Railways in the American Civil War
Part One

At a stroke, with the coming of the age of steam, man could move faster than a galloping horse. The Civil War Period 1861-1865 saw a developed Railway system put to much use and under much pressure. Nine-tenths of the country's manufacturing capacity was situated in the North, which also had two-thirds of the railway mileage then laid, to say nothing of nearly all the facilities for building rails, locomotives carriages or trucks/wagons (called "Cars" in America).

The basic strategy of the North was to envelop and strangle the South, called the Anaconda plan. In plain English, Northern armies had to invade the South and destroy the opposing Government in order to stamp out the Confederate rebellion. To exist the Confederacy had simply to survive and be recognised by foreign powers.

The enormous advantages which the Federal Government possessed in respect of manpower, riches and the commercial and industrial strength that supports armies was balanced by the sheer size of the South and the need to fight on many fronts, including the great Blockade of Southern Ports. Here the railways of both North and South played a very big part in the War and its outcome. This was the first time railways had played a strategic and significant part in a war, together with all the other new "Victorian Era" innovations such as the Telegraph, the Ironclad battleship, machine guns and much, much more.

By the time of the First World War the major European Powers had learnt the lessons first taught in the American Civil War, to the effect that it can be said that WWI was caused by Railway Timetables!

One of the issues that triggered the American Civil War was, of course, slavery. The anti slavery lobby in the North was a vocal, politically active "ginger group" - we can think of them and their effect on the body politic as akin to the Suffragette Movement, Green Peace or the CND. In the light of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Toms Cabin of 1852, which aroused much sympathy in the North and indignation in the South, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which helped to put the whole controversy beyond hope of settlement.

In this Bill to create the states of Kansas and Nebraska he put in extra ideas - the concept of 'popular sovereignty' - i.e. the people living there could decide if it was to be a Slave State or not, and repealed the Missouri Compromise, so a new state in the north west could be a slavery permitting one.

Why did he do this? To win Southern Support in Congress and the Senate so that he could get a railway built! He wanted the transcontinental line to jump off west from Chicago. Building this railroad would involve grants of public land to allow for settlement and fund the scheme and he was an Illinois Senator and had an interest in promoting Chicago and making money in the North. He did NOT want the line to go to the Pacific Coast via Texas and New Mexico. From such relatively minor motives do major consequences flow.

At the time of the American Civil War, the North American Railways were often single track and prone to accidents (or 'wrecks') as the lines were not well finished but were often, especially in the South, poorly maintained.

The rail was secured to the pine log sleeper with spikes - not the more sophisticated chair fish plate and bolt system of European lines. Engines were mostly wood burning 4-4-0 tender locomotives with an iron sloped grill off the front buffer beam ('cow catcher') to ward off obstacles on the line, a bell and a big light at the front, in front of the bulbous spark arrester chimney. A very classic design, as seen in all the best Cowboy and Indian films. The North American loading, gauge, was a generous one and most passenger carriages and goods trucks (box cars) were on bogies at each end. The guards van (caboose) had a platform at the end and a raised cupola for viewing along the train by the guard/brakeman. As for the kit and equipment of the armies, it was all much of a muchness North & South, although the Confederacy had little in the way of repair shops and manufacturing capacity and their railway system was much more embryonic than in the North and suffered from mixed gauge problems too i.e. NOT all lines were 4' 8½", some were 5' and some were 3' or 3' 6" so transfers between mixed gauge lines was a time wasting nightmare.

Nashville, Tenn. Railroad yard and depot with locomotives
Nashville, Tenn. Railroad yard and depot with locomotives

One of the lucky accidents that worked in favour of American Industry was the fact that the canal at Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, had been completed a few years before the start of the war, thus allowing the unlimited supply of Iron Ore from the Lake Superior ranges to be brought down to the Pittsburgh furnaces relatively inexpensively. There was a railway network to go with this. During the 1850's the Northern railways had been some-what overbuilt and many lines were struggling come the 1860's but the Civil War brought heavy traffic that led to profitability and the building of much new mileage and more new locomotives and wagons and carriages. All the facilities for this were on hand in the North. This Civil War was the first of the "railroad wars" in a military sense. The Federal Government was able to switch troops by rail from eastern to western theatres and vice versa far easier than could the Confederacy.

It is probable that the Civil War pushed the North into the industrial age a full generation sooner than would otherwise have been the case - it provided the forced draught that accelerated the process enormously.

In the South, it was amazing that they lasted four whole years and still fought on. The make-do and mend enforced approach is nowhere better illustrated in the South's Confederacy was hampered by a badly inadequate railway network. The situation got progressively worse during the war because the facilities to repair, rebuild and maintain, did not exist. From the start to the end of the War, not one mile of rail was produced in the South. When a new line had to be built, or an existing line replaced, the rails had to come from some branch line or side track.

The situation regarding rolling stock was pretty much as bad. When 20,000 troops from the Army of Northern Virginia were sent to northern Georgia by rail in in the Autumn of 1863, a Confederate General quipped that never before had such good soldiers been moved so far on such terrible railways!

Much of the food shortages that plagued Confederate Armies arose not from the lack of the foodstuffs in the South, but from the inability to move it to the Armies at the front over inadequate railways. To compound the problems, any Union Army that got into Confederate territory made a point of destroying railway lines and rolling stock as a matter of course. If the troops simply bent the rails out of shape (a fierce fire heated the centre of the rail and then it was bent around a tree or other solid object) the rails could quite quickly be straightened. Later into the War, the Federals developed a system of giving the uprooted rails a twist. This meant they could not be straightened and were useless unless re-processed through a rolling mill, of which the Confederacy had very few.

