Throughout the years leading up to the Civil War, the expansion of railroads was well underway. Stretching as far east as Chicago, the railroads began to transition the country into an economic superpower. However, the north and south had exponentially different railroads. The north had a complex system, where multiple railroads would serve various cities, most notably, Philadelphia and New York, which even then, were both economic powerhouses. The north put forth valiant effort to construct an efficient railroad network, which would prove valuable in wartime. The south however, viewed the railroads solely as a method of transporting cotton and tobacco, as encompassing a large railroad network was unappealing to the southern states.
The demographics of the Union and Confederacy were entirely different entities. The north, an industrialized economy, encompassed various prominent manufacturing centers and sprawling networks on railroads. The south, an agrarian society, focused on crops such as tobacco and cotton, however, lacked the vast industrialization of the north. These differences further divided the two parts of the country. Prior to the civil war, the railroads were largely undeveloped, as they had not been given a opportunity that solidified their strength and importance. As the war progressed, the opposing forces realized the various advantages the railroads could supply their regimes.
Interestingly, the railroads played a significant role in the division between the north and south, as railroads were a priority in the north, and were neglected in the south, furthermore, expanding the divide between the two regions. However, the lack of standardized rails in the south hindered the swift movement of troops and supplies, as various transfers to railroads of various gauges took place in order to reach a destination. This was exponentially time consuming, as oftentimes, there was a lengthy layover between trips, an extreme disadvantage especially when time was of the essence.
With the growing tension between the north and south, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise led to the inevitable onslaught of war. Upon the commencement of the civil war in 1861, the north encompassed a prevalent railroad network of 20,000 miles, compared to the south which had just 9,000 miles of track. The civil war is considered the first modern war, as railroads now carried ammunition and troops to battle, instead of on horseback or by sheer manpower. Supplies could now be transported quicker and more efficiently by the ironclad railcar, and be utilized to secure victory against the opposing force.
Railroads played a pivotal role throughout the course of the Civil War. The railroad network on both sides of the aggression proved their worth, transporting troops and artillery to the battleground, however, quite ironically, the north was late to learn this tactic. In the first Battle of Bull Run, General McDowell and the Union army approached Manassas, Virginia, a significant confederate railroad entity. The south, led by General P.G.T. Beauregard aimed to encounter the union forces prior to Manassas. Traveling by rail, Generals Stonewall Jackson, Joseph Johnson and their cavalries arrived at the Battlefield from the Shenandoah Valley. The two forces met at Richmond, Virginia, the capitol of the confederate states, and the south emerged victorious due to the rapid transfer of troops via rail.
This led the north to conclude that the south’s utilization of their railroads gave them a significant advantage, as troops and supplies could be transported to the battlefield far quicker than by horseback. The north learned from their shortcomings at Bull Run, and began utilizing their sprawling railroad network to their advantage.
One of the most advantageous aspects of the railroads during the Civil War was the implementation of the U.S. Military Railroad’s Construction Corps (USMRR). The USMRR was the answer to the northern railroads lack of interest in the war effort, as the railroads were concerned more with shipping rates and their own profits, as opposed to the good of the Union. Thus, President Lincoln implemented the USMRR, which assumed the authority to seize any railroad and assume operation if they failed to respond to the war effort.
The USMRR took control of only a few Union railroads, and the remainder agreed to put forth the needs of the Union. Most importantly, the USMRR operated confederate railroads seized by the Union, furthering their advantageous rail network. Furthermore, the railroads provided for additional options for the transfer of troops and ammunition to the battlefield.
The union’s railroads were renowned for the many feats of the USMRR, led by renowned engineer Herman Haupt. The swift actions of the USMRR prevailed in 1863, when the Union ordered the transfer of troops to Cumberland to relieve the union army that had been defeated by the Confederate brigade at the Battle of Chickamauga. The Union army, led by William Rosecran, had pushed back to Chattanooga, which was occupied by various Confederate camps.
The Union sought to send additional troops to Chattanooga to relieve Rosecran’s troops, however, it was estimated that this move would take over a month to complete, as 25,000 troops had to be transferred south. However, after consultation with USMRR engineer Daniel McCallum, he predicted that by rail, the move could be completed in just seven days. After the plans were solidified, it was decided that the Army of the Potomac would be transferred westward towards Bridgeport, Alabama.
The move took the combined efforts of nine railroads to complete. Beginning in Bealeton, Virginia, the USMRR owned, Orange and Alexandria Railroad operated to Washington D.C., where the Baltimore & Ohio commanded the movement until reaching Benwood, West Virginia. After reaching Benwood, the troops faced one of the many shortcomings of railroads in the 19th century, lack of connections and contradicting gauges, and the troops had to cross the Ohio River by foot via a pontoon bridge.
After the river crossing, the troops then continued on the Central Ohio Railroad from Bellaire, Ohio, to Columbus. The trek to Indianapolis consisted of the usage of three railroads, including the Columbus and Xenia Railroad, Little Miami Railroad, and the Indiana Central Railroad. Upon reaching Indianapolis, the troops boarded the Jefferson Railroad until reaching the Ohio River, which was crossed once again by foot. Once across the Ohio River, the troops boarded the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which transported the troops to Nashville. Finally, once at Nashville, the troops utilized the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad for the final sprint to Bridgeport.
