Railroads: Lifelines of the Civil War | Southern Museum

The Famous General Locomotive

Civil War Railroads

Often described as the “iron horses” of the Civil War, railroads were vital to the war effort because of their contributions to troop movement, medical care, food, and supplies. There are a variety of photographs and artifacts in the exhibit “Railroads” that illustrate these critical roles played by both Union and Confederate railroads. You’ll also find items such as soldiers’ equipment, weapons, and clothing.

Railroads Served Different Needs During the Civil War

Railroads Served Different Needs

In 1880, the total U.S. railroad mileage was divided between 9,001 miles in the South and 21,625 in the North. In average length, cost of construction and traffic volume the lines and their 400 railroads varied even more.

In the North, where distances between stations were comparatively short, heavier and more durable rail construction facilitated the high volume of traffic. Low-traffic needs over easy terrain in the South corresponded to lighter rail construction – track was often laid directly on the ground with little grading.

Northern rail had evolved into a network extending in all directions and bridging the Mississippi River. Four trunk lines cut through the Alleghenies to connect the industrial East with the agricultural Midwest.

The Southern railroad system was built as a series of short lines with comparatively few physical connections. Two major lines ran southwest to northeast, but no Southern track crossed the Mississippi River. Texas and Florida had no rail links at all to the rest of the South.

Most rail lines were single track with sidings along the way to allow opposing trains to pass, thereby increasing a line’s capacity. Southern railroads had enough siding mileage to meet peacetime volume, but not the increased traffic load of war. Northern lines included frequent sidings, accommodating more trains and freight.

Differences in track gauge – the inside distance rails are set apart – plagued both sides, but the problem was more common in the South. Transportation was slowed considerably when cargo had to be unloaded from one train and hauled by horse-drawn cart to another.

Railroads Add A New Dimension to the Civil War

Railroads Add A New Dimension to the Civil War

Winchester, Virginia changed hands 52 times during the Civil War. The small Shenandoah Valley town received so much attention because it held a new kind of strategic prize: a railroad junction.

The American Civil War was history's first military conflict in which railroads played a significant role. Railroads provided convenient lines of advance, and major battles were fought at or near railroad junctions.

The ability of railroads to quickly move troops and supplies re-defined military strategy and logistics. A steam train could haul far more tons of freight than a mule train and do it five times faster, which provided armies with a high degree of mobility. Armies were able to operate farther from their supply bases as long as their rail lifelines remained secure.

As troop transports, railroads facilitated larger, more maneuverable armies. Soldiers traveling to the battlefront by train rather than on foot arrived in better physical condition, with fewer opportunities for straggling and desertion.

Reliance on rail transportation also meant that locomotives, rolling stock, track, and bridges became prime military targets. Capturing rail centers cut off the enemy's supply line and maneuverability, and hindered his capacity to fight. Manpower was diverted to guard critical routes and rebuild the roads when necessary.

In battle after battle, the advantage went to the side that could move men and supplies where and when needed -- mobility that depended on being able to control and manage railroads.

U.S. Military Railraods Take Charge

U.S. Military Railroads Take Charge

Herman Haupt fought Union officers almost as often as the Confederates did. As the head of construction and transportation for the U.S. Military Railroads, the one-time chief engineer of the Pennsylvania Railroad was dictatorial, obstinate -- and brilliant.

Congress created the USMRR in early 1862 as a central command for all war-related railroad activities. Under David McCallum, former general superintendent of the Erie Railroad, the agency was granted sweeping authority to seize and operate all railroads in the occupied South.

In April 1862, field operation of the USMRR was assigned to Haupt, a civil engineer by training, Haupt's take-charge style proved to be his greatest asset. He established and enforced strict operating rules:

  • Military officers were not allowed to interfere with the running of trains.
  • Supplies would be forwarded only as needed.
  • Upon arrival at their destinations, trains were to be unloaded immediately.
  • Trains were to run according to established schedules. Extra trains could be added if necessary.
  • Whre lack of sidings prevented opposing trains from passing, trains would travel in convoy, deliver their supplies and return before the next group started out.

Operational independence was key. Haupt and McCallum realized, as few generals did, that railroads had to be managed as a coordinated system if they were to provide their full value to the military effort.

After only 15 months on the job, Haupt resigned in September 1863 following a dispute with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But his groundwork left a permanent imprint on Union railroading.

1861: Victory Rides the Rails

1861: Victory Rides the Rails

On April 18, 1861, just a week after the Civil War began with the Confederate bombardment and occupation of Fort Sumter, Virginia's governor dispatched militia by rail to secure the arsenal and railroad yards at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. It was the first use of trains to move troops during the conflict, but it would be far from the last.

When General Robert E. Lee took command of Virginia forces on April 23, 1861, he quickly revealed his grasp of railroads' strategic value in the defense of Virginia. One of his first orders sent troops to secure the railroads at Suffolk and help block possible Union attempts to re-claim Norfolk by rail.

Lee positioned troops to guard one of the approaches to Richmond along the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and stationed soldiers at key points where railroads entered Alexandria. When the capture of Alexandria seemed imminent, Lee ordered temporary tracks laid across the city to move locomotives and rolling stock to safety at Manassas Junction.

He Also dispatched Col. Thomas J. Jackson to reinforce the militia at Harper's Ferry and moved additional troops to secure the rail junction at Manassas.

The concentration of strength at Manassas would lead to the first major battle of the war, fought July 21, 1861, near a creek named Bull Run. The Federal army might have carried the day had it not been for Confederate reinforcements arriving at the battlefield after crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Manassas Gap Railroad. The fresh troops included five regiments of a brigade commanded by Jackson, who on that day would earn his nickname "Stonewall" for his resolute stand against the Federal army.

1862: CSA Railroads Struggle

1862: CSA Railroads Struggle

By the second year of the war, the wrought-iron, lightweight Southern track was already showing signs of deterioration. In early 1862 Confederate officials estimated that almost 50,000 tons of new iron rail annually were required to maintain the existing track. The largest rail manufacturers, Tredegar Iron Works and the iron works at Atlanta, could only produce 20,000 tons a year combined, even if they were geared solely for rail production. Like most of the South's foundries and rolling mills, they were under contract with the government to produce ordnance exclusively. Mainline replacement rail could only be obtained by pulling up sidings and branches.

Cylinder castings, boiler iron, springs and wheels for locomotives and rolling stock were virtually impossible to obtain, and engines deteriorated from lack of maintenance.

Equally damaging was the opposition by both the government and the railroads themselves to a central regulatory authority. President Jefferson Davis, preferring voluntary agreements, named coordinators who devised plans to meet military priorities. In the absence of any real authority, their efforts were largely ignored.

Railroad and government officials met periodically to set rates for the transport of troops and military supplies. But the operation of the railroads remained at the discretion of their state and civilian owners. As a result, they often acted in their own interests, regardless of military needs.

When the Confederate Congress finally placed railroads under military control in 1865, it was too late.

Learn more about the Civil War and the roles the railroads led by visiting the Southern Museum today. Purchase tickets at the ticket office or save time by purchasing your tickets online.

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