On the Railroad Tracks to the Western Theater

During the early autumn of 1863, three corps moved rapidly from Virginia to Tennessee via railroad. Confederate General James Longstreet the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia and joined General Braxton Bragg, arriving in time to fight at the battle of Chickamauga. The Union XI and XII Corps from the Army of the Potomac headed west, too, joining General Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland. Comparing the movement of thousands of troops into the Western Theater illustrates the transportation advantages and challenges and offered a foreshadowing for logistics in the remainder of the Civil War.

The Confederates planned and moved first. Finding the Union army commanded by General George G. Meade without much inclination for fighting during August and early September 1863, General Robert E. Lee agreed to send troops to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s army. The first proposed route for transportation involved the railroad lines from Virginia to Tennessee via Lynchburg, Bristol, Knoxville, and Chattanooga; Longstreet estimated the approximately 500-mile trip would take four days.[i] However, when Union troops with General Burnside headed for Knoxville, the transportation plans changed and doubled. Now, Longstreet’s soldiers would have to travel approximately 1,000 miles through Richmond, Wilmington, Augusta, Atlanta, and then toward Chattanooga. The longer route involved 10 different railroad companies and multiple sets of tracks.

During the antebellum years, constructed railroads in the southern states lacked network. The early railroad companies laid tracks that rain from inland to seaports—almost like rivers. This system worked well for transporting cotton and other cash crops from the interior to the coast. Eventually, railroad tracks connected some cities and communities, but not to the extent seen in the northern railroad network. The different railroad companies in the south built railroad tracks without standardization. The gauge (distance between the two rails forming the track) differed between railroad companies, meaning that for a continuous journey passengers had to disembark one company’s cars and transfer to another company’s cars because the cars did not “fit” on the tracks for a non-stop trip. While this would be inconvenient to civilian passengers, it created logistical problems for trying to move thousands of soldiers.

Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, commanding Longstreet’s artillery, later wrote:

“In those days the Southern railroads were but lightly built & equipped, &, now, for two years they had been cut off from all sorts of supplies of railroad material but what their own small shops could produce. Naturally, therefore, the movement of our corps, considered in the light of modern railroading, was very slow. Precedence was given to the infantry—or at least to Hood’s & McLaws’s divisions. After all of them had been dispatched, my [artillery] battalion started. Our guns were mounted upon flat cars, the officers & men in box cars, & the horses in stock cars. When the weather was good, many from the box cars would swarm out n the flats among the guns and caissons.”[ii]

The Confederates began their trip on September 9, and ten days later the vanguard pulled into Catoosa Platform, disembarked, and headed into the battle of Chickamauga. By September 25, the last of the transferring troops—the artillery units—arrived.[iii] The trip took the troops through welcoming communities, and even some of their hometowns. Morale seemed to be high, even with the frequent stops to disembark and re-board.

Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet’s Chief of Staff, summarized the movement:

“Pick up their camps near Gordonsville and the Rapidan, nine strong divisions of infantry and six batteries of artillery, and land them without serious accident and no delay with their ambulances and light vehicles near Chattanooga or Lookout Mountain. This feat was accomplished without stint of honor or praise, be it said, to the Quartermaster-General’s department. Never before were so many troops moved over such worn-out railways, none first-class from the beginning. Never before were such crazy cars—passenger, baggage, mail, coal, box, platform, all and every sort wobbling on the jumping strap-iron—used for hauling good soldiers. But we got there nevertheless.”[iv]

Following the battle of Chickamauga which ended in a Confederate victory, the Union’s Army of the Cumberland retreated into Chattanooga. The Confederate followed and settled into a siege situation. Union decision-makers became desperate to get more troops to Chattanooga to break the siege and reopen the supply lines. Sherman and his troops were heading east, but delayed repairing railroad tracks along his route.

On September 23, Secretaries Stanton, Seward, and Chase, General Halleck, and President Lincoln met in Washington City. There, Secretary of War Stanton pointed out that Sherman would not reach Rosecrans quickly and Burnside could not leave Knoxville without giving up the East Tennessee region. Stanton made a new suggestion: send more than 20,000 men from the Army of the Potomac in the east to Chattanooga in journey taking just 7 days.[v] Though skeptical, Lincoln agreed to the plan, and military railroad officers stepped in to begin clearing the route and setting up the time-tables. The XI Corps and XII Corps were going west, commanded by General Joseph Hooker.

