Trains in the Civil War

By David Emer May 1999


          In most wars prior to the Civil War trains didnít play a big part in the outcome but in the Civil War they did. They were used for everything including fighting. Some of the important things trains did were bring soldiers, food and weapons to where they were needed. They used trains because they were faster and more reliable. Trains were new and a lot of the soldiers loved to be on trains for the first time. Still, even though they were amazing and helped, did they really win the war for the North? Read this to find out.

How railroads helped the North win the Civil War

Everybody needed railroads to bring food to the soldiers. They also needed them to bring weapons and uniforms. Both sides used trains as weapons. Trains were armed and the North had had boxcars that people shot from.

 The South had a big disadvantage about railroads compared to the North. One of the obvious disadvantages was that the North had 21,000 miles of track opposed to the South who had only 9,000 miles of track. Another disadvantage was that all the train cars and rails were made in the North or England, but most industrial things were not made in the South. Another mind-boggling detail is that a line in Pennsylvania that ran from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia had 220 locomotives, which were more locomotives than the whole state of Virginia had. The South used rivers a lot but the rivers flowed in a direction that was better for the North. General Lee noticed problems that the Confederacy had with trains and railroads. 

Still the Northern line was not perfect.  It was pretty fragile at parts and a lot of people did not trust railroads at that time. There also was a scandal going on at the beginning of the war with the U.S. railroads, which helped the Union military. It all started when Cameron was secretary of war; he was a railroad owner so he appointed other owners to important government positions. They did dishonest practices so that their lines would make profits. Obviously this is not the right way to run a government.

Because of what Cameron did Lincoln created an act called the Train and Telegraph Act. He did this on February 4, 1862. It was a forced contract between the private rail lines and the United States Government. It stated that if needed, the president could take over any private line at any time and take materials from it. There were no trains owned by the United States Military Railroad. They were just borrowed. The deal also helped any line if it was damaged by the Confederacy in the war.

After the Train and Telegraph act was made President Lincoln fired Cameron. His replacement was a man named Edwin Stanton. Stanton was a railroad lawyer before he got this job. Lincoln had also been a railroad lawyer, for Illinois Central. Then there was more appointing going on. Stanton appointed Daniel McCallum to help him with railroads. Then McCallum appointed a military genius, Herman Haupt.

Herman Haupt was from Massachusetts and was a graduate of West Point in the same class as General Meade. Herman Haupt helped the Union win the war. He organized the Train and Telegraph act and enforced it. This must have been a very hard job because he had to take materials and trains away from railroad lines. One of his first projects was designing a bridge. He made a bridge over the Potomac called the Potomac Creek Bridge. It was 400 feet long and 100 feet high, which was very good for those days. Lincoln was very impressed and he told everybody that they had to listen to Herman Haupt about the United States Military railroads.

Herman Haupt also invented ways to pull up track; here are two of them:

The first one he invented was that two iron wedges could be used to take out track. The Union used this to take out track that was hard to get out and wouldnít budge. For the other track he would simply use hooks made of steel.

Another method, which he invented with E.C. Smeed, was called the Track Twister. With that they could use something shaped like a big horseshoe that was double sided. It weighed only 6 Ĺ pounds. How they used it was that they put the iron hooks under the rails and then by using a clamp the rail could be twisted.

To fix the railroad lines there was the Army Corps of Engineers that Herman Haupt organized. The majority of the people were freed slaves who helped fix all the repairs for the railroads. There were 10,000 of them and some of what they did was life threatening. They fixed things that were from wear and tear and from damage the Confederacy did.

Just imagine how bad it would be for the South if because of Hauptís methods 20 miles of track were ruined. They would have a very hard time with supplies. 

When the war ended Herman Haupt was on a furlow, break from military. At that point he was a Brigadier General.

The last train that the United States Military Railroad sent out was in April of 1865. That train took the coffin of Lincoln from Washington to Springfield Illinois, where he was buried. By the end of 1865 all the property of the private rail lines was returned.

          So, as you see the U.S. rail system worked very well, but with the South it did not at all. It probably was because there was no Herman Haupt for the South. Also the South did lose the war partly because of trains and industrial limitations. Here is the Saga Story of the Railroads for the South:

          Everything went wrong for the South in trains. As you know they had tons of disadvantages but also they never were able to organize themselves. The Confederacy didnít really even try that hard like the North did.

         A lot of the engines were worn out. The bridges were very fragile. The iron rails were falling apart, which probably made it easier for the North to pull track out. The rebels also had trouble bringing supplies to the battlefields because of the lack of rails.

     To try to make the rails better the South started to use slaves to work on the railroads. It didnít work very well at all because the slaves could escape too easily. They could leave a lot easier also at plantations because of all the war commotion.

It is kind of strange how the army corps of engineers worked and that was made up of mostly freed slaves. Goes to show that maybe having slaves lost the war for the Confederacy.

The Confederacy gave money to the railroads to try to make them better, kind of like Amtrak (where the government gives money to keep Amtrak going). So on February 10, 1861 (110 years before Amtrak was created) the Confederacy gave $1,000,000 to the North Carolina Railroad at Greensboro. Then in October of the same year they gave $1,122,482.92 to build a new line from Rome Georgia to Blue Mountain Alabama. Today in 1999 the government is going to give $50 million to a line that will go from Boston to Portland Maine. 

The plan to give money also didnít work because people from their home state would want things better for their state. For instance a representative from Arkansas wanted them to give money to a line in Arkansas just for that state. This would make sense for the Confederacy because they were in favor of strong state rights.

           The South may have had a very good general in Robert E. Lee but the South did not have railroads. Finally when they did make a plan it was too late and shortly later Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. Herman Haupt had won the train battle and Grant the war.

Shermanís March through Alabama and other military use and destruction of trains

During a march that Shermanís troops went through in Georgia they destroyed a lot of Confederate rail. The Northern troops pulled the spikes out of the rails and then crisscrossed the rails. After that the northern troops simply shot at them and it caught the soft iron, which made it easy to bend. After that they just twisted it around the nearest pole and it looked like a necktie so they called it Shermanís Neckties. 

          A very sad part of the war was the prison camps. They were awful and didnít have humane conditions. So both sides put them in big cities or state capitals so trains could get there easily for supplies. It didnít work that well because the conditions still were not good.

          Stonewall Jackson once captured 400 railroad cars from the North. He had horses and they pulled the cars to the Southern rail system but most of the cars he threw into the river. He probably did this so that the North wouldnít get the cars back.

Ambulance Trains

          The North used trains to bring injured people from field hospitals to general hospitals. The South at first used boats to switch people to bigger hospitals but when the North captured the rivers the South used trains


Trains definitely helped a lot in the War Between the States. I think trains might have won the war for the North. Just think, the South had better generals, soldiers and was for the most part fighting on their own turf. So didnít trains win the war for the North? Trains won it for the North! No offense Northern Generals.


Civil War Trains Video 
copyright 93 RPM Productions 
Bellevue WA

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Bobbs-Merril Company Incorporated
New York Copyright 1953

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Bonanza Books New York
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text by Keith Wheeler
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Oxford University Press New York
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Doubleday and Company Inc. Garden City,New York
Copyright 1982