Railroads in the Civil War

  1863 Union Locomotive
This year the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will be commemorated with ceremonies and reenactments of battles. Though tactics on the field influenced the outcome of the war, the way in which both sides chose to use the new technology of the railroads in the 1860s was equally important. 

The Confederacy had some disadvantages over the Union in using the railroads to transport men and supplies. They had only 9,500 miles of railroad versus the Union’s 21,000 miles. Yet at the beginning of the war some Confederate generals did use this new technology successfully. At the Battle of Bull Run, Confederate forces won in part because the troops had been sent by train to the battle and were consequently well rested. In contrast, Union forces were tired from marching in the Virginia heat before the fighting started.

Over the next couple of years, the Union took action and began to utilize its railroads more effectively. The United States Military Railroad was created in 1862, and Congress gave the government the authority to take over the railroads for war purposes. The USMR included career railroaders, soldiers, and other workers. They were taught to operate, repair and build railroads. The Confederacy did not organize a similar force. Unlike the Union, the Confederate government opposed taking over the privately owned railroads. Their lack of an organized rail system had important consequences.

The consequences became clear in 1863 when Union forces were nearly wiped out at the Battle of Chickamauga (northern Georgia) and were pushed back to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Two weeks later, the Union moved 25,000 soldiers to support the remaining Union forces and grabbed a victory at Chattanooga.

The Confederacy also lacked mechanics that were skilled in rebuilding railroads and repairing railroad parts, so when Union forces sabotaged Southern rail lines it was difficult for them to rebuild. Southern forces wrecked Northern rail lines, too but the Union had more manpower to rebuild them. General Sherman took advantage of the Confederacy’s lack of manpower on his way to capturing Atlanta. His soldiers pulled up rails, heated them so they would bend, and wrapped them around tree trunks to make what were called Sherman’s Neckties.

General Grant also used the Union railroads to supply his army when he attempted to capture the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. Though he had to move a little further South, Grant managed to surround Confederate General Lee’s forces, which eventually surrendered in 1865.     

 (Pictured: Union locomotive, 1863)

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