literally trying to make bricks without straw,” he said.

Why should this interest fleet managers? Because Gorgas started with nothing, yet built a superb supply and logistics network that enabled the rebel armies to stay in the field and fight. While it's true that all the glory went to the generals like Lee, Stonewall and Longstreet, if Gorgas had failed, history might have been different.

That's the contradiction facing the fleet executives. If you build a superb fleet, the glory goes somewhere else. But if the fleet fails — if the raw materials don't get to the factory or the produce goes bad before it gets to the grocery store — all hell breaks loose.

But you can't do it alone. And neither could Gorgas. “Gorgas' real element of genius was picking good subordinates,” said Vandiver. “He'd trust them and let them do their jobs. He was a marvelous delegator, pushing authority down to where the responsibility was. He shucked as much detail as he could, wanting his subordinates to be as independent as possible.”

Gorgas held his subordinates accountable, firing those who failed in their jobs. He rarely left his headquarters, relying instead on monthly reports from subordinates, as well as requests and complaints from their “customers,” the field generals.

Gorgas also knew that wasting his superiors' time wasn't smart. “He would schedule a five- to ten-minute meeting with Confederate President Jefferson Davis every six or eight months to see if there were any complaints or things Gorgas could help with,” said Vandiver. “That's it.”

It may be worth noting that Gorgas wasn't exactly a likeable fellow. Historian Louise Carroll characterized him as a “cool, aloof man, who appeared perpetually irritated.” Yet despite his lack of charm, Gorgas inspired great things from the men under his command — largely because he let them do their jobs and backed them up when they stepped on toes.

“To my way of thinking, he was a very modern manager,” said Vandiver. “He didn't send memos; he got along with the powers that be; he proved very adaptable and worked around emergencies. Needless to say, I think he was pretty damn good.”

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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