Railroads – McClellan’s Steam Strategy: Trains and Ships in the Civil War

Nashville Depot

“It cannot be ignored that the construction of railroads has introduced a new and very important element into war,” wrote Major General George B. McClellan in a “Memorandum for the Consideration of His Excellency the President, submitted at his request,” August 2, 1861.[1]

After the Bull Run debacle, the commander-in-chief wished to know how his new army commander envisioned a winning strategy. The “Young Napoleon” opposed Lieutenant General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”—a tight navy blockade of Southern ports accompanied by a methodical army advance down the Mississippi River—as too slow.

George B. McClellan

McClellan advised the president to apply “overwhelming physical force” to “crush the rebellion at one blow, terminate the war in one campaign.” The main thrust should be against Rebel forces in Virginia. However, it also would be necessary to “diminish the resistance there offered us, by movements on other points, both by land and water.”[2]

McClellan—an ardent student of military strategy—was well schooled in the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon, especially as explained by renowned theorist Baron Henri Jomini. The true object of war was to overcome the enemy through skillful maneuver with maximum economy. But since 1815, rapid technological advances including artillery firepower, telegraph, and steam transformed the strategic calculus.

Confederate railroads—even if fragmented, poorly integrated, and materially dependent on external sources—represented the third largest number of railroad miles in the world after only the Northern states and Great Britain. The Southern states also were bounded by thousands of miles of vulnerable coastline and pierced by mighty river highways. These transportation networks were readily accessible by revolutionary steam vehicles of both sides.

McClellan’s experiences as a railroad engineer and his campaigns in western Virginia demonstrated the potential as well as vulnerabilities of rail transportation. He warned Lincoln that Confederates could rapidly move masses of troops and heavy equipment along interior lines through rugged, sparsely settled regions creating new strategic points and vectors of advance.

The general desired to mitigate this difficulty with robust supporting operations. Junctions and depots became strategic targets. “We must endeavor to seize places on the railways in the rear of the enemy’s points of concentration….”[3]

Two primary rail networks could move and supply Confederate armies in the field: lines running generally east and west between the coast and the Mississippi Valley and those extending north and south along the eastern seaboard.

Railroad_of_ConfederacyThe former included roads from Memphis through Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Augusta to Charleston with a parallel but incomplete route from Vicksburg through Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, and Macon to Savannah. Cross lines joined these main roads with each other, with New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola on the Gulf Coast, and with Columbus and Nashville to the north.

The main eastern lines connected coast cities and ports: Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Beaufort, Raleigh, Norfolk, Petersburg, and Richmond. Another strategically vital road was the Virginia and Tennessee running through the mountains from Chattanooga to Knoxville, Lynchburg, Danville, and Richmond.

Seizing and holding as many of these routes and nodes as possible would paralyze Rebel lines of transportation, isolate the Virginia theater from enemy reinforcement and resupply, and force the foe to scatter its forces in defense, weakening their main army. To McClellan, such operations were intended primarily to support the forces directly under his command.

These thoughts resonated with Abraham Lincoln—an instinctive if untutored strategist—although the president favored simultaneous major advances at multiple points along the Confederate periphery taking advantage of the North’s preponderance in manpower and material. Only U. S. Grant would finally execute such a comprehensive strategy leading to victory.

In his memo to the president, McClellan specifically advocated a thrust down the Mississippi and driving the Rebels out of Missouri along with an advance from Kentucky into Eastern Tennessee, “for the purpose of assisting the Union men of that region, and of seizing the Railroads leading from Memphis to the East,” and ultimately to occupy Nashville. In addition, “It would be well to protect and reopen the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad” as soon as practicable. These “partial operations” would be augmented by “such others as the particular case may require.”[4]

Several Southern railroad hubs were accessible by water, so, “an essential feature of the plan of operations will be the employment of a strong naval force” to protect transport fleets convoying troops from point to point of the enemy’s seacoast, to capture seaboard towns, and to create additional diversions.[5]

As a young lieutenant of engineers with Winfield Scott, McClellan observed the amphibious landing at Vera Cruz and advance to Mexico City while General Zachary Taylor’s column wasted away in the northern deserts.