On the Federal side, after the Chickamauga disaster, the Army of the Cumberland was holed up in Chattanooga and was at risk of being starved into submission. -Thomas and Grant got a grip of the situation by boat, rail and wagon.

The emergency galvanised Washington. Two army Corps were detached from Meade in the East, put under Joe Hookers command, and sent west by rail. This was the most effective military use of the railways yet made. The troops left the banks of the Rappahannock on 24 September and reached Bridgeport, Alabama just eight days later, thus boosting the Army of the Cumberland in its hour of need.

When Sherman encircled Atlanta and Grant Petersburg, the main aim of both was to cut the railway life lines and to starve the Cities out.

The General Locomotive
Rogers, Ketchum & Grosvenor-built locomotive The General
as seen circa 1907 at Union Station, Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Having set the scene, I shall now tell you an illustrative tale of the Railroads in the Civil War. In the Autumn of 1861 the main line of the Baltimore and Ohio was occupied by Confederate raiders below Harper's Ferry. All through train movements were halted, but before the Rebels took possession, a special train of one engine and coach had passed the site of the raid and was heading west for the town of Wheeling. It was fired on ineffectively and the train stopped at Oakland, Maryland to refuel and take on water. A telegraph message was there received that a Rebel force was heading towards the line to the west to try and capture the special (which was carrying several Northern notables).

The train roared out of town at a high speed and approached the deep gorge near the Cheat River Bridge around a curve. Here the crew saw ahead a group of Confederates pulling up rails, BUT on the inside of the curve. If they had have gone for the outside curve rails, the train would surely have been de-railed. The Rebs were also piling logs and sleepers on the line. The driver ('engineer') jerked his throttle wide open and the engine and carriage pounded across the bare sleepers ('ties') where the rail had been removed and re mounted the rail beyond the break, scattering the timber across the line with its cow catcher. The fireman slung a lump of fire wood at a huddled group of Rebs as the train passed by, upending several of them!

The driver then did no less than get up on the engine cab roof, take a flask from his pocket, bowed deeply to the fast vanishing Confederates and took a swig! The enraged Rebs fired a ragged volley at him but caused no damage. When out of range, he cooly halted the train, checked the engine for damage, found nothing disastrous, and then proceeded on his way. How about that for sheer determination and aplomb! The North, generally, seemed to be far more organised than the South regarding operating and supporting railways in war zones.

The Confederates had NOTHING like the US Military Railroads Organisation. Prior to the establishment of the USMRR the control of lines operated by the Federals in war zones had been vested in the Army Department in charge of the affected area. For example, General Sherman appointed John Anderson as Railroad Director for the Dept of the Ohio in November 1861.

By an Act of January 1862 the Government was given general authority to order the nation's railways to transport troops and all the necessities of war. Although the Officers of the USMRR carried Military titles, the operating personnel were all hired civilians (so didn't wear uniforms). Herman Haupt did the initial groundwork for the USMRR and made it a very efficient organisation. He was an outstanding engineer and started in early 1862 to reconstruct and built up all the lines serving the Army of the Potomac in the Virginia theatre of operations. Haupt preferred specialist civilian Railway Workers rather than conscripted soldiers for his railway construction and operation activities, and they proved highly successful in this work.

Daniel Craig McCallum was a canny Scottish Engineer, also a very experienced railway man, who was appointed by Secretary Stanton in February 1862 as Military Director and Superintendent of Railroads. McCallum succeeded John Anderson as general manager of the military railroads in the West and it was in this theatre that he achieved some of the best results in efficient operation and organisation of railways. In 1859 he had designed and patented a railway bridge called the Inflexible Arched Truss Bridge: his ideas on pre-prepared prefabricated bridges were a wonderful innovation and really speeded up reconstruction of lines quickly after destruction by Confederate Raiders.

His major problem, however, was to prevent Union Senior Officers interfering with his trains and telegraph lines, and to force commanders to unload and release empty box cars badly needed elsewhere! When General Pope was driven back along the Orange and Alexander R Reg in the latter part of August 1862, the USMRR lost locomotives and 295 box cars wagons and carriages to the advancing Confederates - who took what they wanted of the contents, then burned the lot! There was a lot of minor raiding and attempted sabotage of lines in all theatres, but especially spectacular were the efforts of Confederate Raiders Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Western theatre and John Singleton Mosby in the eastern theatre.

Other key personalities in this organisation were Thomas Scott and E C Smeed. Scott came from the Pennsylvanian RR and started and organised the railway military telegraph service. He became Assistant Secretary of War under Cameron and was responsible for ensuring key railway staff (engineers, mechanics and telegraphists etc.) were exempt from military service, and for the railway link through the streets of Washington to connect the lines from the north over the Long Bridge over the Potomac to the Orange and Alexandra to the South in Virginia.

Smeed was one of Haupt's most trusted officials. He was in general charge of bridges and trestles and worked wonders of improvisation in to repair and re-create, fast, the line, whilst also inventing the simple horse-shoe like tool, easily carried, by which, with levers and crow bars, rails could be ripped up and twisted very quickly using only manpower. His organisation abilities were second to none and he inspired his work gangs to carry out numerous prodigious feats of engineering.

Philip Clark, Secretary ACWS


  • Various Bruce Catton publications
  • Time Life History of the Civil War
  • Civil War Railroads by Abdill

The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Autumn 2008