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.

The 4-4-0 "Firefly" is seen here crossing a trestle on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Photo courtesy National Archives.

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, 21,300 miles of this trackage (in conjunction with 45,000 miles of telegraph wire), or about 70%, was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest leaving the region with only 9,022 miles (along with 5,000 miles of telegraph wire).  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 these issues did leave the Confederacy at a tactical disadvantage the South never effectively harnessed its railroads, as historian John P. Hankey articulately points out in his excellent essay from the March, 2011 issue of Trains Magazine entitled, "The Railroad War:  How The Iron Road Changed The American Civil War."  Despite having less than half the mileage of the North, the South did boast many terminals and facilities, such as those located in Atlanta and Savannah ,as well as having the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond which manufactured locomotives.  It was not until the final years of the war that the South understood the usefulness of its railroads.  In contrast, during 1862 the North began laying the groundwork for what became a unified and efficient transportation network.

Firstly, on July 1, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act authorizing construction of the country's first Transcontinental Railroad.  Interestingly, even this endeavor has strong ties to the war.  The idea for such a project began in 1854-1855 when the government began surveying routes, headed by then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.  There were ultimately four routes from which to choose; a northern, central, and two southern corridors.  Unfortunately, none could satisfy those parities for and against slavery.  With this dilemma the plan was shelved.  However, once the war broke out, states seceded, and Davis became President of the Confederacy, the North was free to do as it wished and settled on the central route.

The USMR crewman of the 4-4-0 "General Haupt," named after the U.S. Military Railroads' Chief of Construction and Transportation, pose proudly next to their locomotive. Photo courtesy National Archives.

Secondly, 1862 saw the creation of the United States Military Railroad.  The USMR did not actually take over direct operation of the industry, as was the case a half-century later during World War I, but acted as its own enterprise and utilized private railroads when needed to offer the best tactical advantage for the military.  The North fully understood the importance of railroads and the mobility they offered.  As Mr. Hankey notes in his article virtually all of the major conflicts fought during the course of the war were at or near important rail junctions. The USMR was under the direction of General Daniel C. McCallum (former general manager of the Erie Railway) and General Herman Haupt (former chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad).  

These expert railroaders were very effective at putting together a skilled workforce of managers, which oversaw daily operations, as well as regular workers that built and maintained infrastructure.  They also proved adept at other endeavors, such as keeping field officers out of everyday affairs allowing for smoother and more efficient operations.  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 Union and Confederacy lines in the states of Maryland and Virginia (and West Virginia after 1863) the B&O was constantly under attack.  At first, the B&O was somewhat of a Southern sympathizer.  However, almost immediately after hostilities broke out Confederate militia forces under the command of Colonel Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson laid siege to the company.  Over a year they were able to inflict nearly $35 million (current dollars) in damages.  

The B&O needed 10 months to repair the destruction and the pride of Baltimore and Maryland became a vivacious and active supporter of the North's efforts.  In an attempt 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.  The South also boasted a handful of battlefield victories thanks to the railroad such as the Battle of Bull Run (also known as the Battle of First Manassas in the South) when General Joe Johnston used the Manassas Gap Railroad to move his troops into position, eventually securing a Confederate victory.  

In this view of the "General Haupt" the locomotive is assisting in maintenance work. The general, himself, can be seen supervising the work atop the bank on the right wearing a black hat and overcoat. Photo courtesy National Archives.

There was also the Battle of Chickamauga when, in early September of 1863, General James Longstreet quickly moved his force of 12,000 men from Virginia to Georgia, bolstering Confederate lines and eventually leading to victory.  Here it seems that the South's chief problems lay largely on its belief in unilateral states' rights.  As a result there was no central oversight or management of its rail network and by the time it realized this fallacy all hopes for victory had, to a greater extent, been lost.  There was also the issue of normal operations whereby the Confederate government believed civilian movements should take precedent to the military.  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 YonahShorter 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).

Civil War Railroad Statistics

Below is an interesting set of statistics concerning Union and Confederate railroad operations during the war.

Numbers Notes
419Number of USMR locomotives.
6,330Total USMR rolling stock.
2,105Mileage operated by the USMR.
$10,000Average cost in the north for a new 4-4-0.
6, 0There were six railroads serving Richmond but not one interchanged with the other.
60 PoundsAverage rail weight (per yard) during the Civil War. Today, rail is roughly twice as heavy.
220,000: 26,000The amount of rail produced annually by the North (220,000) and South (26,000) at the start of the war.
0The amount of rail and number of locomotives produced in the South after the war began.
4,000: 400Rail mileage laid annually in the North (4,000) and South (400) during the conflict.
$15: $500Average cost of new cast-iron wheels in the South in 1861 ($15) compared to 1865 ($500).

A view of Hanover Junction, Pennsylvania during November of 1863. Today, the station and tracks are still in use.

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.  And, of course, there was the aforementioned Transcontinental Railroad, which began construction during this time.  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. 



The ever-busy USMR terminal at City Point, Virginia is seen here in 1864. Photo courtesy National Archives.

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.  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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