By the end of the American Civil War the Southern railroad system was all but destroyed. Where there was once 9,500 miles of track very little of it remained undamaged. Locomotives and rail cars were either captured or destroyed by the Union Army.
The Southern rail system began to deteriorate from the very beginning of the war. Most Southerners were more interested in agrarian pursuits and many of the skilled workers that were needed to maintain and run the railroads were from the North.
The skilled railroad men began to return to the North once the war began. Those who remained were overwhelmed by the maintenance and construction that was necessary during wartime.
The Southern railroads were not a system per se but a series of unconnected lines that ran from ports to inland destinations. They were seen as transportation of primarily cotton to ports for export to the North and Europe. This lack of inter-railway connections caused many railroads to become useless once the Union blockade was in place. A look at the map shows how the various rail lines were disconnected.
Another deficiency of the Southern railroads was a a break of gauge. Much of the Confederate rail network was in the broad gauge format. However, much of North Carolina and Virginia had standard gauge lines. Southern railroads west of the Mississippi were isolated, disconnected, and differed widely in gauge.
Most of the Southern locomotives had been imported from England. When the Union blockade began the steady strangling of Southern trade spare parts became hard to come by. Tracks and locomotives began to wear out. By 1863 a quarter of the South’s locomotives needed repairs and the speed of train travel in the South had dropped to only 10 miles an hour (from 25 miles an hour in 1861).
Replacement track and crossties became a problem. The South had very few steel miles that made track. The railroads resorted to tearing up track and crossties on less important lines as replacements on their key lines. The line from Nashville to Chattanooga had 1,200 broken rails in 1862 alone.
Most Southern locomotives used wood as fuel. As the Confederate army took more and more men into its service the rail lines were hard pressed to provide wood for their trains. Crews sometimes found it necessary to stop their trains and chop their own wood.
Accidents also wrecked a lot of equipment. Because telegraph communication was sporadic at best, railroad crews were often unaware of broken rails and collapsed bridges. Cattle on the tracks caused accidents, sparks from the locomotives’ woodfires burned cars, and boilers exploded.
In the last year before the end of the war, the Confederate railroad system was always on the verge of collapse. The impressment policy of quartermasters ran the rails ragged. Feeder lines would be scrapped for replacement steel for trunk lines, and the continual use of rolling stock wore them down faster than they could be replaced.
Finally, the Union armies became quite proficient at destroying the Southern railroads. A Union Army division could destroy miles of track in a single day. Even though the Confederates repaired the track when they could the constant destruction gradually destroyed the effectiveness of the lines. In areas where the Union Army advanced the Confederates applied a scorched-earth policy by destroying their own lines and equipment.
The Union Army targeted the main rail junctions of the South in order to destroy the effectiveness of the railroads. Rail junctions in cities like Nashville, Chattanooga, Corinth and Atlanta were either captured or destroyed.
Union troops would often have to rebuild an entire line from scratch for it to be usable. Due to the vagaries of the war, some lines would be rebuilt 6 or 7 times by differing sides, especially in states like Virginia, where fighting was most intense.