Railroads During Reconstruction-Rebuilding The South

Railroads were important during the Reconstruction of the south, as they served as a vital transportation link between the rebuilding states, and served as a lifeline for many throughout the southern portion of the country.

The railroads throughout the south were initially built to transport cotton, tobacco, and other agricultural products from the south’s fertile farmlands, to vital ports along the Atlantic seaboard. Thus, the railroads were unprepared for the onset of war, as their system was not built to handle the immense amount of traffic it would bring. Thus, the railroads took a toll throughout 1861-65, as record breaking traffic numbers were accumulated on the worn out railroads. This, in conjunction with a lack of supplies and capital for maintenance and other factors, led to inefficient, incident ridden service.

After the battles of the civil war had ceased, the south was left in shambles. Entire towns were diminished to dirt, and formerly fruitful farmlands were tarnished. Railroads, which were the most economical and modern form of transportation, were ruined by opposing forces, with the intention to sever their most important communication and shipping network.

Georgia had the most expansive rail network, as it was the second largest southern state prior to the creation of West Virginia. Its rail network was vital to the shipment of crops from agricultural centers to thriving ports such as Savannah. However, after the war, the state’s railroad were in such disrepair, that passengers were told to expect derailments and other incidents. In John F. Stover’s book “Railroad History”, a passenger is quoted having seen a sign inside a coach on the Georgia Railroad that read;

Passengers are positively forbidden to ride upon the tops or platforms of cars. From the defective condition of the track the cars are likely to run off, in which case the danger to passengers is increased in such a position.


In particular, Georgia’s Railroads experienced the brunt of the exchanges between the two armies, especially during Sherman’s “March to the Sea”. In this particular event that occurred just months prior to the end of the war, Union general, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Union army moved north from Atlanta, which was recently captured, in order to occupy the vital port city of Savannah. However, Sherman and his army destroyed everything in their path, including the state’s many railroads, leaving them irreparable by heating the rail and wrapping it around trees, which later became known as “Sherman’s Bow ties”.

The commencement of the Civil War greatly hindered the railroad’s efficiency, as its was difficult to maintain locomotives and rolling stock due to lack of resources due to the Atlantic and Gulf Ports being blocked by the Union. However, even under these conditions, railroad traffic increased due to the transport of men and supplies. According to NCpedia, railroads in North Carolina prior to the commencement of the war carried 90,000 annual riders, compared to 506,000 between 1864-65, an exponentially steep increase.

However, the railroad was unprepared to accommodate this increase in traffic, and quickly became run down. According to battlefields.org, many railroad employees were relegated to military service, leaving the railroads without many engineers, conductors, brakemen, and maintenance workers. This led to railroads being unable to provide enough wood for the locomotives, resulting in railroads stopping trains, and utilizing surrounding trees for wood fuel.

Battles over vital railroad centers were waged in various towns such as Richmond and Chattanooga, as these centers were important hubs for both the union and confederacy. This led to the railroads closest to these centers to be on the front lines, especially the Orange and Alexandria, Manassas Gap, Richmond and York River, and the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Interestingly, many railroads throughout the south were constantly being rebuilt after destruction, either by battle or sabotage by opposing forces.

Furthermore, derailments and other incidents were prevalent due to the lack of regulation of the southern railroads. Communication was abysmal during the civil war, oftentimes due to opponents severing telegraph lines. This led to many accidents such as derailments due to broken rail, dilapidated bridges, and other obstructions. Additionally, locomotives oftentimes experienced fires due to sparks from the firebox and boiler explosions due to lackluster maintenance system.

Due to a lack of resources vital to an operating railroad, track items such as rails, spikes, and cross ties were taken from lesser used branches and implemented on more vital lines in order to stay in operation. However, over time the entire confederate railroad system was practically unusable, as rotten ties and broken rails became prevalent. According to battlefields.org, the railroad stretching across Tennessee between Nashville and Chattanooga experienced an astonishing 1,200 broken rails in 1862.

Reconstruction Begins 1865-1877

The Reconstruction era, spanning 1865-1877, was a twelve year period of rebuilding the nation, primarily the south, after the Civil War. The union victory emancipated more than 4 million slaves, and restored the southern states loyalty to the Union. Prior to his death, President Lincoln had announced his plan for equality of all southerners, and implied the importance of the federal government to intervene. Although, his successor, Andrew Johnson did not look favorably towards Lincoln’s ideals, and highlighted his strong view of the right of individual states to self-govern.

Many northerners vehemently disagreed with Johnson’s decision, which led to much turmoil in Washington. This controversy led to the Civil Rights Act in 1868, and the republican party to take command of reconstruction. Republican led reconstruction, coined “radical reconstruction”, was a progressive movement, allowing political and economical equality, furthermore, various types of aid was given to various enterprises such as railroads.

Rebuilding the south would require the construction of a vast railroad network, allowing supplies to be transported across the southern states. However, in addition to the current dilapidated state the railroads were in, the lack of a standard gauge across the entire network hindered efficient transport of goods. In the south, rail gauges, which is the length between the rails, varied greatly from 4 ft to 6 ft. Furthermore, the railroads were rather short, as few railroads stretched more than 100 miles in length. This inefficient system caused passengers and freight to disembark one train, and board another, exponentially increasing travel times and speed.

The solution was to rebuild the entire southern railroad network, deciding on a “standard gauge” of 4 ft 8 1/2 in. Standardizing the railroad network allowed for quicker transshipment of goods, and saved exponential amounts of capital, which was sparse during this arduous time. Prior to the rehabilitation of the railroads, the south was in a state of recession, as many were struggling financially due to the lack of fertile farmland ruined during the war, and the few opportunities to find work.

The rehabilitation and expansion of railroads in the south gave rise to various new opportunities for employment. Therefore, industries such as steel, lumber, iron, and coal became imperative, as these goods were vital to the railroad’s operation. Due to the implementation of an efficient railroad system, industrial and agricultural industries began to prosper, furthering the employment of southerners. Because of the establishment of a reliable, efficient railroad, the economy began to boom, reconstruction was well underway.

However, these employment booms were oftentimes temporary, as many railroads filed for bankruptcy throughout reconstruction due to recessions. Because of the unstable economy, many railroads began consolidating, leading northern railroads to create various holding companies in order to have access to vital centers of commerce in the south. Although, due to the economic depression known as the “Panic of 1873”, many of these northern holding companies went bankrupt. The panic of 1873 caused such an economic downturn, that prior to 1930, it was known as the Great Depression.

Throughout reconstruction, many investors and businessmen from the north, coined “carpetbaggers”, looked towards the southern railroads as a way to line their pockets. One prominent carpetbagger, Milton S. Littlefield, took advantage of the dilapidated state of North Carolina’s railroads, after the federal government loaned the state’s railroads $18 million to rebuild and increase capacity. Littlefield pocketed various amounts of the state’s money through corrupt and exploitative means, and had little interest in the south’s rebuilding process.

Although corruption and fraud was commonplace, reconstruction was successful in rebuilding the south’s railroad’s, as North Carolina expanded from 984 miles to 1,356 miles of railroad by the year 1875. After the reconstruction years, the south’s railroad network continued to grow. Railroad companies became larger due to various consolidations, covering record route miles, while introducing some of the most notable railroads, including the Southern Railway, with its sprawling network between Washington D.C.-Atlanta, Georgia in 1894.


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