Railroads In The Civil War

Railroads in the Civil War would play a pivotal role in deciding how the campaign transpired. The North not only held a commanding advantage in total rail mileage but also boasted a mighty industrial machine across New England.  The South also faced an additional problem, unforeseen when the conflict broke out; much of the fighting took place south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  As a result its railroads suffered tremendous damage with Union forces regularly disrupting infrastructure.  The North, however, was not entirely immune from damage.  Initially, the Baltimore & Ohio, whose main line ran through the heart of the fighting was a Southern sympathizer. Following a series of Confederate attacks early on the B&O became a staunch Northern ally.  As Mike Schafer notes in his book, "Classic American Railroads," it proved an invaluable asset for the Union.  Aside from the war, railroads dealt with other issues throughout the 1860's, most notably numerous track gauges and a lack of sufficient bridges spanning major waterways. 

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.  After fighting broke out between  in 1861 the country had a rail network stretching over 30,000 miles. Unfortunately, the South was at an immediate disadvantage in this regard; 21,300 miles (in conjunction with 45,000 miles of telegraph wire), or about 70%, was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest leaving the Confederacy with only 9,022 miles (and 5,000 miles of telegraph wire).  The South did have one important advantage here, much of its trackage was brand new at the start of the war.  As William Thomas points out in his book, "The Iron Way: Railroads, The Civil War, And The Making Of Modern America," 75% of its lines were built in the 1850s.  Even by the mid-19th century railroads understood the need for heavier rail, reinforced bridges, and durable rights-of-way to handle ever-increasing tonnage.  After new routes had been finished they were nearly always rebuilt, sometimes almost immediately, for this purpose.

The Confederacy's lack of infrastructure was only one tactical disadvantage.  Another was of its own making; not effectively harnessing its railroads for military purposes 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."  For instance, it believed that civilian rail movements should take precedent over that of the military.  In addition to containing new rail lines the South had one other noteworthy edge; several terminals and secondary facilities, particularly those situated in Atlanta and Savannah.  The region was also home to Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works, an important locomotive manufacturer (the company remained in business through the mid-20th century). It was not until war's final years did the Confederacy understand the usefulness of its railroads. In contrast, by 1862 the North began laying the groundwork for what became a unified and efficient transportation network. 

Firstly, it began with President Abraham Lincoln's signing of the Pacific Railway Act into law on July 1, 1862, authorizing construction of the country's Transcontinental Railroad.  The project was launched within a year although it was not until May 10, 1869 did Union Pacific and Central Pacific actually meet at Promontory Summit, Utah.  The idea for such a project dates back years before Civil War ever broke out.  In 1854-1855, led by then-Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the U.S. government began surveying potential corridors west of the Mississippi River.  Mr. Thomas goes on to note that leaders in the North, prior the war's outbreak, viewed railroads a bit differently than their counterparts in the South.  While both understood the train's importance the South saw it as a means of maintaining slavery's status quo for economic growth. By comparison, the North viewed the iron horse as a way to reach undeveloped territories, open new avenues of trade, and generally expand the country's growing industrial might.  

These ideas helped lead to the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad.   There were ultimately four routes surveyed to California; a northern, central, and two southern corridors. Unfortunately, none could satisfy those parities both 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.  In addition, while this event is often hailed as finally linking the country from coast to coast an updated Pacific Railroad Act signed into law by President Lincoln on July 2, 1864 created the Northern Pacific Railroad Company to build the first transcontinental railroad into the Pacific Northwest.  It did not begin construction until 1870, and did not reach the Puget Sound until 1883.  The NP ran into a series of logistical and financial problems, delaying its completion but once finished it too was instrumental in opening another segment of the country to economic opportunities.  In time, three other systems reached the Pacific Northwester; Union Pacific, Great Northern, and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road).

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 with the United State Railroad Association (USRA).  Instead, it 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 virtually all of the major conflicts fought throughout 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 in putting together a skilled workforce of managers, which oversaw daily operations, as well as general laborers who built and maintained the infrastructure. 

The two men also proved adept at other things, such as keeping field officers from interrupting everyday affairs which allowed for smoother and more efficient operations. While several Southern railroads received significant damage during the war Northern lines were not completely immune either as noted above with the Baltimore & Ohio. With its main line and many branches situated right along Union and Confederacy lines within the border 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, this changed almost immediately following hostlities when John F. Stover's notes in his book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," Confederate militia forces under the command of then-Colonel Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson laid siege to the company's line through Northern Virginia.  The commander believed that by crippling B&O's network the Union could not effectively wage war (he was ultimately unsuccessful).  During the war's entire four year history the Confederacy was able to inflict more than $2.5 million in damages to Northern rail lines (over $35 million in today's dollars).

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 riding 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 railroad's effectiveness. The South also boasted a handful of battlefield victories thanks to the iron horse 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. 

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 which eventually led to a Southern victory. Here it seems 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, day-to-day operations whereby the Confederate government believed civilian movements should take precedent to the military. This proved a disastrous concept that further put its forces at a significant disadvantage. Perhaps the most famous railroading event of the war took place in the South, remembered as 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" steamer. in an attempt to destroy Confederate supply lines. The "Andrews Raid," as it was also known, started at Marietta, Georgia and lasted for nearly 91 miles until a Confederate crew caught the locomotive near Ringgold. During the chase the Southerns used a hand-powered track car as well as the locomotives YonahShorter and Texas before they were finally able to catch the raiders.

The twenty-two 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 which saw the most destruction of any railroad (the L&N rebounded quickly after the war).  By 1865 the South's network was essentially useless for any type of strategic military importance.  The Confederacy's idea to achieve victory, particularly in relation to the railroad, was simply to outlast its aggressor.  A similar tactic was successful just over a century later when North Vietnam killed just enough U.S. service personnel during the Vietnam War to spook the country's politicians into giving up.  Unfortunately, during the 1860s the South faced a much more determined leadership headed by President Lincoln who, for a number of reasons, did everything within his power to reunite the country.  Looking back, the South may have achieved its desired result if Lincoln had never found an effective commander.  As Mr. Hankey points out, had one particular battle ended with a Confederate victory it may have turned the tide.  Today, this is all conjecture, of course, but the questions and rhetoric regarding this very idea are still brought up among historians.

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).

Source: "The Railroad War: How The Iron Road Changed The American Civil War," by John P. Hankey (March, 2011 issue of Trains Magazine).

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 after hostilities ended 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. And, of course, there was the aforementioned Transcontinental Railroad, which began construction during this time. The CP built eastward from Oakland/San Francisco, California while the UP headed 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.  The CP had a much more difficult journey as it attempted hack out a rail line through the nearly impenetrable Sierra-Nevadas.   The Northern Pacific Railway, financed by banker Jay Cooke, also began construction during the 1860's.  In 1864 it  began a northerly route from Lake Superior at Duluth, Minnesota to 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 corridor in 1883 (hampered, partially, by the financial Panic of 1873). Finally, two major technological advances came about in the late 1860s; first, George Westinghouse's automatic air brake was born in 1869 and then Eli Janney's patented his automatic coupler in 1873.  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 equipment. During the 1860s, despite the war's destruction railroads were still able to nearly double their mileage and in the 1870s the industry further expanded its reach west.  As the century came to a close systems were linking America's railroad capital, Chicago, from both the east and west.  Even through track gauges were still prolific and a standard gauge had not yet been established the 1860's did witnessed improved cooperation between railroads, particularly in their willingness to exchange freight. 

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