The Critical Role of Railroads in Influencing Military Strategy in the Civil War

ECW welcomes back guest author Lloyd W. Klein

One of the lessons of the Civil War, General William T Sherman wrote in his memoirs, was that the value of railroads became  “… fully recognized in war quite as much as, if not more so than, in peace.” Railroads were crucial strategic and tactical resources during the Civil War, serving as supply and transportation means for both sides. Soldiers, food and fodder, and armaments were transported by rail to keep the war effort progressing. Critical crossroads and segments of track became military targets because they were vital to transportation of manpower and material.  Supplies could be transported more quickly and efficiently by railcar than on horse-drawn wagons.

Sectional Differences in Ante Bellum Railroad Construction

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Junction along the banks of the Monocacy River.

At the start of the war, over two hundred railroads were in existence. Southern railway design concentrated on short lines linking cotton regions to oceanic or river ports. Few of the railroads in the south were more than 100 miles in length. An agrarian society, its rails were primarily intended as commercial lines linking individual agricultural centers to coastal ports for the sale and transportation of goods. The absence of an interconnected network was a major handicap during the Civil War.

The South had two disadvantages regarding railroads. First, it had only about one-third the mileage as the North. Secondly, the gauge, meaning the width between the two rails measured from the inner edges, varied among the various rail lines.  Much of the Confederate rail network was in the 5 ft broad gauge format, but most of North Carolina and Virginia had 4 ft 8 1?2 in. standard gauge lines. Some cities, for example Montgomery, Alabama, were served by two railroads with different gauges and different depots. Thus, cargo had to be unloaded from one railroad and moved by animal-powered transportation to the other company’s station, where it would be re-loaded. Southern railroads west of the Mississippi were isolated, disconnected, and differed widely in gauge. 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 time consuming, as oftentimes there was a lengthy layover between trips, an extreme disadvantage especially when time was of the essence.

In contrast, the North and Midwest constructed networks that linked cities to each other, because transporting people from one place to another was a major function. In the Midwestern region, more than 80 percent of farms were within 10 miles of a railway, facilitating the shipment of grain, hogs and cattle to national and international markets. Two-thirds of the rail miles and four-fifths of the manufacturing power of the nation were located in northern states. For every factory worker in the south, the north had the equivalent of one factory. Additionally, almost all of the northern rails were of the 4 ft 8 1/2 in. standard gauge. Consequently, the North could transport more troops and material to more places with fewer transfers due to gauge differences than the South.  However, in the North, the lines went primarily east-to-west with little interconnection south of New Jersey, which made travel and supplies to Baltimore, Washington and Virginia problematic at the start of the war.

Implications For Military Strategy

Because the railroads were such important transportation, supply and communications systems, they were highly vulnerable targets to cavalry raids behind the front lines. General Sherman said: “Railroads are the weakest things in war. A man with a match can destroy and cut off communications.”

In the South, travel was mainly confined to east-to-west in the East and north-to-south in the West. There were minimal interconnections between the various regions: the only east-to-west routes went through Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. It is no accident that important battles were fought in these cities; they were strategic locations because there were only very lengthy alternative railroad routes.  Conversely, the southern system did have its railroad lines placed well behind the battlegrounds in the early stages of the war. These interior lines were a huge advantage to the Confederate strategy of transporting critical manpower and supplies to where they were in immediate demand.

When Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to command all of the Union armies, he understood the advantage the South had in its interior lines of supply and the part railroads played in implementing the plan. As long as the Northern strategy involved uncoordinated attacks upon different regions, the rebels would be able to transport troops from one area to another to oppose Union advances. Grant’s strategy in 1864 was to apply pressure to all points of the South at the same time. By synchronizing his attacks in several theaters, the Confederates could not reinforce threatened zones by transporting soldiers from other areas.

 A Case Study: Harpers Ferry and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad

The destroyed railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry was a critical strategic point early in the war. It was the north-south crossroads from the Shenandoah Valley to Western Maryland, and the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. It contained a large arsenal and was a concentration for military manufacturers. These factors explain why it was a crucial military goal. Control of the town changed 8 times, remaining in Union control for most of the war.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal were crucial supply lines connecting the east with the west. These assets were central to the strategic importance of Harpers Ferry; Confederate control or destruction of the rail line stopped supplies from the east from being transported to the west, necessitating an alternate, more circuitous route..

Surrounded on three sides by steep heights, the terrain surrounding the town made it nearly impossible to defend; all one had to do was to take the heights and shell the town until it surrendered. Stonewall Jackson once said he would rather “take the place 40 times than undertake to defend it once.” Harpers Ferry was the object of many of General Jackson’s raids. During the Maryland campaign, he took the town and the Union garrison prisoner, delaying his arrival at Antietam until literally the last minute.

Political Implications

The northern railroads at the start of the war did not contribute as much as they should have to the Union war effort. Railroad executives were focused on the rates they could charge for transporting war supplies and the profits they would make. Once the war began, miles of track destroyed by Confederate raiders were left in a state of disrepair.  While food and ammunition sat in supply depots, railroad executives haggled with army officers over the price to transport materials necessary to supply the army.