In 1855, he participated in a commission observing European armies during the Crimean War. England and France defeated Russia in that contest by flanking her land mass from the sea while employing the latest steam warships with powerful artillery.

This in stark contrast to Napoleon’s disastrous direct invasion through the heartland. These experiences impressed upon the young general the advantages of sea power. Large scale amphibious operations and reduction of powerful shore fortifications became increasingly feasible with the new technology.

Consistent with this strategy, McClellan approved a proposal by his good friend, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside, to form a “coast division” of 12,000 to 15,000 men supported by a fleet of light-draft vessels.

The “Burnside Expedition” took over the North Carolina sounds in the spring of 1862, capturing Roanoke Island, New Bern, and Beaufort in textbook amphibious operations. They threatened the State capital of Raleigh.

Battle of New Bern, NC

“A great point would be gained in any event,” McClellan had instructed Burnside, “by the effectual destruction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad,” the vital line north from Wilmington to Portsmouth and Petersburg often referred to as the “Lifeline of the Confederacy.”

If the expedition continued, the next point of strategic interest would be the blockade-running port of Wilmington itself.[6]

This was not the first Federal victory along the Rebel coast. The previous November, Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, fell to the Union Navy. Although the primary motivation had been to acquire a logistical base for blockading operations, Port Royal had strategic potential beyond that narrow purpose.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis recognized the threat from the sea, dispatching Robert E. Lee to consolidate scarce resources and improve defenses along that vulnerable coast.

Lee warned from Savannah in January 1862: “The forces of the enemy are accumulating, and apparently increase faster than ours.” Given maritime capabilities of rapid transportation and concentration, it would be impossible to oppose landings at all potential points of attack. The Union Navy’s heavy guns “sweep over the low banks of this country with irresistible force.” He could not mount a cordon defense.[7]

Lee fully expected Federals to move inland from Port Royal, seize the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, sever communications between those two vital cities, and envelop both by land and water. “This would be a difficult combination for us successfully to resist.” He improved fortifications and built up defenses in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. But the enemy did not follow up.[8]

This pattern repeated in North Carolina after the Burnside Expedition. Much to his sorrow, Burnside and most of his troops were ordered to the Peninsula on July 3 to reinforce McClellan’s failing campaign. North and South Carolina cities and railroads that connected them remained in Confederate hands while the attention of the Federal government, senior army and navy commanders, and the public focused elsewhere.

The potential for further combined army-navy operations against these susceptible transportation networks remained unexploited. Scant Rebel forces blocked Federal advances in both areas, holding open supply routes and keeping alive the Army of Northern Virginia for another two and a half years.

“Every mile we advance carries us further from our base of operations and renders detachments necessary to cover our communications; while the enemy will be constantly concentrating as he falls back,” McClellan predicted.

He proposed “not only to drive the enemy out of Virginia and occupy Richmond, but to occupy Charleston, Savannah, Montgomery, Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans; in other words to move into the heart of the enemy’s country, and crush out this rebellion in its very heart. By seizing and repairing the railroads as we advance, the difficulties of transportation will be materially diminished.”[9]

Unfortunately, George McClellan’s strategic perspective was not matched with operational performance. Nor was his view widely shared among military and civilian leadership, at least not comprehensively. However, as the war ground on, much of it necessarily progressed as he envisioned under clouds of steam along ribbons of steel and plowing thoroughfares of water.


Earl J. Hess, Civil War Logistics: A Study of Military Transportation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2017.

Rowena Reed, Combined Operations in the Civil War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1978), Introduction and Chapter 2, “The Army Takes the Initiative.”

[1] Geo B McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, August 2, 1861 in Stephen W. Sears, ed., The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1989), loc. 1591-1592 of 15668, Kindle.

[2] Ibid., loc. 1562-1565, 1615 of 15668, Kindle.

[3] Ibid., loc. 1594-1595, Kindle.

[4] Ibid., loc. 1567-1568, 1573, 1594, Kindle.

[5] Ibid., loc. 1587-1591, Kindle.

[6] Geo B McClellan to Ambrose E. Burnside, in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 128 vols. (Washington, DC, 1880-1901), Series 1, vol. 9, 352. Hereafter cited as OR.

[7] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Geo B McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, loc. 1617-1621, Kindle.

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