Upon the arrival of the troops at Bridgeport, the railroad had moved 25,000 troops over 1,200 miles in just twelve days. This feat further solidified the importance the railroad would play in the war, and how the war would be fought. In addition to the transportation of troops, railroads played a significant role in the logistical operations of the war effort. Generals could utilize locomotives to spy on enemy troops, as the locomotives could operate quickly, and have the ability to retreat swiftly if necessary.
Throughout the war, enemies would oftentimes disable telegraph lines, either hindering or eliminating the prospect of communication. However, trains could transport vital intelligence information in the event communication is stricken by the enemy. Although, even by locomotive, entering enemy territory could be a risky venture.
Even more risky, armies would occasionally utilize trains to burn enemy bridges, and attack enemy camps by setting a railcar containing explosives aflame, and utilizing the locomotives to damage enemy trains or weapons. According to History Net, there was one instance where confederate soldiers retreated when seeing a burning train carrying ammunition heading straight towards them. This was an effective means of dispersing enemy troops, as the army did not have to send their own troops to fend away the enemy. Armies would also send trains to distract the enemy forces, as decoy trains would be sent to enemy territory, causing them to fire rounds at the train, therefore, pinpointing the location of the enemy army.
Furthering the utilization of trains on the battlefield was the implementation of artillery being placed on flat cars. The artillery was transported on a flat car to the battlefield, which was exponentially more effective than horse haulage. This heavy artillery would be operated entirely from the rails. The artillery would then recoil, spanning the length of the car in its entirety. Similar to how shields protected the men, shields constructed from fortified iron and wood were placed on the car, oftentimes at a 45 degree angle to defend against enemy attacks.
In addition to the railcar artillery located directly on the battlefield, various rail bound artillery was utilized from a safe distance, as they were equipped with superior range. These types were oftentimes utilized on the move, as they could strike anywhere the railroad would take them. Because they were operated from a distance, these types of artillery lacked protective materials.
Although railroads played a vital role in the war, various setbacks plagued both armies. Derailments were prevalent, and the rails required constant maintenance and repair. Furthermore, locomotives were often the target of attack, as sharpshooters would oftentimes aim for the boilers, which would cause an explosion, or the cab. This caused various locomotives to be equipped with shields and other armor for protection. Furthermore, windows would be reduced to minute size and circular in shape in order to avoid shots being fired at them.
Although these efforts to protect locomotives were efficient, the additional armor in the cab plagued the crew in the event of a fire on other disaster, as the extra metal plates made for excruciating temperatures. This led to various crews jumping from the locomotives in the event of a derailment.
Another issue that plagued the utilization of railroads was the continual rehabilitation of railroad lines throughout the war. Enemies constantly damaged track to the extent of disabling railroad operations until the lines were rebuilt. This was prevalent throughout the entire course of the war, and proved to be a lucrative tactic to delay the enemy. The crews contracted to repair the rail lines were often sent with members of the cavalry, who rode upon armored locomotives and rolling stock.
Armed trains were an additional tactic utilized, as oftentimes the train consist would include the locomotive in the center of the consist, boxcars, and flat cars with soldiers stationed on either end. These trains had many uses, as they traveled the railroad, ensuring the right of way was not being tampered by the enemy, were utilized to locate enemy camps, and traveled in tandem with trains carrying aid to troops, in case of an enemy attack.
As the war progressed and artillery became increasingly more aggressive, the efficiency of ironclad railcars was prevalent. The efficiency of ironclad became commonplace after the maritime battle of war vessels, Monitor and Merrimack, of which, both were equipped with iron plates on their sides, which effectively deflected attacks, therefore, protecting the ships from damage.
Coined “railroad Monitors” after the maritime vessel, the ironclad Monitor cars were equipped with various artillery. The heavy artillery was placed atop the railcar, which both increased range and allowed for 360 degree protection from assailants. Inside the railroad monitors was an extremely dangerous environment, as many men fired powerful weapons from a confined space. As the utilization of railroad monitors became more widespread, they continued to adapt to various forms of battle. Additionally, variations of the armed trains began to utilize ironclad railcars on the ends, as opposed to the flatcars utilized previously. Furthermore, an additional type of railcar carried armored walls on its interior, with multiple apertures on either side, offering the ability to fire rifles from a wide variety of areas.
Attacks against the opposing forces railroads were prevalent during the war, as torpedoes and other weapons were hidden in the ballast beneath cross ties, which would detonate under the weight of a locomotive, resulting in a derailment. To prevent these attacks, usually conducted against the Union, locomotives would be sent to survey the line in case a weapon was planted, in order to detonate the weapons before armed trains and other traffic passed through.
Although the railroads were prospering prior to the war, the importance of the railroads both during, and after the war were duly recognized. In a sense, the utilization of the railroads during the Civil War solidified their importance in the American landscape. Furthermore, the implementation of armored trains set the precedent for future military vehicles such as armored tanks and trucks. Railroads would continue to be prevalent in daily life, as a few short years after the war, the transcontinental railroad was completed, linking both coasts, and therefore, connecting the nation.