Such corruption in the rail industry prompted the enactment of the Railways and Telegraph Act of January 31, 1862. This legislation enabled the President to take possession of railroads and run them as required to preserve public safety. The War Department supervised the railroads taken over by the government. Those railroads that were seized under this act were organized into the United States Military Railroad. Faced with this tough legislation, most railroad executives immediately agreed to aid in the Union war effort for fear of being seized. Profiteering and corruption immediately diminished and trains began to move in an expedient way.

When Southern territory was taken by Union troops, the railroads in the area were routinely impressed into the service of the US government. For example, for a short time during the invasion by the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in 1863, some Northern railroads were seized to efficiently counter the threat posed by General Lee.  Confederate raids on the Baltimore and Ohio destroyed tracks, and the line stopped running for a brief time. However, the North had sufficient industrial resources to rapidly restore operations, which brought important supplies and manpower in time to Gettysburg.

The Southern railroads remained independent of the Confederate government, which lacked statutory power to assume control. Accordingly, by the Fall 1863, maintenance had almost completely halted. Many of the railroad employees had joined the Union war efforts, and southern skilled workers were increasingly brought into military service. Another problem was that there were no spare parts to replace older equipment. Further, once the war began, the Union blockade stopped any supply of iron from Europe. By 1863 about ¼ of the South’s locomotives needed repairs.  This resulted in delays and slow travel times; the average train traffic speed was only 10 miles/hour, which was decreased from 25 miles/hour before the war. Moreover, locomotives ran on burning wood, which was not being replaced as the war continued. And of course, Union armies destroyed track and rails as part of their military strategy.


The railroads were a central strategic consideration in the Civil War. The flaws created by differential construction in the South was a fundamental influence on the conduct and outcome of the war.

Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco. He is a nationally recognized cardiologist with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise. He is also an amateur historian who has read extensively and published previously on the Civil War, with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications.


Further Reading:

  • William T Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman. Library of America, 1990.
  • Charles Royster, The Destructive War. Random House Value Publishing,1995
  • James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom. The Civil War Era. Oxford University Press, 1988.
  • “Confederate Railroads in the American Civil War”. Pipi Wiki.
  • How the Railroad Won the War. American Experience.,as%20the%20Confederacy’s%20rail%20hub%20and%20manufacturing%20center.

  • “Railroads in the Civil War”. Civil

  • George A McClean. “A Railroad War”. Essential Civil War Curriculum.

  • “Railroads During the Civil War.” World Wide Rails.

11 Responses to The Critical Role of Railroads in Influencing Military Strategy in the Civil War

  1. In 1862, at least, it was a days ride to go from Richmond to Raleigh, NC. Slow, slow.

    Jefferson Davis traveled mostly by rail in October 1863 to visit folks and leaders in the western theatre. He made it by rail as far as Brandon, MS 12 miles outside Jackson, MS before having to go by horse the rest of the way because the tracks were still torn up. On his way back by rail from Brandon their train was temporarily derailed by a cow the train hit on the tracks. He eventually made his way back to Richmond slowly, but safely.

    1. The destruction of track and the speed with which they were repaired was a crucial determinant of the outcome of the war. “Sherman’s neckties” were specifically designed to prevent the Confederates from having an easy time of this.

  2. In the book, “The Class of 1846,” by John C. Waugh, Jackson’s tactics leading to the capture and making off with B&O locomotives was detailed. He slowly constricted their operating hours and struck once Virginia seceded. He manually transported trains south through the Shenandoah valley on zero gauge with muscle and sinew power. Here was a man that appreciated the value of trains. In the book, “Fighting for the Confederacy,” by EP Alexander, he missed the 1863 battle of Chicamauga due to the change in gauge of trains, having had to care for the artillery while the troops travelled on. Later, in the book and in the war, he describes the sad condition of the rolling stock of the Confederacy. Yet it was his railroad bonds which provided him with means after the war, having invested nearly all into Confederate bonds.

  3. I am currently reading Kent Masterson Brown’s biography on Meade @ Gettysburg. He discussed the problems with rail connections to Baltimore and DC when Meade assumed command. The difficulties provide sobering insights into the importance of good railroads.

  4. “The Southern railroads remained independent of the Confederate government…”
    As we know, Herman Haupt, USMA Class of 1835, was given control of Federal Military railroads, called USMRR, following attempts by the North to consolidate and make more efficient the operation of railroads devoted primarily to military cargoes. A similar “centralized control” was attempted by the Confederate States, through the appointment of William Morrill Wadley as Superintendent of Railroad Transportation. But one of the serious obstacles to Southern railroads: 85 percent of new rail was imported from Britain; and the Federal Blockade effectively stopped those imports. The Confederacy resorted to cannibalization of lesser-used lines (an example, the Florida & Alabama R.R.) in order to keep important lines in operation. And safe operating speeds on Southern track became ever slower during the course of the war.
    Louisiana Railroad man Wadley bio:
    Thank you for introducing this little-considered, but extremely important topic.

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