By the beginning of the American Civil War railroads interlaced most of the United States east of the Mississippi. By 1850 over 9,000 miles of rail had been laid and railroads had become a significant factor in American transportation. They had begun to replace canals and wagons for the movement of goods and travelers around the nation.
There were more than two hundred railroads in existence at the start of the war. The majority of rail lines were found in those states which remained loyal to the Union government. Most of these rails were four feet eight and one-half inches apart. By contrast, the South had only about one-third the mileage in the North and the gauges of the rails varied widely. This meant that the North could transport more troops and material to more places with less transfers due to gauge differences than the South.
The South immediately realized the potential of railroads and used the rails it had to transport troops from one part not under attack to support fellow troops in a threatened area. The North was not so quick to learn this lesson.
War changed the American view of railroads. The swift movement of troops from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas allowed the Confederate Army to concentrate their forces and inflict a huge defeat on the Union Army in August 1861. The Union government began to realize the important of railroads when Maryland secessionists cut off Washington from the northern cities by blowing up the rail bridge between their state and Pennsylvania.
Once the high commands on both sides understood the importance of railroads to their respective war efforts they began to plan and execute many of their battle plans with rail in mind. General Robert E. Lee was able to shuttle troops around Virginia in an effort to overcome the Union’s manpower advantage. The Union high command likewise used railroads to move troops and material around the country in order to make the most efficient use of their manpower and material advantage.
Throughout the war the South was able to use railroads to move troops around the interior lines of defense in order to overcome their manpower advantage. In the Western Theater General Ulysses S. Grant understood the use of railroads and their importance to the ultimate Union victory. When he was appointed General-in-Chief his plan to attack on all fronts in coordination was the death knell of the Confederate’s shell game.
At the same time Grant ordered the organized destruction of Southern railroads in an attempt to choke the Southern economy to death and bring about the end of the war. General William T. Sherman became famous for his troops destruction of railroads. His men would heat the ripped-up rails and wrap them around trees and poles. These became known as ‘Sherman’s bowties’.
Entire Union Army divisions were employed in the destruction of rail lines throughout the South with as much as four miles of track being destroyed a day. The Confederates became just as adept at repairing the destruction and getting lines back in working order.
Over the next several posts we will look at the use and importance of railroads to both sides in the war.