Railroads in the Civil War

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved

The American Civil War saw many innovations in military warfare. One of the most significant was the use and strategic importance of railroads in moving troops and supplies to the armies. In 1860, the United States had 200 railroads and 30,000 miles of rail, with 21,000 in the North. In the under-industrialized South, the Confederacy had one-third of the freight cars, one-fifth of the locomotives, one-eighth of rail production, one-tenth of the telegraph stations, and one-twenty-fourth of locomotive production.

Two of the earliest examples of the importance of railroads occurred in the East. When President Lincoln called for volunteers to come to Washington City to defend the capital, Massachusetts troops came on trains and were attacked en route by a mob in Baltimore, whose mayor attempted to cut off rail access to Washington City. Lincoln quickly acted to protect the railroads through Maryland to the capital. Shortly after the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter, Confederates captured the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Then Thomas Jackson managed to transfer some of the much needed railroad equipment to the Shenandoah Valley.

The North moved quickly to take control of the railroads for military use. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had been president of the Illinois Central Railroad. On January 31, 1862, the U.S. Congress passed legislation authorizing Lincoln, as Commander in Chief, “to take possession of any and all railroad and telegraph lines in the United States.” Stanton then established the United States Military Railroads to control the private railroads in the North. Daniel Craig McCallum was appointed Superintendent. However, two other men played key roles. Thomas Scott, vice president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, was appointed Assistant Secretary of War to organize the militarized Railroad system. Herman Haupt, a railroad construction engineer, was appointed Chief Railroad Engineer. Haupt worked with George McClellan, formerly chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, on his 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Viewing one of Haupt’s bridge constructions, an amazed President Lincoln observed: “There is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks.” Haupt served only briefly before departing in a dispute with Stanton, but he made a great contribution in that time.

In contrast, the South had a system with different gauges and few resources to maintain the railroads. It had only one plant to repair rails from Union raids (such as Sherman’s famous “bowties” wrecked in his Atlanta Campaign). It didn’t take over the trains until 1865 in the waning months of the war.

Both sides engaged in regular raids aimed at destroying railroads supplying the armies. To counter this, before embarking on the Atlanta Campaign Sherman trained ten thousand troops in railroad repair.

Railroads played a key role in some of the most important events of the war, beginning with the Southern victory at First Bull Run. Protecting their railhead at Manassas, Virginia, P.G.T. Beauregard’s outnumbered force faced an attack by Irwin McDowell. Joseph Johnston’s army in the Shenandoah Valley arrived by rail in time to help defeat McDowell’s advance and establish Jackson as “Stonewall.” At Second Bull Run in 1862, Jackson would capture Manassas and destroy John Pope’s supply base there. That same summer in the West, Braxton Bragg’s 31,000-man army was moved by rail from Mississippi to defend the rail center of Chattanooga against the advance of Don Carlos Buell. Due to the Union capture of Corinth following the Battle of Shiloh, they had to take a circuitous route of 776 miles. Protection of his supply line through the Western and Atlantic Railway from Chattanooga to Atlanta was a primary concern of Joseph Johnston in his defense against William Tecumseh Sherman’s invasion in 1864.

Prior to that, Bragg achieved the South’s greatest victory in the West in September 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga. Key to that victory was the arrival from the army of Northern Virginia of James Longstreet’s Corps, arriving as the battle raged and leading to its breakthrough and rout of much of William Rosecrans’ army. Due to Ambrose Burnside’s capture of Knoxville, Longstreet’s 13,000 troops had to travel 950 miles via ten different railroads rather than directly from Richmond to the battlefield. As the Army of the Cumberland was besieged in Chattanooga, the Union responded with its own epic reinforcement by rail. Joe Hooker and two corps of 22,000 troops from the Army of the Potomac traveled 1,200 miles to reinforce the army, now commanded by Grant and Thomas. Hooker and his men would capture Lookout Mountain in the “Battle Above the Clouds” in the Union victory at Missionary Ridge routing Bragg’s army.

In Grant’s 1864-1865 Overland Campaign ending in the siege of Petersburg, the key goal to capture the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond was to deny Lee’s army its supply routes via four railroads. Cavalry raids and flanking operations failed to succeed until Phil Sheridan’s victory at Five Forks on March 29, 1865, which gave Grant’s army control of the Southside Railroad, Lee’s last remaining supply route, forcing him to abandon the defense of Richmond. This led Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet to flee south on the railroad, and Lee attempted to join Johnston in North Carolina relying on remaining railroad lines. His retreat and surrender ended at Appomattox Court House as Sheridan disrupted Lee’s attempted flight. Following the surrender of his army and that of Johnston to Sherman in North Carolina, many veterans of both sides would return home on the railroads.

Clearly, as these examples and others show, the railroads played a key role in many decisive events of the Civil War. With its end, the last train operated by the United States Military Railroad carried the body of assassinated Abraham Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois, retracing his railroad journey to the capital in 1861. Millions lined that route to pay their respects.

References (Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

George A. McLean Jr. A Railroad War. Essential Civil War Curriculum.

William G. Thomas. 2011. The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America.

George Edgar Turner. 1953. Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War.

James A. Ward. 1973. That Man Haupt: A Biography of Herman Haupt.