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Railroads during the Civil War

By: Ariel Wagner

April 12, 1861 shots were fired at Fort Sumter, beginning a feud between a nation, but also a high demand for railroads to be for the first time as military tactics.

The Civil War introduced many new weapons, and railroads would prove to be one of the most successful tools that helped enable the North to defeat the South. Railroads were used as strategic resources and military targets. Soldiers, materials, and food were routinely transported by rail; they kept the war effort progressing and troops supplied. Both the Union and the Confederacy recognized that railroads would help make or break the Union. Railroads proved to be a vital Civil War technology.

The Union had a distinct advantage over the South with most of the nation’s track and locomotive factories located in the North: 2/3 of the rail was located in the North. Union officials used railroads to move troops and supplies from one place to another. They also used thousands of soldiers to keep tracks and trains safe from Confederate attacks. The North was more industrial and the South was primarily agricultural that relied on cash-crops. 4/5 of the manufacturers were also located in the North. The South was at a distinct disadvantage in men, material, and transportation.

Trains were undermined at the beginning of the war. The Union railroad executives were more concerned about the rates for transporting war material and the profits they would make rather than the welfare of the Union. Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was forced to retire because of his profiteering by manipulation of the rates the War Department would pay for the transportation of its soldiers and material. Such corruption in the rail industry prompted the enactment of the Railways and Telegraph Act of January 31, 1862. This legislation allowed the president to take possession of railroads and control them as desired, to preserve public safety. The few railroads that were seized under the act were organized into the United States Military Railroad (U.S.M.R.R.). Fear of being seized railroads fell into line to aid the Union, and profiteering and corruption immediately began to diminish and trains began to move in an expedient way.

South began to comprehend the importance of rail transportation and would employ it as one of their main tactics throughout the entirety of the war.

While railroads were recognized for their benefits to the war effort, military leaders also recognized them as great targets for destruction. Destroying rail lines prevented food and material supply to reach large armies and prevented easy transportation of troops. As an army advanced, it often had to rebuild the track that the fleeing army destroyed. Construction trains became indispensable to military operations.

Rebel attacks were common on Union rail lines, so the North set up garrisons along the rail lines to guard depots and bridges. General Sherman trained ten thousand troops in railroad repair because understood the importance of railroads and also that the lines were a main target. Troops would destruct railroads by taking all the ties from a stretch of track and set them aflame, and then they would bend the rail around tree and twisting it.

As Union troops moved south they would sabotage the rails by pulling them up, heating them until they could bend, and wrap the rails around tree trunks, which later became known as “Sherman’s Neckties.”

General Herman Haupt, the union’s brilliant and innovative chief of construction and transportation, is the one who initiated the stockpiling of pre-fabricated parts.

North and South employed locomotives for tactical missions. The “railroad weapons” were a variety of vehicles, most notable being armored trains and railroad batteries. Maneuver elements they performed several missions such as: railroad defense, escort duties, and artillery support. Small windows were installed to armor cars to reduce the chances of a sharpshooter’s bullet penetrating the glass or the inside overheating, but while still affording adequate visibility for the crew. Locomotives, at times, served as rams. While trains served as artillery bait and transportation, they could also transport heavy guns to the battlefield, but commanders took it a step further and mounted heavy artillery pieces on flatcars for combat operations. Railroad batteries enabled firepower on the move. To protect railroad batteries against counterfire, builders mounted thick iron and wooden shields on the flatcars to deflect enemy projectiles. Weapons had limited range and mobility, not too effective but psychologically it scared the opponent army being shot at. American Civil War railroad weapons were even conceptual ancestors to tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery.

To prevent Federal trains from being attacked they would put Confederate hostages and sympathies on the trains.

Railroads provided logistical support for the armies, which was prudent to the economies of the divided nation. Large military were the worst danger to railroads. They supplied the units that were on campaign, railroads were often major objectives-and army without supplies cannot operate for long. Armies usually stayed near the railroad tracks. Missions by locomotives mainly included close combat. Commanders sometimes sent locomotives to reconnoiter the terrain and gain information on enemy troop depositions. Gathering information was crucial; locomotives could quickly reverse direction and move as fat as 60 mph. because of their great mobility locomotives were also useful as courier vehicles when commanders had to rush vital intelligence to headquarters. This communications service was an important advantage in a war where raiders frequently cut or tapped telegraph lines.

Unlike the Union, the Confederate government was slow to recognize the importance of the railroads in the conflict. They did not have the parts to replace worn out equipment. The Southern railroads had imported iron from England, and the Union had blockaded the Atlantic and Gulf ports—shutting off that supply effectively. Locomotives and tracks began to wear out. By 1863, a quarter of South’s locomotives needed repairs. Fuel was also a problem; southern locomotives used wood, and the Confederate drafted railroad employees into the military. Railroad companies became understaffed, so the railroad crew would have to stop along their route to chop and load wood as needed.

Railroads allowed the Union Forces to successfully implement a strategy of exterior lines, overland invasion of the Confederacy, and it acted as a force multiplier upon the Union advantages in manpower and industrialization.

Railroads dramatically increased the strategic mobility of armies due to their ability to carry large amounts of troops and supplies rapidly. Some Civil War generals were slow to grasp the importance of rails, but generals on both sides became aware of the immediate impact and potential of railroads on the conduct of the war. The technology increased the value of larger industrial base to the Northern armies; greater production of war material would be useless without a large capacity transportation system to effectively and efficiently distribute the material. Railroads could rapidly move a larger number of available and well equipped soldiers to successfully support a strategy of exterior lines and a primarily land invasion of Confederate states. Logistical operations kept them properly surprised; Required sophisticated transportation system to enable the Union to shift troops rapidly to deploy at critical locations. The Union army was better fed and better equipped. Part of the Union’ army strategy was to attack and divide the Confederacy into non-supporting and isolated zones by cutting water and existing rail transportation lines.

Large military forces were the worst danger to railroads. Armies without supplies cannot operate for long, so armies stayed close to railroad tracks in order to secure them.

The Civil War was the first major military action in which railroads were an effective tool, but were at times undermined. When the progressive leaders began to utilize the rails for transport of troops, supplies, wounded, and other impediments of warfare, the advantages soon became apparent. As a result the rail lines became military targets of prime importance and the tide of battle was often turned by the ability of the railroads to rush up reinforcements and keep up a steady flow of ammunition, rations, and forage. The Confederate Government’s defeat was due, in large measure to the lack of a concentrated authority to seize and operate the railroads in the South.