Railroads and the Civil War

22 05 2012

In the true spirit of the forthcoming holiday, we’d like to offer a look at the pivotal role of railroads in America’s Civil War. Helping to provide some background on this complex subject is Civil War and railroad historian Andrew Etman. Mr. Etman is a Custodial Guide at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg and guest curator of their current special exhibit, “Railroads in Pennsylvania During the Civil War” which runs through the end of this year. He also writes regularly for his Civil War blog, Strike the Tent, and has authored numerous book reviews. His first book, The 5th New York Calvary: A Regimental History of the First Ira Harris Guard, is currently being published.

Railroads in the Civil War

“The Civil War was a period in American history of unprecedented social and political upheaval. It also led to many technological advancements and changes. Inventors came up with machines, weapons, and tactics in an effort to find new ways to maim and destroy the human body, while at the same time forever changing the way that wars would be fought. Just as important to the war effort were the technologies that had not specifically been designed as weapons, like the railroad and the telegraph. Innovations to these technologies did not just alter the way people fought wars–they also changed the way people lived.

“Railroads played an important role in many major battles, but the main significance was in supplying the field armies. The difficulty of moving supplies beyond railway lines over land and water meant that battlefields were often determined by proximity to a rail line. Poor roads and the logistical problems associated with equine powered wagons greatly limited mobility for the armies. In an ironic twist, the first major battle of the war at Manassas (Bull Run) was a Confederate victory because of the use by CSA commanders of the rail hub at Manassas Junction to reinforce their army and repel a Union force that moved overland from Washington DC. After the shocking defeat, the Union army retreated to their supply bases in the nation’s capitol which could be easily supported by the northern rail network.

Lincoln Train

Although based on a single locomotive, Lionel’s Lincoln Funeral Train is typical of the size, type and style of locomotives on both sides of the battle lines during the Civil War.

“The limited industrial resources of the Confederacy placed an enormous physical strain upon the use of railroads during the Civil War, and also greatly strained the intellectual agility of the Confederate Army’s High Command. Unfortunately for the South, railway utilization created many issues.  The South had entered the war with a rail system that was not able to meet the demands of the first modern war.  The leadership of the Confederacy knew the importance of the railroad and its strategic operations early on in the conflict, but they were not willing to place a course of action that would best utilize the scarce assets available to them. By controlling, maintaining, and organizing its railway assets, the Union guaranteed that it would have the ability to move large numbers of troops efficiently at the levels needed from early 1862 to the end of the war. Because of these points, the Confederacy lost the ability to shift troops on the strategic level faster than the Union by 1863.

“When the war began, there were nearly 22,000 miles of railroad track in the North and barely 9,000 miles in the South, and the North possessed the bulk of the nation’s track and locomotive factories. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the nation’s largest producer of railroad cars and locomotives. The Baldwin Locomotive Works (near the corner of 19th and Hamilton streets, eventually becoming a sprawling factory complex spread over several blocks between Callowhill and Spring Garden Streets west of Broad Street) built nearly 500 engines during the war. William Sellers and Company (along Pennsylvania Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets) developed the turntable that enabled cars to be rotated efficiently, and the Asa Whitney & Sons Company (located by the Reading trench at Sixteenth and Callowhill Streets) led the nation in producing wheels for the cars. Additionally, tracks north of the Mason-Dixon Line tended to be of standard gauge, meaning that any train car could ride on any track. Southern tracks, in comparison, had not been standardized, so people and goods frequently had to switch cars as they traveled, which created an expensive and inefficient system.

The General

Undoubtedly one of the most famous trains of the Civil War, the General. It’s story is an exciting encapsulation of how important the trains really were to both sides.

“Conversely, the Confederate States did not have a single locomotive factory to speak of during the Civil War years. Several were founded and began producing locomotives during the 1840s and 1850s but were out of business, or had switched to other production by the 1860’s, including a subsidiary of Richmond’s famous Tredegar Iron Works, the Tredegar Locomotive Works. Tredegar also manufactured a giant rail-mounted siege cannon during the war. While the T.I.W.  itself survived until 1956, they produced locomotives only from 1851 to 1860, although some sources claim they continued locomotive production into the war years.

“Besides Tredegar, the Noble Brothers Foundry in Rome, Georgia was the first facility south of Richmond to produce locomotives, beginning in 1857.The company produced only a few locomotives, and their factory was destroyed by the army of William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864. The end result of limited locomotive production in the south was that their railroads became increasingly ineffective as their locomotives were destroyed, since they had no means of replacing them. It also meant that the remaining locomotives were often aged and outdated, and held together by any means possible.


Col. Haupt on his innovative bridge inspection pontoon. Photo: Library of Congress

“One of the greatest advantages that the Northern railroads enjoyed was a man named Herman Haupt , a brilliant railroad engineer appointed in April of 1862 by U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to assume duties as Military Director and Superintendent of the USMRR (United States Military Railroad). At the beginning of his appointment, Haupt was given the rank of Colonel, and assigned as an aide-de-camp to Major General Irvin McDowell

“Haupt shaped and built the USMRR the way he wanted, without interference from the upper command of the Union Army. He developed guidelines for using the railroads to provide supplies for the Army of the Potomac. During the fall of 1862, Haupt created a “laboratory” of sorts, where he experimented with methods of destroying and repairing railroads and rail bridges. He developed the “Haupt Torpedo” that could destroy a standard Howe Truss bridge, created a U-shaped device that could quickly and easily destroy rails by twisting them, and new and faster ways to lay and repair track.

Hanover Junction Bridge

The bridge at Hanover Junction shows both the ravages of war and the speed at which the infrastructure could be rebuilt. Photo: Library of Congress

“Haupt and his engineers created cutting edge designs for the building of bridges. Preassembled bridge trestles were mass-produced and then transported by rail to areas where repairs or replacement was necessary. The rebuilding of bridges and track after Confederate raids was a never-ending process, and Haupt became a master of getting the job done quickly and efficiently. He built a one-man pontoon boat, which he could paddle alone under bridges to inspect them for damage. Haupt also developed ambulance cars with surgeons and special equipment that increased the chances of survival for the wounded.

“The railroad was not a new invention, but used as a new strategic weapon, it enabled the Union to defeat the Confederacy and thus reunite two regions of one country under one flag. Without the contribution of the railroads and the men who served in the USMRR, the conflict would have been much different and exacted a much greater toll on this great nation, one we may not have recovered from to this day.”

Check out more of Andy’s work online or at the Museum and enjoy a little Civil War action on your model railroads as well. And most importantly, remember to remember this weekend.



One response

15 06 2012
railroad companies

The railroads was a vital contribution in the civil war. It was still important today.

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