The Union Army and the Railroads

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series The Organization of the Armies

Orange & Alexandria Railroad yard in Alexandria, VirginiaOne of the most overlooked yet important areas of the Union Army’s war effort was the use of military railroads. For the first time in history, railroads played a significant role in the fighting.

The campaign strategy very often was based on the availability and capacity of military roads. The construction, maintenance and defense of vital military rail lines involved large numbers of men and equipment. The railroads carried an ever-increasing load of troops and supplies, speeding their movement across the country from supply depots to the battlefield.

General William T. Sherman credited the 473 mile single-track railroad with his victory at Atlanta. The line carried supplies for 100,000 men and 35,000 horses for 196 days as Sherman’s forces moved towards Atlanta. The whole series of battles around Atlanta centered around rail lines and railroad depots.

The Siege of Petersburg in 1864-1865 was dictated by the Union threat to cut off the Confederate rail lines from the southwest and the southeast. The loss of the rail line from the besieged city to its main supply centers would have forced the Confederates to abandon Petersburg and Richmond to the Union Army.

By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads in the United States had grown to be the major mover of people and freight across the ever-expanding country. The northern states had 21,000 miles of track at the start of the war while the South had about 9,000 miles. Not all of the rail systems were interconnected.

Most of the locomotives, rolling stock and the very rails themselves emanated from northern factories. Once this source of supply was cut off, the southern rail lines began to deteriorate. Relentless attacks by Federal troops contributed to this deterioration. With the maintenance issues that the South faced, the Confederate authorities were forced to schedule fewer trains and run the ones that they did schedule at increasingly low speeds. Fortified railroad bridge across the Cumberland River

Many of the men who held positions of authority in the Union government had been railroaders before the war. Secretary of War Simon Cameron and General George B. McClellan were two such people. President Abraham Lincoln was the legal counsel for the Illinois Central Railroad from 1853 until 1860. As such, they understood how the railroad worked and its importance to the war effort.

However poor the railroads in the South became, they did allow the Confederates tve troops from one embattled area to another throughout the war. General James Longstreet’s 18,000-man First Corps was moved from Virginia to Chickamauga in Georgia in time to be a decisive factor in the fighting there.

The privately-owned railroads of the North had agreed on fixed rates at the start of the war to transport men and material. The government found that it was cheaper to transport 1,000 men 100 miles by railroad than marching them the same distance. Artillery batteries, cavalry and supply wagons all marched while infantry regiments and their supplies were driven to battle.

The War Department established the U.S. Military Railroads (USMRR) as a separate agency to operate any rail lines seized by the government during the American Civil War in February 1862. Congress passed a law that allowed the Federal government to seize all telegraph and rail lines for the war effort. In practice the only assets that were seized were in the South.

Starting with only 7 miles of track in Northern Virginia, the USMRR grew to become a network of more than 2,000 miles. The USMRR operated with more than 6,000 cars and 400 locomotives at the height of its existence.

The construction and maintenance of the rail lines was carried out by the Construction Corps of civilians. These corps had 24,000 well-paid The Dictator Mortarcivilians at the height of its strength. Their skills and speed in building were legendary. In one instance they built a 150 foot span with 30 foot elevations across a creek in 15 hours. The Chattahoochee bridge span that was 800 feet long and nearly 100 feet high was rebuilt in 4 1/2 days.

The Confederates were also adept at repairing rail lines that were being destroyed by Union forces. There are many instances where Confederate construction gangs repaired miles of destroyed track in mere days.

Union railroad raiders began to practice methods of destruction that prevented the use of railroads until new track and ties could be procured. The Union raiders methodically removed the railroad tracks and wooden ties. The wooden ties were stacked and the track was laid on top. The ties were set on fire and after the track became soft the Union raiders bent them around trees and poles. Sherman’s troops took to calling them “Sherman’s bow ties” among other names.

The railroads were also responsible for carrying tens of thousands of wounded men from the battlefield for rear-echelon hospitals. In fact, Gordonsville and Charlottesville in Virginia’s Piedmont became “hospital” towns because they were on main rail lines.

The Union Army began to create purpose-built rail cars early in the war. An armored car patrolled the Philadelphia and Baltimore Central Railroad. The Confederates mounted a field gun on a flatbed rail car to shell the enemy at the Battle of Seven Pines in mid-1862. General Grant used an armored car during the Siege of Petersburg. A 13-inch mortar was mounted on a flatbed rail car during the siege.

Railroads became one more modern weapon that both sides used during the American Civil War. Their extensive use recognized that modern warfare was as much about logistics as it was about fighting.




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