Railroads and the Civil War

Teaching today has put me in the mood to post something historical —

Railroads and the Civil War

Some consider the American Civil War to be the first modern conflict. For example, it saw the first battle between ironclad warships, the first successful use of the submarine, warfare directed toward the civilian population (Sherman’s March to the Sea is one example), instant communications (the telegraph), and extensive coverage by newspaper correspondents and photographers. To this list must be added the railroads. The ability to move troops and supplies long distances had a great impact on the war’s conduct.

Actually, the railroads’ impact was felt long before the war began. A case can be made that railroads set the boundaries of the two countries. Consider how the states in the old Northwest Territories were separated from the Eastern Seaboard by the vast Appalachian Mountain Range. Before the railroads, the best transportation was water — rivers and canals. In other words, if you were a farmer in Illinois, you depended on water to transport your products, and the rivers ran toward the South. If the Civil War had started at least twenty years earlier, the South was economically more important to you than the eastern states. So where would your loyalty have been? It wasn’t until the railroads breached the Alleghany Mountains in Pennsylvania that a tie to the East Coast was established.

In the South, there was no real national rail system as such. Railroads were built mainly to transport the region’s main product — cotton — to ports. Since the respective seaports that exported cotton were rivals, there was no incentive to tie the system together, although by 1861 a traveler could make it from Georgia to Virginia by rail, given enough time and transfers. Yet in the Mississippi Valley and western parts of the Confederacy, the major rail lines ran north and south. At the beginning of the war, only one line connected the eastern states with the western, and it was actually a patchwork of separate lines that could be followed in an east-west direction. In addition, large areas of the Confederacy had no rail service to speak of. For example, there were only 700 miles of total track in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

In the North, the railroads were businesses in intense competition with each other, thus encouraging growth and expansion. In 1861, four lines tied the industrial Eastern states to the Great Lakes and Mississippi river. In other words, they connected the Atlantic Ocean with navigable fresh water, making a more-complete transportation system. (Although ironically, the Confederate capital of Richmond VA had much better rail service than Washington, DC.)

Thus, railroads united east with middle west for the North, but did not contribute to expansion and even reinforced sectionalism in the South.

At the beginning of the war, the differences in both the rail systems and their management between the two sides could not have been more stark. The North had the advantage of 21,000 miles of track to the South’s 9000. In the entire Confederacy, there were no factories that could build locomotives, and few mechanics were trained to maintain them. There were exceptions, but on average northern railroads were better constructed with higher-quality rails and thus could carry heavier traffic at higher speeds. Both systems were hampered by rail lines of different gauges (track widths), but this was a much larger problem in the South. Many man-hours were wasted transferring cargo between trains with incompatible gauges.

Initially, both sides had serious rail problems, but the North dealt with them more effectively. In the Confederacy, railroad policy was rife with rivalries and ineffective government policies. Southern railroads were always cash-starved, and nothing effective was done to give them aid. In the North, railroads actually prospered from the cash infusion of moving soldiers and supplies. Plus, the North found a genius to manage the rails. Herman Haupt was probably the foremost railroad construction engineer in the world. As the war unfolded and the need for better management became apparent, Haupt was appointed U.S. railroad superintendent in the spring of 1962. He had the power to seize, maintain, and operate all railroads and use all the equipment he needed. Unfortunately, he had to return to private life in the fall of 1863 to attend to personal business, but the efficient operation he established gave the North a significant advantage throughout the rest of the war. Some of the actions he took included building blockhouses at critical points, constructing stockades around machine shops, arming railroad personnel, and personally supervising repairs. The South had no such person.

There are many examples of the effective use of railroads during the war. Here is one. In March 1862, Union General George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac landed at the tip of the peninsula between the York and James Rivers and began a campaign to take Richmond. As the Union army drew closer to the Confederate capital, General Robert E. Lee, who had assumed command after Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had been severely wounded, decided to order the forces of General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson to move from the Shenandoah Valley as reinforcements. The movement of approximately 20,000 troops would be made as quickly as possible by rail in the strictest secrecy. The situation was so urgent that the penalty for causing a collision was death to the entire offending rail crew! (This made more sense when considering many of the crewmembers had gotten drunk on apple brandy while awaiting their final orders.) After some false starts to confuse the enemy, the move was successful and the Union army was turned away from Richmond.

The end of the war saw practically all Southern rail lines, save for those being used by the Union army, in a state best described as pitiable wreckage. In contrast, the war left Northern railroads stronger that at the beginning. This was another major hurtle for the South’s reconstruction.

One final note: mention must be made of the men who did the actual work of building/repairing the lines and running the trains. As a strategic resource, trains were a favorite target of snipers and raiders. Hundreds of crewmen died doing their jobs; hundreds more were killed or maimed in accidents. Their contributions to the war were just as critical as the front-line soldiers, and they must be remembered.

Faust, Patricia L. (editor), “Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War,” New York: Harper Perennial, 1986, “Haupt, Herman,” p. 351; “Peninsula Campaign,” p. 571.

Turner, George Edgar, “Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War,” Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1953

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