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 due not only to its industrial might (based in the Northeast) but also thanks to the heavy concentration of railroads operating from New England to the Midwest.  The South also faced an additional problem, unforeseen when the conflict broke out; much of the fighting took place south of Virginia and as a result its railroads suffered tremendous damage as infrastructure (rails and telegraph) was disrupted or destroyed by Union forces (the North, however, wasn't completely immune from this as the important Baltimore & Ohio, stretching from Baltimore to St. Louis, lay within the fighting through Maryland and western Virginia). Aside from the ongoing war, other problems facing the industry during the 1860s included numerous track gauges (affecting traffic interchange) and the lack of sufficient bridges across 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 the North and South in 1861 the country had a rail network stretching over 30,000 miles. Unfortunately, the South was at an immediate disadvantage in this regard as 21,300 miles (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).  Despite this setback 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 had been built just in the 1850s (over 8,300 miles).  Even by the mid-19th century the railroad industry understood the need for heavier rail, reinforced bridges, and durable rights-of-way to handle ever-increasing tonnage.  

The Confederacy's lack of infrastructure was only one tactical disadvantage the South experienced during the war.  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 military transports.  Despite having less than half the mileage, the South, in addition to its new rail lines also boasted many terminals and facilities, such as those located in Atlanta and Savannah.  It was also home to the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond which manufactured locomotives (the company remained in business through the mid-20th century). It was not until the final years of the war did the Confederacy understand 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 into law, authorizing construction of the country's first Transcontinental Railroad.  The project began within a year although it was not until May 10, 1869 did Union Pacific and Central Pacific meet at Promontory Summit, Utah.  Interestingly, even this endeavor had 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.  Mr. Thomas goes on to note in his book 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 within society the South saw it as a means of maintaining the status quo of slavery for its economic growth.  States' rights were always an important component in Southern cultural.  However, the use of slavery and its importance to the South's economy then can also not be overlooked.

By comparison, the North saw 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 as potential new rail lines to California; 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.  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.  However, its completion finally opened the region to better transportation; later, Union Pacific, Great Northern, and the Milwaukee Road all reached Washington State.

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), 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 as noted above with the Baltimore & Ohio. With its main line and many branches situated right along Union and Confederacy lines within border 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 believing that by crippling the company the Union could effectively wage war.  During the entire four year history of the Civil War 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, 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. 

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, 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, 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 which saw the most destruction of any railroad (the L&N, however, was able to rebound relatively quickly).  By 1865 the South's network was essentially useless for any type of strategic military importance.

The Confederacy's idea to achieve victory over the North, particularly in relation to the railroad, was simply by outlasting 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, however, the South came close into possibly achieving its desired result.  With Lincoln unable to find an effective commander until Ulysses Grant the war remained in doubt.  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 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 late 1860s, through the early 1870s, 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, George Westinghouse's automatic air brake was born in 1869 and 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 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 (an issue not exclusive to the South during the war even though the region did experiment with more widths than railroads of the North) and a standard gauge had not yet been decided the decade also saw more cooperation between railroads, particularly in their willingness to exchange freight. 

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