Railroads In The Civil War

Railroads in the Civil War would play a pivotal role in deciding how the campaign transpired. The North would hold a commanding advantage not only because most of the country's industrial base was centered in the Northeast but also due to the fact that most of the nation's rail network at that time was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest (to make matters worse much of the fighting took place in the South where significant infrastructure was damaged or destroyed in states such as Virginia and Tennessee). Aside from the war other problems during the 1860s included numerous track gauges which affected traffic interchange and the few bridges crossing major waterways.

Santa Fe 4-4-0 American #541 poses with two crewman in Dodge City, Kansas during 1891.

When discussing railroads during the Civil War their role is often overlooked.  However, they were an incredibly vital and important vehicle in the movement of troops and materiel that ultimately enabled the Union to win the conflict.  When fighting broke out between the North and South in 1861 the country had a rail network stretching over 30,000 miles. Unfortunately for the South, over 21,000 miles of this trackage, or about 70%, was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest leaving the region just around 9,000 miles. This glaring statistic left the Confederacy at a tactical disadvantage that would prove decisive. A further problem for the South was the general poor construction of its infrastructure, built to light and shoddy standards, not conducive to the heavy and continued use during wartime.

While several Southern railroads received significant damage during the war Northern lines were not completely immune either, notably the Baltimore & Ohio. With its main line and many branches situated right along between the Union and Confederacy in the states of Maryland and Virginia (and West Virginia after 1863) the B&O was constantly under attack.  In an effort to curb the damage the railroad built the first-ever armored rail car which looked a lot like the South's famous Merrimack ironclad warship, accept on wheels! The B&O also played the first major role in the war when, on June 2, 1861 it transported troops from Grafton, Virginia (later West Virginia) to a location about six miles east of the city to capture the town of Phillipi. The speed of the movement caught the Confederates off-guard and further proved the effectiveness of railroads.

Great Northern 2-6-0 #353 pauses with its train at the Deer River, Minnesota depot during 1908.

Perhaps the most famous railroading event of the war was the Great Locomotive Chase. It all began in April of 1862 when disguised Union soldiers stole the General, a Western & Atlantic 4-4-0 American Type, in an attempt to destroy Confederate supply lines. The Andrews Raid, as it was also known, started at Marietta, Georgia and lasted nearly 91 miles until the train crew was able to catch the locomotive near Ringgold. During the chase the crew used a hand-powered track car as well as the locomotives Yonah, Shorter and Texas before they were finally able to catch the raiders. The 22 Union soldiers attempted to flee after abandoning the General but were soon caught. Interestingly, for their bravery the raiders were awarded the Medal Of Honor by Congress, some posthumously.  During the final years of the war Southern railroads were a mess, particularly the Louisville & Nashville Railroad which saw the most destruction of any railroad during the war (the L&N, however, was able to rebound relatively quickly).

A crowd has gathered at the B&O depot in Zaleski, Ohio awaiting the arrival of a train during 1913.

Railroads in the Civil War continued to impress at the speed in which people and goods were moved. While the conflict was very hard on the country, expansion and growth continued westward afterwards and railroads were there leading the way.  Between 1850 and 1871 the federal government offered more than 170 million acres of western land to railroads in exchange for them opening new routes between California and the Midwest, which would facilitate this growth. The most famous new route was that of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, created by the signing of the Pacific Railway Act by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862.

The CP began building eastward from San Francisco while the UP built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Crossing mostly open plains and gently rolling hills the UP was able to cover nearly 1,000 miles between Nebraska and Utah before joining the CP in a formal ceremony at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 thus opening the country's first Transcontinental Railroad. Of course, the CP had a much more difficult journey attempting to build a rail line through two mountain ranges, the Sierras and Rockies.   The Northern Pacific Railway, financed by banker Jay Cooke, also began construction during the decade in 1864, working on a northerly route between Lake Superior at Duluth, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington on the Puget Sound.

Building through the very rugged and remote regions of western Montana, northern Idaho and Washington State it took the NP nearly twenty years before opening the line in 1883 (hampered, partially, by the financial Panic of 1873).  Finally, two major technological advances came about in the 1860s although widespread use of the equipment would not occur until 1893 when federal regulations required the devices to be used on all locomotives and cars. First, Eli Janney's automatic coupler was patented in 1868 and George Westinghouse's automatic air brake was born a year later in 1869. These two devices were so revolutionary that they remain in use today as the most practical and efficient way to stop a train and uncouple cars and locomotives.

A view of Cottageville, West Virginia during the late 1800s. Note the tracks, two boxcars, and maintenance shed in the foreground.

During the 1860s, despite the war railroads were still able to nearly double their network of mileage and in the 1870s the industry further expanded its reach west. The decade also saw a substantial increase in overall mileage, nearly doubling on its 53,000 network by 1880 with several new routes opened between Chicago and the Northeast such as the B&O and New York Central. Even through track gauges were still prolific and a standard gauge had not yet been decided the decade also saw more cooperation between railroads, particularly in their willingness to exchange freight.  For further reading about railroading in the 1870s please click here.

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