Starting at 5pm on September 25, the troop trains started west from Washington City with a new locomotive and cars leaving every few hours. The soldiers left Culpeper, Virginia, by train and assembled in Washington. From Washington, they went to Baltimore, then west on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, crossed the Ohio River by ferry, then back on trains through Columbus (Ohio) to Indianapolis (Indiana) to Louisville (Kentucky) to Nashville (Tennessee) to Stevenson (Alabama) to Bridgeport (Tennessee).[vi]

It took a little longer than Staunton’s predicted 7 days. Eleven and a half days to move approximately 25,000 men, 10 artillery batteries, horses, and baggage from Virginia to Tennessee by a circuitous route of nearly 1,200 miles due to army positions.[vii] By creating “troop convoy trains” all moving in the same direction and pausing only for fuel or to make necessary transfers, the logistics officers proved the capability of the railroad in warfare.

As for the experience of the transferring soldiers, one disgruntled officer in the XI Corps complained that officers were “packed into a cattle car, still smelling of manure, and very poor accommodations were offered to the General and the other officers…. How we got the two Corps alive to Nashville in seven days it is difficult to explain, as our men were so crowded, had so little chance to obtain water or food, and, locked up in the cars, had neither fresh air enough nor even the ordinary necessities of life.”[viii] However, many of the common soldiers of the XI and XII Corps expressed enthusiasm to be leaving Virginia, and the railroad trip brightened many soldiers’ moods. They took basic rations with them, but found the local civilians willing to sell or give fruit and other treats. For example, a surgeon wrote:

“We are now only 40 miles from Columbus on the Ohio Central R.R. and emphatically in the land o grape, the finest & most luscious specimens of the catawba being offered to us at all the Depots at marvelously low prices. We pass round the hat for resources and our car is at present abundantly supplied with apples peaches and grapes. We have a large water pailful of the latter standing in the center of the car by the stove…The day is beautiful and the fruitful fields & comfortable dwellings and evidences of general prosperity are in pleasing contrast with the desolate regions we have but recently occupied. The farther we get from the blighted influences of the accursed system of slavery the most evident are the smiles of Providence on human industry.”[ix]

Between stations and communities with smiling civilians handing flowers, “little housekeeper bags, needlebooks, and bright flags” to the soldiers, the travelers found other means of entertainment within their ranks. Singing and storytelling passed the time, or the opportunity to play pranks.[x]

“In those railroad days the water tanks standing by the side of the track were manipulated by pulling a rope when the fireman whished to replenish his boiler. Through a desire for revenge on their comrades sheltered within the car and for mischief generally, the ‘roosters’ were not slow to discover an admirable plan to gratify their wishes by pulling the rope as the train passed a tank, and thus sending a six inch stream of water against the side and into the open doors of the cars. No record has been left as to the precise form of language used by those sitting opposite those doorways.”[xi]

Soggy pranks aside, the feat of transferring thousands of troops into the Western Theater during the autumn of 1863 raised the morale of the soldiers involved. They were leaving Virginia and seeking victory on new battle grounds. In the strategic situation, sending thousands of reinforcing soldiers to Tennessee shifted the balances from the waiting war in Virginia to active attempts in the west.

Both Confederate and Union successfully accomplished their troop transfers by railroad. Both plans were ambitious and well-executed. However, the Confederates used interior railroads which were already decaying from overuse and lack of supplies to keep them in running condition. The railroad lines that the Union used had been destroyed and repaired many times previously during the war, pointing to the industrial capabilities to keep their logistics lines open and operating. Supplies and industry did not guarantee a Union win in the Civil War, but it contributed to keep their armies in the field and able to move quickly to threatened points. Railroads were vital supply lines and transportation tools for both sides, but from 1863 forward it would become increasingly difficult for the Confederates to use and repair railroads while Union engineers kept their lines in consistently good condition.


[i] George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953), page 283.

[ii] Edward Porter Alexander, Fighting for the Confederacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), page 286.

[iii] George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953), page 286.

[iv] Moxley Sorrel, Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer (1905), accessed through Google Books. Page 189.

[v] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006) pages 557-559.

[vi] George Edgar Turner, Victory Rode the Rails: The Strategic Place of the Railroads in the Civil War (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953), page 289.

[vii] Ibid., page 293.

[viii] James S. Pula, Under the Crescent Moon with the XI Corps in the Civil War, Volume 2: From Gettysburg to Victory, 1863-1865, (El Dorado Hills: Savas Beatie, 2018), page 224.

[ix] Ibid., page 227.

[x] Ibid., page 228.

[xi] Ibid., page 227.

1 Response to On the Railroad Tracks to the Western Theater

  1. Sarah, a very helpful post. Although generally aware of the railroad’s importance in the Civil War, your post added interesting specifics on the transports of troops from Virginia to Tennessee/Georgia.

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