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 in the war not only because most of the country's industrial base was centered in the Northeast but also because most of the railroads had a majority of their trackage centered in the Northeast and Midwest (it also didn't help that since much of the war was fought in the South significant infrastructure was damaged or destroyed). Aside from the war other factors that were becoming issues in the 1860s included many different track gauges which were affecting traffic interchange and the few number of bridges crossing major waterways.

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

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 network, or about 70%, was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest leaving the region just around 9,000 miles to transport goods, material and people. This glaring statistic left the South at a tactical disadvantage that would prove decisive. A further problem for the South, aside from the war being fought almost entirely in its territory was that the rail network was built of light or shoddy construction not conducive to the heavy and continued use needed during wartime.

While southern railroads tried to keep the trains moving during the war the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a Northern system received severe damaged during the campaign as well. With its main line and many branches lying right on the edge of the border between the North and South in Maryland and Virginia it was constantly under attack by either the Confederate army or Southern sympathizers, seeing bridges and track repeatedly damaged or destroyed.

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

To try and combat this damage the railroad built the first-ever armored rail car that 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 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.

Perhaps the most famous railroading event to take place during the Civil War was the Great Locomotive Chase, as it came to be known. It all began in April of 1862 when disguised Union soldiers stole the General, a Western & Atlantic 4-4-0 American steam locomotive, 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 had used a hand-powered track car, the locomotives Yonah, Shorter and finally Texas before finally catching the raiders. The Union soldiers attempted to flee after abandoning the General but were soon caught, all 22 of them. Interestingly enough, for their bravery all of the raiders were awarded the Medal Of Honor by Congress, some posthumously.  By the time the Civil War was winding down in 1865 railroads in the South were a mess, particularly the Louisville & Nashville Railroad which saw the most destruction of any railroad during the war.

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 could be moved. While the war itself was very hard on the country expansion and growth continued westward after the conflict 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 the companies 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 Railroads, which were created by the signing of the Pacific Railway Bill 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, attempting 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, along with the financial panic of 1873, it took the NP nearly twenty years before opening the line in 1883.

Finally, two major technological advances came about in the 1860s although widespread use of the equipment would not come about 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 railroads were still able to nearly double their network of mileage even with the conflict 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 yet to be 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.  For more reading you might want to consider picking up the book Railroads In The Civil War: The Impact Of Management On Victory And Defeat by author John Clark. As the title depicts, the book, which has received very good reviews, covers how railroads impacted and steered the course of the war. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link above which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

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